To the East pt. 1: Witkacy

We’re back from two weeks in Poland, Hungary, and Romania, of which more, including pictures, later. But first a bit about Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, or Witkacy, a Polish artist who dominated that portion of our trip.

The son of an impossibly stern 19th century artist and critic with Nietzschean ideas of modern education, Witkacy was allowed complete freedom as a child — with the single caveat that he grow up to be a groundbreaking artist. So, you know, no pressure. He turned out as a mischevious, creative, self-doubting wreck, but entirely unique.

His paintings, once he matured, lay somewhere between Chagall and the German Expressionists, a riot of color, and cartoonish, nightmarish absurd compositions. His main love was theater, in which he wrote from what he called a “Theory of Pure Form.” He essentially believed that the best art offers a kind of internal geometry that resonates with the reader/viewer/listener in a non-rational way. The actual content of a work is irrelevant, he believed; only the underlying form itself would trigger this “metaphysical feeling,” a state more important than a simple emotional or intellectual response to the work.

In effect, he saw art as a drug. Rational and emotional responses were traps. He spent his entire life looking for transcendence of one type or another, found it himself in a series of drugs, and saw art as the only path that didn’t bring with it a hangover and self-recrimination. If he could have been religious, he might have been happier.

This metaphysical response was theoretically possible in realistic writing, he thought, and he had nothing but praise for the old Greeks; but modern post-Enlightenment realism in the theater had dulled audiences senses, so that all they knew how to experience was an emotional or intellectual reaction. The only way to let audiences find the Form was to use the grotesque, the perverse, the absurd. And he did; his plays are in a sense similar to the later absurdists, irrational, confusing, sometimes hilarious, full of nonsense philosophy and gunfire and reanimated corpses.

None of this brought him money to live, unfortunately. Depressed, he started a one-man portait-painting firm. Several types were on offer: good, realistic ones for which he charged the highest prices, and then others done under the influence of a variety of drugs, which were brilliantly distorted. He published his “Rules” of the firm, with detailed explanations of the types, and strictures such as “Any sort of criticism on the part of the customer is absolutely ruled out. … Given the incredible difficulty of the profession, the firm’s nerves must be spared.” But he hated it, and saw his role as an artist diminishing. When the Nazis invaded in 1939 he fled to the east, and then killed himself on hearing that the Soviets were invading from that direction.

Dead, he offered an appropriately Witkacy-esque sequel. Rediscovered by avant-garde directors in the 50s, his plays were re-performed. As Polish national sentiment rose in opposition to Soviet control, the Communist government ultimately hailed him as a national hero. In 1988, the government finally decided to exhume his body and rebury him as a symbol of national pride; they “found” his body and buried it with honors in Zakopane, the mountain town where he’d mostly lived. An expert consulted looked at X-rays of the corpse and realized it couldn’t be Witkacy, who had lost teeth; the government tried to cover this up and went through with the ceremony, but the information leaked out, turning the whole event into a farce worthy of one of the playwrights own works.