Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

WITKACY (1885-1939)

"Witkiewicz is by birth, by race, to the very marrow of his bones an ARTIST; he lives exclusively by art and for art. And his relationship to art is profoundly dramatic; he is one of those tormented spirits who in art seek the solution, not to the problem of success, but to the problem of their own being."

Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski


Son of the painter and critic Stanislaw Witkiewicz, the prodigious Stanislaw Ignacy was born in Warsaw and educated at home by his father and private tutors. In 1890, the whole 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" and "Schopenhauer's Philosophy and His Relations to His Predecessors". He obtained his 'matura' [school certificate] in Lwów, wrote many more philosophical treatises and studied foreign languages and literatures.

It was in 1904 that the young 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 622 upadki Bunga, czyli Demoniczna kobieta (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 and as a result of a lover's suicide, in Ceylon and Australia. 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. That same year, Witkiewicz senior died in Lovranno, and was given a national hero's burial in Zakopane. As a disabled officer, Witkacy started to experiment with drugs, and was drawn into the orgies and 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, including Nowe Wyzwolenie (The New Deliverance) and Oni (Them), 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. 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), from 1925, which was published in 1927, immediately followed by a third, Nienasycenie (Insatiability, 1930). It was in this period that he began a draft of his last, and most ambitious play, Szewcy (The Shoemakers, 1934). The result of his deliberations on the potential of drugs in the creative process, Nikotyna, alkohol, peyotl, morfin, eter, was published in 1932. His fourth novel, Jedyne wyscie (The Only Way Out), which he began at this time, was left unfinished.

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 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.

Major dramatic works:

Maciej Korbowa and Bellatrix (Maciej Korbowa i Bellatrix, 1918)

The Pragmatists (Pragmatysci, 1919)

Tumor Brainiowicz (Tumor Mózgowicz, 1920)

Mr Price, or Tropical Madness (Mister Price, czyli Bzik tropikalny, 1920)

Miss Tootli-Pootli (Panna Tutli-Putli, 1920) an operetta

Country House (W malym dworku, 1921)

The Independence of Triangles (Niepodleglosc trójkatów, 1921)

The Metaphisics of a Two-Headed Calf (Metafizyka dwuglowego cielecia, 1921)

Gyubal Wahazar, or Along the Cliffs of the Absurd (Gyubal Wahazar czyli na przeleczach bezsensu, 1921)

The Water Hen (Kurka wodna, 1921)

Bezimienne dzielo (The Anonymous Work, 1921)

The Cuttlefish, or the Hyrcanian World View (Matwa, czyli hyrkaniczny

swiatopoglad, 1922)

Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes, or the Green Pills (Nadobnisie i koczkodany, czyli Zielona pigulka, 1922)

Jan Maciej Karol Hellcat (Jan Maciej Karo Wscieklica, 1922)

The Madman and the Nun (Wariat i zakonnica, 1923)

The Crazy Locomotive (Szalona lokomotywa, 1923)

Janulka, Daughter of Fizdejko (Janulka, córka Fizdejki, 1923)

The Mother (Matka, 1924)

The Belzebub Sonata (Sonata Belzebuba, 1925)

The Shoemakers (Szewcy, 1927-34)


622 Falls of Bungo, or the Demonic Woman (622 Upadki Bunga, czyli demoniczna kobieta, 1910-11)

Farewell to Autumn (Pozegnanie jesieni, 1925-26)

Nienasycenie (Insatiability, 1930)

The Only Way Out (Jedyne wyjscie, 1933) unfinished

Main theoretical treatise:

"New Forms in Painting and Misunderstandings Resulting Therefrom" (Nowe formy w malarstwie i wynikajaace stad nieporozumienia, 1918)

"Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form" (Wstep do teorii czystej formy, 1920)

"Aesthetic Sketches" (Szkice estetyczne, 1922)

"Theatre" (Teatr, 1923)

"The Concepts and Principles Implied by the Concepts of Existence" (Pojecia i twierdzenia implikowane przez pojecie istnienia, 1935)

"Unwashed Souls: Studies of Social Manners and Morals" (Niemyte dusze: Studia Obyczajowe i Spoleczne, 1936)

"On Artistic Theatre" (O artystycznym teatrze, 1938)


Further Reading:

S. I. Witkiewicz. "On a New Type of Play." The Mother and Other Unsavory Plays. Trans. Daniel Gerould and C.S.Durer. New York, London: Applause, 1993:


Gerould, Daniel. The Witkiewicz Reader. Evanston: Noerthwestern UP, 1992

---. A Study of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz as an Imaginative Writer . Seattle: 1981

Bolecki, Wlodzimierz, "Witkacy-Schulz-Gombrowicz," Periphery 1/2 1996: 75-79


©Mr Donald Pirie, Dr John Bates, Dr Elwira Grossman, 1996