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Prominent Poles

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz a.k.a. "Witkacy", painter, playwright, writer

Autoportrait of Stanislaw Witkiewicz, painter

Born:  February 24, 1885, Warsaw, Russian partition of Poland (presently Poland)

Died:  September 18, 1939, Jeziory, Poland

Early days. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was born to a family of poor landed gentry. In 1890, the whole family moved to Zakopane (in Austrian partition of Poland) that was then an important cultural center. His father, Stanislaw, was a painter, writer and architect who designed a type of chalet commonly known as “Zakopane style.” The prodigious Stanislaw Ignacy was educated at home by his father and private tutors. 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' [high school certificate] in Lwów, wrote many more philosophical treatises and studied foreign languages and literatures.
Travels abroad. 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.
Outbreak of WWI. Witkacy spent the years up to the outbreak of the First World War traveling through Europe. At the beginning of 1914, shaken by his lover's suicide, he joins his friend Bronislaw Malinowski to explore Australia and New Guinea. 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.
Return to Poland. 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. He also recorded, in small notes on his painting, the drug that was influencing him at the time, even if it was only a cup of coffee.
With several friends, he organized 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), which was, among others, a satire on nationalism and populism in Poland. 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, nicotine, alcohol, peyotl, morphine, ether, was published in 1932. His fourth novel, Jedyne wyjscie (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 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. Only in 1962 appeared in communist Poland a complete edition of his plays. The Ministry of Culture of Communist Poland decided to exhume his body, move it to Zakopane and give him a VIP burial. It was performed according to plan, though nobody was allowed to open the coffin delivered by the Soviet authorities. However, later genetic studies showed that the body belonged to an unknown Ukrainian woman; a last absurd joke 50 years after his last novel.

Source. This biography was copied and modified with the permission of Dr. Grossman from the work by Donald Pirie, Dr John Bates, Dr Elwira Grossman
Elwira Grossman
Major dramatic works: see above.

Other sources:
Beskid In French
Witold Raczunas
The above site, by Witold Raczunas, includes very good reproductions of Witkiewicz's 30 paintings.

English translations of some of his works:
Constance J. Ostrowski

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