Monday, July 19, 2010

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

 Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1930

Son of a painter and critic, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was born in Warsaw and educated at home by his father, a painter and critic. In 1890, the family moved to Zakopane (in Austrian Poland). At the age of six, Ignacy began to play the piano, paint, and to write his own plays. In 1893, aged only eight, he wrote his first work, Karaluchy (The Cockroaches), which was printed by him on a small personal press. As an adolescent, he developed close friendships with the future mathematician Leon Chwistek, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, and the composer Karol Szymanowski. In 1901, he made his first trip to St. Petersburg and a year later he wrote his first philosophical essays "On Dualism". He obtained his matura (school certificate) in Lwów, wrote many more philosophical treatises and studied foreign languages and literatures.

 Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1916

It was in 1904 that Witkiewicz travelled for the first time to Vienna, Munich and Italy, and on his return in 1905 - against his father's wishes - he tried to enrol at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. Eventually, he gave up the course and returned to Zakopane. One year later, he was in Vienna again, saw the Gauguin exhibition, which fired his imagination and inspired him to study under Slewinski, one of Gauguin's former pupils. As a result, from 1908, he began to paint "monsters"; his style became more individual as he then visited Paris and saw the Fauves and the early Cubists. During 1910-11, he produced the extraordinary novel The 622 Demises of Bung, or the Demonic Woman, which was only published in 1972. Witkacy spent the years up to the outbreak of the First World War travelling through Europe. Following a crisis in Witkiewicz's personal life due to the suicide of his fiancée Jadwiga Janczewska, he was invited by Malinowski to act as draftsman and photographer on a 1914 expedition to Oceania, a venture that was interrupted by the onset of World War I.

 Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Composition, 1922

When the war began, he returned to Europe to enlist in the Tsarist Army in Petersburg as a citizen of the Russian Empire. This move deeply hurt his anti-Russian father. From 1915, Witkacy was an officer in the elite Pavlovsky regiment, and was wounded at the front. As a disabled officer, Witkacy started to experiment with drugs, and was drawn into the drunken parties of the clique surrounding Rasputin. When the revolution toppled the Tsar in 1917, he was elected political commissar of his regiment, thus receiving an insider's view of the changes and violence that accompanied revolutionary upheaval. After the armistice, Witkacy returned to Poland and made a conscious decision to become an artist. Consequently, in 1920 alone, he wrote ten plays, followed by another fifteen over the next five years. Exhibiting his paintings, however, brought him greater success than the performance of his plays. In 1925, he abandoned compositional painting to earn his living as a portrait painter, due to his financial situation becoming parlous. 

 Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Self-Portrait, 1927

He continued his controlled experiments with various drugs (morphine, cocaine, peyote, etc.), also painting and writing under their influence. With several friends, he organised an experimental theatre group (Teatr Formistów- the Formists Theatre), where he staged some of his plays. He began to write a second novel, Pozegnanie jesieni (Farewell to Autumn), which was published in 1927, immediately followed by a third, Nienasycenie (Insatiability, 1930). The result of his deliberations on the potential of drugs in the creative process, Nikotyna, alkohol, peyotl, morfin, eter, was published in 1932.

In the latter half of the 1930s, Witkacy concentrated on writing articles about philosophy and theatre. As the international situation worsened, he became subject to recurrent fits of depression, and grew obsessed with the idea of suicide. When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, he and his close friend, Czeslawa Korzeniowska, left Warsaw and fled eastwards with the other refugees. He committed suicide on the 18th of September, when he learned that Soviet troops were advancing from the East. Korzeniowska survived their mutual suicide pact.

 Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Portrait of Maria Nawrocka, 1925

In the postwar period, Communist Poland's Ministry of Culture decided to exhume Witkiewicz's body, move it to Zakopane, and give it a solemn funeral. This was carried out according to plan, though no one was allowed to open the coffin that had been delivered by the Soviet authorities. In 1994, the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art ordered the exhumation of the presumed grave of Witkiewicz in Zakopane. Genetic tests on the remaining bones proved that the body had belonged to an unknown woman — a final absurdist joke, fifty years after the publication of Witkiewicz's last novel. You can see more of his works here in my Flickr set.


  1. Can you tell me more about "The 622 Demises of Bung, or the Demonic Woman"? Hadn't heard of it!

  2. There is a partial english translation ("The 622 Downfalls of Bungo or The Demonic Woman") included in "The Witkiewicz Reader" (available at Amazon). You can read more about it here (p. 32 ff):

  3. Thanks, I really need to spend more time with that anthology! Will check out the Gerould critical book too.