#photography & visual arts
In Witold Wojtkiewicz’s short, barely five-year career before it was interrupted by heart disease at the age of 29, 'Circus - In Front of a Miniature Theatre' is a key work. It marks the beginning of the mature period in the painter’s career and reveals his astringent, pessimistic attitude towards the world.
The stuffy, dreamlike, tragic, and fairy tale atmosphere of Wojtkiewicz’s circus performances cannot be blamed only on the spirit of the Young Poland era. Although he was undoubtedly a child of his time and his friends remembered him as a model dandy, Wojtkiewicz’s achievements are overshadowed by his experience of illness. When the artist found out at the very beginning of his career that his days were numbered, the grotesque figures coming from under his brush began to take on tragic traits. Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, the artist’s friend, wrote:
Affected by an incurable illness, perhaps instinctively guessing that he would not have time to slowly fight for his position, very intelligent and aware of his artistic ideal, he felt painfully lonely. [...] Witty, educated, ironic, inaccessible – under these masks, he hid a nature which was deeply and painfully sensitive, emotional, and imbued with sadness. It was the sadness of a sick child, the sadness of a poet who did not reconcile himself with life, who, by the way, felt like a fleeting guest on Earth.
In Circus - In Front of a Miniature Theatre, Wojtkiewicz does not put the viewer in the shoes of a neutral observer of the stage, but throws them into the very middle of the action – as we stand in front of the canvas, we enter the titular theatre and all eyes are on us: clowns behind masks twisted in an unnatural smile, an apathetic old woman behind a counter, dolls brought to life, and other viewers emerging from an undefined space in the centre of the picture. The clown trumpeter is the only one who comes out to greet us. However, it is difficult to call this a warm welcome when the other characters hide behind the curtains or remain still and full of tension like a group of ghastly props. The place itself is decorated with colourful balloons and festoons, but the interior bathed in brown-orange and green-blue tones give the impression of a dusty, sunken kennel.
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This ragged, provincial theatre is a kind of existential metaphor for Wojtkiewicz. In a tragicomic farce bordering between a dream and a gutter theatre, he discovers the truth about people’s lives. They resemble jesters and unconscious puppets helplessly throwing their wooden limbs.
The main breakthrough in the painting Circus - In Front of a Miniature Theatre is Wojtkiewicz’s departure from the ad hoc character of the early Tragicomic Sketches. Although the formal foundations of Wojtkiewicz’s art were shaped quite quickly, the co-creator of Green Balloon initially became known as a snarky satirist and a skilful commentator on political and moral realities. In circus performances, satire gives way to the pure grotesque of an universal, existential shade. An anecdote transforms into a metaphorical delusion.
A group of circus performances was created in the years 1905-1907. They do not form a series, but similarly to other works by Wojtkiewicz, they are connected by the same theme. The circus motif appeared during this period in oil paintings as well as in lithographs, watercolours, and tempera. It is also a transitional element from the dominance of oil technique to tempera – it was with the use of tempera, shrouding the brighter, more luminous canvases in a whitish, matte mist, that Witkiewicz painted his last paintings.
The belief that puppets are much better suited to depict existential archetypes than living people linked the Polish painter with Maurice Maeterlinck. It is possible that the Belgian playwright had a direct influence on him, as his deeply pessimistic dramas from the 1880s and 1890s were staged in Kraków, where the young painter could have seen at least some of them. However, before the creation of Circus, dating from 1906-1907, he could not see the paintings of another Belgian, James Ensor, with whom, due to his convergence of interests, including the motif of the mask, he was juxtaposed many times. At the same time, Wojtkiewicz’s mask gains a more dramatic overtone than in Ensor’s moralising canvases. As Wiesław Juszczak noted, for Ensor, a mask was a symbol of human falsehood, hypocrisy, a prop in the morality letter. In Wojtkiewicz’s case, it is a tool of dehumanisation – a mask is a preliminary stage of the clown’s transformation into a puppet.
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It was not until Paris, where he ended up thanks to a stroke of luck, that Wojtkiewicz was able to see Ensor’s paintings. Two years earlier, after several unsuccessful episodes in education, the painter completed his studies at the Kraków Academy and, together with four friends, founded the Group of Five, which took Cyprian Kamil Norwid as its patron. During their Berlin exhibition, André Gide accidentally came across Wojtkiewicz’s paintings. They enchanted him to such an extent that in 1907 he organised an exhibition in Paris for the Polish painter, which also contributed significantly to his popularity among the Polish community.
As Boy-Żeleński said:
One can say that it was a French writer who discovered Wojtkiewicz for Poland, and he discovered him in Berlin [...].
Although Gide did not attempt to secure a place for Wojtkiewicz in the history of Polish art, he did sense the atmosphere of his works perfectly. Circus - In Front of a Miniature Theatre was a manifestation of it.
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I know, of course, that an artist like Wojtkiewicz can’t emerge on his own [...], but this exhibition allowed us to assume that he must be quite isolated in his home country. It was easy to see.