Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
Born (1885-02-24)24 February 1885
Warsaw, Poland
Died 18 September 1939(1939-09-18) (aged 54)
Jeziory, Poland
Pen name Witkacy
Occupation Writer, painter, dramatist, philosopher
Nationality Polish
Alma mater Kraków Academy of Fine Arts
Notable works
  • Tumor Mózgowicz
  • Shoemakers
  • The Madman and the Nun
  • Farewell to Autumn
  • Insatiability
Spouse Jagwida Unrug, m.1923
Partner Jadwiga Janczewska
Relatives Father: Stanisław Witkiewicz
Godmother: Helena Modjeska
Father-in-law: Juliusz Kossak

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Polish: [staˈɲiswaf iɡˈnat͡sɨ vitˈkʲɛvit͡ʂ]; 24 February 1885  18 September 1939), commonly known as Witkacy, was a Polish writer, painter, philosopher, playwright, novelist, and photographer active in the interwar period.


Born in Warsaw, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz was a son of the painter, architect and an art critic Stanisław Witkiewicz. His mother was Maria Pietrzkiewicz Witkiewiczowa. Both of his parents were born in the Samogitian region of Lithuania. His godmother was the internationally famous actress Helena Modrzejewska.

Little Witkacy with his father, ca. 1893

Witkiewicz was reared at the family home in Zakopane. In accordance with his father's antipathy to the "servitude of the school," the boy was home-schooled and encouraged to develop his talents across a range of creative fields.

Witkiewicz was close friends with Karol Szymanowski and, from childhood, with Bronisław Malinowski and Zofia Romer. 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. A happen-stance citizen of the Russian Empire, Witkiewicz went to St Petersburg and was commissioned as an officer in the Imperial army. His ailing father, a Polish patriot, was deeply grieved by the youngster's decision and died in 1915 without seeing his son again.

Witkiewicz witnessed the Russian Revolution while stationing in St Petersburg. He claimed that he worked out his philosophical principles during an artillery barrage, and that when the Revolution broke out he was elected political commissar of his regiment. His later works would show his fear of social revolution and foreign invasion, often couched in absurdist language.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Multiple self-portrait in mirrors, 1915–1917[1]

He had begun to support himself through portrait painting and continued to do so on his return to Zakopane in Poland. He soon entered into a major creative phase, setting out his principles in New Forms in Painting and Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form in the Theatre. He associated with a group of "formist" artists in the early 1920s and wrote most of his plays during this period. Of about forty plays written by Witkiewicz between 1918 and 1925, twenty-one survive, and only Jan Maciej Karol Hellcat met with any public success during the author's lifetime. The original Polish manuscript of The Crazy Locomotive was also lost; the play, back-translated from two French versions, was not published until 1962.

Self-portrait, 1924

After 1925, and taking the name 'Witkacy', the artist ironically re-branded his portrait painting which provided his economic sustenance as The S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Company, with the tongue in cheek motto: "The customer must always be satisfied". Several the so-called grades of portraits were offered, from the merely representational to the more expressionistic and the narcotics-assisted. Many of his paintings were annotated with mnemonics listing the drugs taken while painting a particular painting, even if this happened to be only a cup of coffee. He also varied the spelling of his name, signing himself Witkac, Witkatze, Witkacjusz, Vitkacius and Vitecasse — the last being French for "breaks quickly".

In the late 1920s he turned to the novel, writing two works, Farewell to Autumn and Insatiability. The latter major work encompasses geopolitics, psychoactive drugs, and philosophy. In 1935 he was awarded the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature for his novels.[2]

During the 1930s, Witkiewicz published a text on his experiences of narcotics, including peyote, and pursued his interests in philosophy. He also promoted emerging writers such as Bruno Schulz. Shortly after Poland was invaded by Germany in September 1939, he escaped with his young lover Czesława to the rural frontier town of Jeziory, in what was then eastern Poland. After hearing the news of the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939, Witkacy committed suicide on 18 September by taking a drug overdose and trying to slit his wrists.[3] He convinced Czesława to attempt suicide with him by consuming Luminal, but she survived.[4]

Witkiewicz had died in some obscurity but his reputation began to rise soon after the war, which had destroyed his life and devastated Poland. Czesław Miłosz framed his argument in The Captive Mind around a discussion of Witkiewicz's novel, Insatiability. The artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor was inspired by the Cricot group, through which Witkiewicz had presented his final plays in Kraków. Kantor brought many of the plays back into currency, first in Poland and then internationally.

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.

On 26 November 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 Witkacy's last novel.[5]

Art philosophy



Bob DeFrank and Ann Crumb in a scene from Paul Berman's production of Witkacy's The Madman and the Nun, Theatre Off Park, 1979
Tobias Haller, James Curran, Nat Warren-White, and Betty LaRoe in Brad Mays' production of Witkacy's The Water Hen, Theatre Off Park, 1983

Other works

Sample artwork

Performances of work by Witkacy

James Fleming, Lee Taylor-Allan and Linda Chambers in Brad Mays' production of Witkacy's The Water Hen, Theatre Off Park, 1983

See also


  1. Frantczak, Ewa; Okołowicz, Stefan (1986). Przeciw nicości : fotografie Stanisława Ignacego Witkiewicza. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie. p. 63. ISBN 83-08-01398-8.
  2. Prof. dr hab. Miłosława Bulowska Schielman. "Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz". Virtual Library of Polish Literature. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  3. Donald Pirie; John Bates; Elwira Grossman. "Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz". Retrieved 16 April 2009.
  4. Journal of Czesława Oknińska, quoted in: Gerould, Daniel Charles; Witkiewicz, Stanisław Ignacy (1992). "Part 5: Philosophy and Suicide, 1931–1939". The Witkiewicz Reader. Northwestern University Press. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-8101-0994-0. Retrieved 22 November 2009.
  5. "...Przeprowadzone badania wykazują, że szczątki kostne, przywiezione w 1988 roku ze wsi Jeziory na Ukrainie należą do kobiety w wieku 25–30 lat, o wzroście około 164 cm. ..." ("the tests conducted indicate that the bone remains, brought in 1988 from the village Jeziory in the Ukraine, belong to a woman 25–30 years old and about 164 cm tall...") from the protocol of the commission called by the Ministry of Culture and Art after the exhumation on 26 November 1994 of the presumed grave of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz at Pęksowy Brzyzek" cemetery in Zakopane. From: Maciej Pinkwart, "Wygraliśmy" at the Wayback Machine (archived 20 January 2010) in: "Moje Zakopane" dn. 21 February 2005. (Source: Komunikat Komisji powołanej przez Ministra Kultury i Sztuki do spraw pochówku Stanisława Ignacego Witkiewicza. Prof. dr hab. Tadeusz Polak). Retrieved 11 November 2012.
  6. BroadwayWorld: The Crazy Locomotive, complete cast & crew listing.
  9. Cantwell, Mary (6 January 1996). "Editorial Notebook;Small Theater". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2010.
  10. Mark Matusek, NY Times, The Water Hen, NYC Production - 1983. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  11. "No Headline". The New York Times. 31 October 1983. Retrieved 24 May 2010.
  12. Matousek, Mark (1983). "Water Hen – (review)". Other Stages.
  13. "The Shoemakers by Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz, Poland's greatest modern playwright; first English-language performance by the Jean Cocteau Repertory". The New York Times.
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