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Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz
(1885 - 1939) Poland

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

Writer, painter, philosopher, theoretician of art


Born in Warsaw, he was the son of an eminent critic, writer and artist (also called Stanislaw). From his early childhood he showed signs of genius, reading scientific and philosophical works in various languages and writing short comedies in imitation of Shakespeare at the age of seven.

He spent his youth in Zakopane, where he received a private education from his father and, among others, M. Limanowski and W. Folkierski; his father was, in fact, convinced that the school system annihilated a child's personality. At the age of 17 he wrote his first philosophical dissertation, in which the theories he was later to expound can be traced.

In 1903 he sat school-leaving examinations as an external student in Lvov and in 1904 he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow , later making frequent trips to Italy, Germany and France to perfect his technique. His life was at times adventurous: in 1914 he accompanied the famous anthropologist Malinowski on an expedition to Australia, acting as a painter, photographer and private secretary.

During the First World War he served as an officer in the Russian Army (having been born in Warsaw, at that time under Russian domination, he was a Russian subject), and after the October Revolution he was transferred to St. Petersburg where he commenced his philosophical studies (which he never concluded) and was appointed the "political commissioner" of his division, even though he was not a Communist.

The period he spent in Russia was of fundamental importance for the development of his thought, as it was at this time that his philosophical ideas took shape, influenced by the impression he had received of the war. He started writing his main work on aesthetics (New Forms in Painting, 1919) in which he elaborated the concept of "pure form" in art.

Stanislaw Ignacy WitkiewiczOn his return to Poland, he settled in Zakopane and made friends with Chwistek, with whom he was the main theorist of the avant-garde art movement called "Formism" (1918-1922). He also promoted theatrical initiatives, at the same time painting, studying philosophy and working incessantly on his philosophical system, which he tried to popularise and divulge through a series of articles published in magazines and newspapers.

Author of grotesque parodic novels: A Farewell to Autumn, Insatiability, dramas: The Madman and the Nun, The Water Hen, The Shoemakers, all of them introducing the future avant-garde theatre. His paintings are symbolistic. His works began to be revived in Poland and the West in the 1950s and are now a permanent feature of Polish theatrical repertoires.

His main philosophical work was not published until 1935, after which he toured Poland giving lectures in literature, art and philosophy. In the meanwhile his critical attitude towards contemporary civilisation became increasingly radical: he saw the Western Nazis and the Eastern Bolsheviks as a lethal threat to culture and civilisation in Europe.

When Soviet troops invaded Poland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, he killed himself in an aristocratic, individualistic protest against the mass regime he dreaded so much.


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