“The planes of the human soul are infinite. One only has to know how to walk boldly along the abyss: either one conquers one’s summit, or one perishes. It will not in any case be the grey life of those of the flock, which barely realizes to exist”.
We begin this short review on H.I. Witkewicz (1885-1939) with a quote from him not by chance, but because the character in his histrionic uniqueness is not among those that the cultural universe has seen and sees in the foreground on the altar of artistic fame and still bearer of great social messages.
He was a playwright, poet, photographer, painter and theorist of art and in this last capacity he was in fact one of the greatest representatives of the Polish avant-garde and supporter of formalism.
The greatest cultural expression of Witkewicz is that of his philosophical personality, which is concentrated in an essay entitled Concepts and theses implied by the concept of existence (1935), where he gives us a global vision of a mass society in which man risks losing his identity. The values that religion once had seem to break down, culture is a commodity, man drags towards an existence without emotions and irreparably arid.
W.’s life was original and unconventional, the son of a musician and an architect, and born in Warsaw, he spent a self-taught childhood under his father’s guidance. His first studies were of a scientific and philosophical nature, at the age of seven he already wrote short comedies imitating Shakespeare. Growing up, he crossed Europe far and wide and in 1914 accompanied the famous anthropologist Malinowski to Australia where he heard the news of the outbreak of the First World War.
His Poland was under the rule of the Russian Tsar so he fought as a tsarist officer against his own compatriots who put him in contrast with the great Polish patriot father. He was dismissed in 1917 and witnessed the Bolshevik revolution, but was never really a communist.
He was a critic of bourgeois society, a great accuser of mass society that saw inexorable progress under the hypocrisies of the democratic system as well as alongside the flags of the proletarian masses.
During the Russian period he brought philosophy closer to art and did a magnificent dissertation on one of his treatises on aesthetics, New Forms of Painting of 1919, in which he elaborated the concept of “pure form” in art.
A man with an eccentric but very realistic vision of society as a forerunner of the times that would come, fierce and bulimic critic in his activity that sought in every way to make active communication of his philosophy. He worked in theatre initiatives, including Zakopane’s avant-garde Formist theatre from 1925 to 1927, his main philosophical work was published only in 1935, and since then he has travelled around Poland taking literary, artistic and philosophical lessons. His criticism of contemporary civilization became increasingly radical, in Nazism in the West and in Bolshevism in the East he saw a mortal threat to the culture and civilization of Europe.
He paints works that amaze for their chaotic motion and the virulence of colors that bring him closer to the taste of the Fauves, for him the ontological condition of man depended on his ability to create and enjoy true art.
The whole consisted of a work on the individual parts in which the color was only a formal act on the surfaces, the form was inseparable and this led to an unprecedented reality in which the viewer would participate in its ineffability, in its magical essence never met in the real world.
Thus W. finds a metaphysical illumination that he calls the “Mystery of Existence”, the pure form, in contemporary civilization where the link between art and sprituality had already been broken.
Jan Kott in his ibro Witkiewicz, album Realism nieoczekiwany, describes it in its extraordinary lucidity as a forerunner of European destinies, in fact he says that W. was convinced that “the civilization of equals, the full and the automated will be threatened not only by the pressure of the annihilators from the East, Asia and Africa, but also by the fact that their mechanical civilization will be fragile and prone to madness, without resources in the face of mad and psychopaths. At a time that has become a global village, madness is contagious and common. In this large village, where everything happens immediately, everything suddenly became possible.
W. is to be considered one of the greatest exponents of Polish culture who, with his visionary catastrophism, anticipated the times announcing what would have been the Second World War and the extermination, a conception that expressed in various forms leading the grotesque to a tangible existential parable so that when Soviet troops, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, invaded Polish territory, he preferred to kill himself in an aristocratic and individualistic protest against the mass regime he feared.
As far as painting is concerned, his most famous works are undoubtedly portraits. He has made many of them, including some self-portraits. Theatre plays include Matka (1924, The Mother) and Szewcy (1934, The Shoemakers). For prose, 622 Upadki Bunga, czyli demoniczna kobieta (1911, The 622 falls of Bongo, or the demonic woman), Pożegnanie z jesienią (1927, Farewell to Autumn, translated into Italian) and Nienasycenie (1930, Insatiability, translated into Italian) are worth mentioning.
Often criticism has considered W. as one of those artists cursed by themselves and by history, and in fact he traveled, leaving it to posterity, in a distorted world between the orgies of deformed women, extreme searches for psychiatric drugs, sexual promisquity, a man who sought in the filter of madness a motivation to exist and what he writes on the last page of his novel masterpiece (Insatiability) is a tragically universal epigraph: “… there is probably no animal more abject than man in all immense creation”.
A visionary, a madman, a sentimental, a philosopher who tells us about the demon that is in man ready for destruction, that daily evil so relevant that makes disillusionment the response to the hunger of a life object that is consumed without because, W. teaches us that life has continuous traps, shows us to the last with his sacrifice of non-acceptance, because even with his death shrouded in mysteries in any case leaves us a warning, a foreboding to be and do something else.