He sensed that humanity was heading for an abyss

Witkiewicz, of course, was no Nazi or even fascist. He followed his own path. He showed no herd instincts. In his aversion to mass democracy, he looked out for strong, outstanding individuals who would be capable of confronting, as he put it, "the disappearance of metaphysical feelings".

Until a few years ago, the oeuvre of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz was an intriguing testimony to the times in which this scandalist lived. The painter, writer and philosopher was an observer of the political and social changes that were shattering the old world. Witkacy's paintings, drawings, dramas, novels and dissertations expressed the feeling that humanity was heading for an abyss.

Today, Witkiewicz's artistic and intellectual legacy is becoming particularly relevant. The COVID-19 pandemic, the spectre of the outbreak of the third world war, the massive global energy and economic crisis - all this fosters catastrophic moods. And it is precisely through the prism of what is happening at the moment that it is worth looking at the works gathered at Warsaw's National Museum in the exhibition 'Witkacy. Seismograph of the Age of Acceleration'. This is the last chance to see the exhibition, as it is scheduled to close on 9 October 2022.

The title of the exhibition perfectly reflects the nature of the works on show. The distorted human silhouettes in the paintings and drawings are not only the effect of the author's drug-induced visions (resulting from his consumption of various hallucinogens, mainly peyote). In Witkiewicz's eyes, modernity was something demonic. He metaphorised it as a speeding locomotive. He saw in it a factor degrading human nature.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Witkacy now appears as a provocateur for whom there were no taboos. He ostentatiously disregarded any conventions. He manifested this, for example, when posing for photographs, contorting his face. He annotated his drawings with absurd and grotesque comments, not shying away from vulgar erotic content. We can also see this at the National Museum.

This means only that Witkiewicz was an eccentric. And, as we all know, artists described as eccentrics are now considered heroes in mainstream cultural circles. They are perceived as rebels against all conservative structures which, as is commonly believed in these milieus, suppress individualism and freedom.
However, given the dominant discourse in the salons of Europe, the conclusion is that Witkacy positioned himself - to use a certain ideological jargon - on the 'wrong side of history'. One only needs to look at his philosophical writings.

Take "New Forms in Painting and the Resulting Misunderstandings". We read there that the turning point in the history of the world was the French Revolution, which overthrew the power of the nobility, guided by the code of chivalry, and elevated the bourgeoisie, driven by the desire for material gain. It was with the French Revolution that the process of "socialising" people and turning them into homogenised masses began (this theme is associated with the concepts of the "end of history", which grew out of Hegelianism and were put forward in the 20th century by Alexandre Kojève and Francis Fukuyama).

Only, according to Witkiewicz, the bourgeoisie succumbed to the illusion that it was possible to repair the world in a moderate manner. Meanwhile, the speeding machine of history moved towards extreme solutions. This was clearly demonstrated by the Bolshevik Revolution, which terrified Witkacy. And he watched it from close up - he was in Russia when it began (he was then serving in the Pavlovsk Guards Regiment).

Although Witkiewicz was a critic of egalitarian tendencies, at the same time he did not nourish naïve nostalgia for the feudal past. Nevertheless, a quote from another of his texts, "Unwashed Souls", may sound shocking: "I have always dreamt that Hitler, this unquestionably only really gutsy guy in Europe besides Stalin, having condensed his strength to the maximum, would make a purely social sprite, i.e. a revolution, rather a transformation from above, and bring in a radically socialist system, i.e. a really democratic one, without the hypocrisies of the democracy of the past, a system without both barracksism and phalansterism. A system in which there will be room for that minimum of property of mine: a toothbrush, a woman and a house with a garden, and yet the exploitation of one people by another and slavery will be prevented. Unfortunately, this expectation has failed. He will on a par with others escape one day like so many others instead of being a benefactor blessed by all".

These words were spoken in 1936, and if they were to be judged according to the standards of public debate in Poland today (for example during discussions on social media), Witkacy should be labelled a Nazi. For why go into any nuances? It is enough to take one sentence out of context (the one about the "guy with balls") and the matter is settled.

And Witkiewicz, of course, was no Nazi or even fascist. He followed his own path. He showed no herd instincts. In his aversion to mass democracy, he looked out for strong, outstanding individuals who would be capable of confronting - as he put it in "New forms in painting...". - "the disappearance of metaphysical feelings". Moreover, his opinion - expressed in "Unwashed Souls" - on anti-Semitism is significant. He regarded this phenomenon as "something inhuman and, as a tactic, a short-sighted folly which may have fatal consequences for Polish culture".

A shoemaker from Zgorzelec who became a European cultural trendsetter

The modern disenchantment of the world by scholars “with magnifying glass and eye” is not effective

see more
Another controversial passage in "Unwashed Souls" is the one concerning the civilisational choice made by the Poles. Witkacy held the conviction that Christianity should have been adopted from Byzantium rather than Rome. He argued that Catholicism in Poland had begotten such a "monster" as the democracy of the nobility.

And in these his reflections on the historical alternative for Poland, Witkiewicz was wrong. The adoption of Christianity from Byzantium would have resulted, after many centuries, in the cultural hegemony of the "Russian mir" in the Polish lands.

One might think, by the way, that Witkacy was a gullible Russophile, enamoured of Eastern despotic models of governance. But even that would be a gross oversimplification.

In September 1939, upon hearing that the Soviet army was attacking Poland, Witkiewicz committed suicide. One can imagine that even today Russia would fill him with dread. His keen, unmasking mind would probably recognise in the Kremlin dignitaries the former Chekists who still threaten Poland and, on their orders, the Russian troops are spreading terror in Ukraine.

However, such a removal of the odium of suspicion that Witkacy was on the dark side of power, in a way makes him look like a souped-up person. He is now treated like a dead museum exhibit that does not bother anyone. He is admired by people, many of whom could be the object of his derision. Meanwhile, what Witkiewicz has left behind is, above all, to annoy and disturb.

– Filip Memches
-Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) "Falsity of a Woman - Self-portrait with Portrait of Maryla Grossman", 1927. Photo: National Museum in Warsaw
See more
Columns wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Swimming Against the Tide of Misinformation
They firmly believe they are part of the right narrative, flowing in the positive current of action.
Columns wydanie 1.12.2023 – 8.12.2023
What can a taxi do without a driver?
Autonomous cars have paralysed the city.
Columns wydanie 1.12.2023 – 8.12.2023
Hybrid Winter War. Migrants on the Russian-Finnish border
The Kremlin's bicycle offensive
Columns wydanie 1.12.2023 – 8.12.2023
Is it about diversity or about debauchery and libertinism?
It is hard to resist the impression that the attack on Archbishop Gądecki is some more significant operation.
Columns wydanie 24.11.2023 – 1.12.2023
The short life of a washing machine
No one has the courage to challenge the corporations responsible for littering the Earth.