Witkacy. Logos and the Elements

by Teresa Pękala (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 358 Pages


This book focuses on Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, philosopher and controversial artist. It expresses the opinions of philosophers, museologists and artists, for whom Stanisław Ignacy Witkacy’s 130th birthday anniversary became an opportunity to view his works from the perspective of postmodernity. The authors concentrate on Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz as eminent and prophetic philosopher concerned about Western culture with its waning metaphysical feelings, master of gesture and poses, anticipating the postmodern theatricalization of life.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Teresa Pękala)
  • I. Towards Direct Experience – Memories from the Past and the Element of Theater
  • Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz – “Witkacy” – in the Memories of His Family (Elżbieta Witkiewicz-Schiele)
  • Memories (Julitta Fedorowicz)
  • Interview with Andrzej Dziuk Director of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane
  • Interview with Andrzej Bienias An Actor of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane
  • Interview with Dorota Ficoń An Actress of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane
  • Interview with Krzysztof Najbor An Actor of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane
  • II. Metaphysics – Inherited Logos
  • Thaumaturgia Metaphysica (Kazimierz Piotrowski)
  • In the Metaphysical Illusions (Andrzej Ostrowski)
  • Witkacy’s Metaphysical Boredom (Magdalena Bizior-Dombrowska)
  • Goodbye to Witkacy? Remarks on the Relevance of S. I. Witkiewicz’s Metaphysical and Esthetic Views (Cezary Mordka)
  • III. Art, Metaphysics, Performativity
  • Metaphysical Feeling and Image. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and His Esthetic Concept (Grzegorz Sztabiński)
  • Where Adorno Meets Witkacy. Common Philosophical Themes (Rafał Czekaj)
  • Is the Hell Fusty? On Witkiewicz’s Metaphysics of Evil (Ewa Łubieniewska)
  • Performative Rhythm of Comedy: Beelzebub Sonata of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and the Final of Dialectic Process (Anna Kawalec)
  • IV. Logos and the Life Elements
  • Between Psychophysics and Somaesthetics. Witkacy’s Epistolary Self-Portrait (Irena Górska)
  • “I am my body in the first place…” S.I. Witkiewicz’s Philosophy of the Body and Touch (Maciej Dombrowski)
  • V. The Space of Life – Architecture and Fashion
  • Witkacy’s Connections with Architecture (Zbigniew Moździerz)
  • Witkacy’s Theater of Fashion (Ewa Szkudlarek)
  • VI. In the Contexts of Late Modernity
  • Experience and Language. Witkacy in Contemporary Interpretive Contexts (Iwona Lorenc)
  • S.I. Witkiewicz’s Untimely Deliberations (Teresa Pękala)
  • References
  • List of Illustrations
  • Notes about the Authors
  • Index of Persons

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Teresa Pękala


Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Witkacy (1885–1939), is a prophetic author, who has fascinated successive generations with his suggestive visions of the future. We live in the time which is Witkacy’s future. In 2015 we celebrated his one-hundred-thirtieth birthday anniversary, and there has since been a debate inspired by the philosophy and art of this unique author and artist. Among the Polish authors active on the eve of modernity Witkacy is indisputably the most recognizable figure. Continuous interest is aroused by the question about the future of metaphysics, about the problems of inability to fathom human life, its elemental spontaneity and philosophical reflection on corporeality. Witkacy is an avant-gardist, critical of naturalism but distanced from the abstract. An esthetician, advocate of Pure Form and the ‘logic of beauty’, and at the same time a fervent lover of the ‘life element’, which is the root of art.

The oddness of Individual Being adds a special aura to the mysterious characters of his dramas and novels, which alternately speak the language of debate and a sensual language with performative power. His philosophical texts abound in literary metaphors blurring the sharp boundaries between art and philosophy. Witkacy is an original philosopher who uses a language that has become a permanent component of the discourse of philosophy, art theory and esthetics. He introduced a whole vocabulary of terms, definitions and metaphors referring to modern art, with the concept of Pure Form as the leading one. The mocking tone, self-irony, metadiscourse and intertextuality make Witkacy occupy in the contemporary opinions the position of a thoroughly modern author walking a fine line between grand cultural paradigms in their dramatic co-existence.

S. I. Witkiewicz’s biography is no less curious than his works if those areas can be treated separately at all. He created his works in an air of scandal and tangled love affairs and experiments with substances; he was famous among the artistic bohemians for his unconventional public appearances. He was indisputably a master of gesture and poses, who anticipated the postmodernist theatralization of life. The son of a well known painter and founder of the Zakopane style, he noticed the exhaustion of artistic forms and perversions of Western culture. Behind the mask of a mocker there is a postmodern, we might say, awareness of the weakened foundations of Western culture. His suicide in 1939 appears only to be a consequence of his tragic disillusionment with the declining Western culture. ← 9 | 10 →

There are many problems that contemporary and future esthetics and philosophy can deal with and this is what is happening. The number of publications devoted to Witkacy long exceeded two hundred items edited by Lech Sokół in the 1980s. Postmodern culture is sometimes termed a culture of exhaustion. In the metaphorical sense the term can be applied to the range of subjects around which the discussion on Witkacy revolves. There is a clearly discernible need to go beyond this area to look more boldly at Witkacy’s works from the perspective of his already fulfilled future. Which of his catastrophic visions came true? What attracts the attention of humanists today? Which problems that gave people sleepless nights at the dawn of modernity now appear anachronistic, and which remain unsolved? Witkacy’s philosophy seems to be a still poorly studied point of reference to postmetaphysical conceptions. The present book contains mostly the opinions expressed by scholars to whom encounters with Witkacy are above all an opportunity to take up the vexing problems of present-day philosophy, esthetics and art theory. The genius of Witkiewicz is manifest inter alia in that it allows us to conduct incessant hermeneutic studies and to successfully try the research tools of the latest theories.

Witkacy attached great importance to immediate experience and this was not exclusively one of the theses of his philosophical conception. His picture of the world was just as impacted by philosophical readings as by “essential conversations”, as he used to call debates with eminent intellectuals and artists on the fundamental metaphysical questions. His artistic preferences were equally made up of the knowledge instilled by his father and learned at university, as well as of direct contact with artists, works of art and people from different classes, whose otherness always amazed him. These objective, one could say, determinants should be complemented with his individual predispositions that manifested themselves in the form of unique esthetic sensitivity. It is only by taking into account the vast context in which Witkacy’s ideas were born that we can get closer to his fascinating yet hard-to-understand works. In view of the complexity of problems and the fact that we are dealing with an already historical figure, who acquired the legend of being an eccentric author, I decided to begin the book with the memories of direct witnesses or substitute witnesses, who preserved the image of Witkacy-the man in their memory.

The book begins with the reminiscences by Elżbieta Witkiewicz-Schiele, a granddaughter of Jan Witkiewicz Koszczyc (architect), a cousin of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz “Witkacy”. E. Witkiewicz-Schiele was the first to compile the genealogical tree of the Witkiewicz family, including the dates of birth and death. She drew up four genealogical trees of the families related to the Witkiewicz line, ← 10 | 11 → and showed the relations between them. On the basis of documents and talks she reproduced the image of Witkacy, which was preserved in the immediate family. It might be worthwhile to focus on the part of her memories, in which the author emphasizes, unlike in most publications, that Staś [Stanisław, i.e. Witkacy] remained in the shadow of his father’s fame. The opinion about the father “Angel” (according to Witkacy’s aunt) and the difficult character of his freaky son continued to be repeated in the Witkiewicz family until after World War 2.

Witkacy is a historical figure and although his work continues to inspire successive generations, it is the relevance that is constructed for the changing conventions and even scholarly fashions. Therefore, of invaluable significance are the memories of the few living persons who knew Witkacy personally. A complete mnemic experience is accessible only to those whose recollections refer to impressions and the memory of the senses, which retains the experienced situations as fragments of unique biography. Memory goes beyond the intellectual process of recollecting and drawing conclusions about the past on this basis. We, who live at present, have to do with the knowledge about Witkacy which is stored in successive publications and on webpages. I believe like Edward S. Casey that “computers cannot remember; what they can do is to record, store and retrieve information – which is only part of what human beings can do when they enter into a memorious state” (Casey, 1987; 2). I was very grateful for Julitta Fedorowicz’s consent to publish excerpts from her memoirs about Witkacy. Ms J. Fedorowicz is a daughter of Zakopane meteorologist Józef Fedorowicz, S. I. Witkiewicz’s friend, and Witkacy’s model. Her colorful narrative about the friendship of her family with Witkacy, about the Formist Theater, the trials and tribulations of love and about philosophical disputes, culinary tastes and daily customs is irresistibly associated with the moving, emotionally marked remembering by Marcel Proust, when the broken barriers of memory suddenly collapsed (Proust, 2000; 118). And then Julitta Fedorowicz has in her eyes the lively, vivacious and splendid figure of Witkacy, teeming with emotions, while readers take part in a unique event.

A different kind of event, although equally unique, has been each time for thirty-one years the performances staged by the Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane. Inspired by Witkacy’s works, they are the relived life element, behind which there are problems arising from the fundamental oppositions of European culture. The Theater was established in 1985, exactly sixty years of the date of setting up Witkacy’s Formist Theater in Zakopane. The patron of the theater, Witkacy, managed to maintain the theater barely for two years. The theater of Andrzej Dziuk and his team have stopped the losing streak of the Zakopane theaters and is now one of the most creative phenomena in Poland’s theatrical life. While Jerzy Grotowski and ← 11 | 12 → Tadeusz Kantor are widely recognizable artists/directors of the twentieth-century Polish theater, to theatrologists and Witkacologists Andrzej Dziuk and his theater are still a poorly identified (because difficult to interpret) object of analysis. The key to understanding the phenomenon of the Witkacy Theater in Zakopane cannot be a dialog with the theatrical tradition, for which Grotowski became famous in his attempts to overcome it in the second reform, nor can it be Kantor’s transformed multicultural Polish iconography although the two themes are present there. The Zakopane Theater is a missionary, prophetic and ironic one: it does not so much perform Witkacy’s plays as it jointly thinks with him by presenting metaphysical, cultural and identity problems in the contemporary spirit. It is surrounded by an aura of mystery, almost like its patron. The difference lies in that the freak, as the son of the great painter Stanisław Witkiewicz was generally believed to be, had to wait for the name of a prophetic author many years after his death by suicide. In contrast, the Witkacy Theater became a legend almost after the first productions: Autoparodia, Dr Faustus, and Cabaret Voltaire. The relationship with Witkacy in the Witkacy Theater consists in the immediately noticeable “separateness of Individual (or Particular) Being”, the individuality (particularity) being understood as the charismatic separateness of the unique personality of Andrzej Dziuk, the creator of the Theater, as compared with other contemporary stage directors. The Witkacy Theater is distinguished by the formal expressiveness of performances and the unique style of actors’ teamwork retaining their individual acting styles, by the magic of the place and by the vision drawing on but not merely reproducing Witkacian themes. Productions are created not only in reference to the patron’s texts but also by staging outstanding works of classic art and contemporary plays. The Witkacy Theater provides opportunities for direct experience, which is an experience of modernity, an experience of the world, which is already Witkacy’s future. In this part of the book, the interviews with director Andrzej Dziuk and with the Witkacy Theater actors: Andrzej Bienias, Dorota Ficoń and Krzysztof Najbor, there returns the problem whether today’s art and the contemporary theater are able to cope with the burden of metaphysics and whether they want to? Are they able to overcome Witkacian pessimism and look at the present from the perspective that Witkacy could not have foreseen?

The different perspective offered by this publication consists inter alia in viewing Witkacy as a thinker who tries to break free from the inherited oppositions engendered within Western metaphysics. Inconsistency or even incompatibility between his art theory and philosophy, or between artistic theory and practice, can be positively interpreted as an attempt to go beyond the opposition of logos, which confirms the presence of sense expressed in the concept, and the life element, ← 12 | 13 → whose non-discursive sense can be experienced inter alia in art. The problem of the heritage of modernity already runs through the comments of the actors. Andrzej Dziuk pointed out the dramatic inability to go beyond modern oppositions within the accepted concepts of language. Witkacy’s metaphysics shows how difficult it was for the authors/artists in the early twentieth-century to cope with the classic philosophical concepts and to take a stand on the theories that formulated the problem of the ability to go beyond the legacy of Hegel and Husserl and other classics of modern philosophy. Witkacy’s conception is so difficult to interpret because, among others, it did not break off with the fundamental assumptions of metaphysics although it was critical of many of them. Its whole complexity and originality lies in that it was not a closed conception: it was constantly at the stage of challenging Western logocentrism. With admirable maturity, Witkacy predicts that the mere abolishment of the metaphysical world will not be enough to save the declining Western culture. The part Metaphysics – Inherited Logos presents four texts discussing the problem of metaphysics as formulated by S. I. Witkiewicz.

Kazimierz Piotrowski challenges the modernist opposition of surface and depth, using, inter alia, Gilles Deleuze’s paradoxology. He chose as his research material the ontological meaning of the category of perversion, which he understands in a different way from the accepted pattern of interpreting this phenomenon in the social, medical or ethical contexts. He explains his position by the fact that the metaphysics of the author of 622 Downfalls of Bungo introduces the problem of the absence of the Other, reduced to an object. The fight of the hero of Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf for identity can, in Piotrowski’s interpretation, be a contribution to postmodernist interpretations of Witkacy.

Andrzej Ostrowski’s paper In the Metaphysical Illusions refers to S. I. Witkiewicz’s argument with solipsism, particularly with his pure-spiritual-pointlike solipsism. The object of reflection is another classic opposition of metaphysics, whose sense can be expressed with the question about the relationship obtaining between the cognitive subject and the content of his thoughts.

The main goal of Magdalena Bizior-Dombrowska’s study is to analyze the category of metaphysical boredom defined as the principle of existence and an irremovable characteristic of being. Both Witkacy’s biography and his works, in which boredom is a constitutive element of the presented world, make up the picture of absolute, total, overwhelming and irremovable boredom. It turns out that boredom is not a transition state, a momentary mood; it does not take place at the level of emotions. Boredom permeates everything: it becomes the “air”, an indelible element of existence. It is unquestionably an original interpretation that opens Witkacy’s work to new contexts that confirm its relevance. ← 13 | 14 →

In his article with the provocative title Goodbye to Witkacy? Remarks on the Relevance of S. I. Witkiewicz’s Metaphysical and Esthetic Views, Cezary Mordka assesses the validity of the theses posed by Witkacy in his metaphysics of art. Mordka accuses Witkacy of having committed a category error by having essentialized the category of existence. In contrast, Mordka believes that the attempt to use the concept of “unity in plurality” to explain the phenomenon of a work of art was admirable albeit originally arbitrary.

In the next part Art, Metaphysics, Performativity the dominant reflection focuses on metaphysical and philosophical problems, in particular on the realm of art pursued by Witkacy. Grzegorz Sztabiński examines the problem of the position and significance of metaphysical feelings in painting. A systematic analysis of Witkacy’s opinions on metaphysical feelings can be used as an argument for the validity of the view that seeking a coherent system in this artist’s works leads to an aporia.

G. Sztabiński wonders whether the conviction that the right area of the operation of art is “a mix of a given feeling of unity with other life feelings” can be explained by Witkacy’s dislike of non-representational painting. In the paper, he compares the conception of metaphysical feeling with the subjectless system in Kazimir Malevich’s conception. The characteristics of the esthetic categories of beauty and the sublime can be regarded as an interesting proposal to introduce Witkacy’s work into the postmodern discourse on the sublime.

The concurrence of the great Zakopanian’s (i.e. Witkacy’s) thinking with the conceptions of the most representative minds of the modern period is convincingly discussed by Rafał Czekaj’s tellingly titled article Where Adorno Meets Witkacy. Common Philosophical Themes. The “boredom of mechanical life” prophesied by Witkacy is, according to Czekaj, one of the features of Adorno’s “administered world”, the “degeneration of metaphysical feelings” corresponds to Adorno’s diagnosis of the progressive reification of the world and his conviction about “the compulsion of identity thinking”, whereas what Witkacy perceives as the domination of “artificial beauty” is nothing else than “the culture industry” on the move. In the works of the two thinkers there is the spirit of resistance to the mechanisms of creating a passive, submissive and injured society. In order that this resistance was possible, art must preserve its autonomy. Art as a reservoir of the authentic and unmediated is indisputably an attempt “to save modernity.”

Is it not a “fusty” vision, however? This question is asked by the author of the next text, Ewa Łubieniewska. The question about the chances of metaphysics in contemporary art contains a tacit suggestion that a metaphysical experience allows the addressee to achieve harmony with the world, which makes it (experience) a ← 14 | 15 → special value. It was unquestionably such a value to S. I. Witkiewicz although in the states experienced by the characters of his dramas there is a dominant conviction, compelled by the condition of humanity and by the decline of culture and art, that it is evil that turns into the last source of artistic inspiration. Is today’s art able to bear the burden of this type of “essential contents” or is it only feigning to do so?


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (April)
Modern theatre Performativity Postmodern aesthetics Cultural crisis Polish avant-garde Modernity experience
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 358 pp., 32 b/w ill., 2 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Teresa Pękala (Volume editor)

Teresa Pękala is Full Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology and Head of Department of Esthetics at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin. She is Vice President of the Polish Association of Aesthetics. Her research interests include Polish esthetics, philosophy of modern art, and the esthetic contexts of the experience of the past.


Title: Witkacy. Logos and the Elements
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