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Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was born in Warsaw and in 1890 moved with his family to Zakopane, where his father would become well known as the creator of the "Zakopane Style" of handicrafts and architecture. Early on, Witkiewicz showed signs of genius - playing piano, painting and drawing at the age of six and reading scientific and philosophical works in various languages at the age of seven. He wrote his first critical essays, "On Dualism" and "Schopenhauer's Philosophy and His Relations to His Predecessors", in 1902 at the age of 17. After obtaining his school certificate in Lwow, he traveled throughout Europe for several years, returning to Poland to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. He remained at the Academy for only one year before returning to Zakopane, where he painted his series of romantic landscapes entitled Early Spring. Over the course of the next few years, he traveled to France several times, becoming particularly inspired by the Synthetism of Paul Gauguin while studying with Wladyslaw Slewinski in Brittany. Witkiewicz also grew interested in the grotesques of 19th century artists Francisco de Goya and Aubrey Beardsley. The dark, parodying tone in his depictions of sinister women in supernatural settings appears in both the works from his first solo exhibition (held in Krakow in 1913) and his novel from this period, The 622 Falls of Bungo, or the Demonic Woman.

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Self-portrait, ca. 1912, Vintage gelatin silver print, 7 x 5 inches (17.8 x 12.7 cm), (WITK 1)

In 1914, devastated by the suicide of his fiancée, Witkiewicz traveled to Australia as a means of escaping himself and his thoughts of taking his own life. As a member of a scientific expedition organized by the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, Witkiewicz documented the journey with photographs and drawings. Upon returning home from the expedition, he enlisted in the Russian Tsarist Army and served in World War I. After the War, he studied philosophy in St. Petersburg and traveled in Russia for several years, before returning to Zakopane in 1918 where he would help to found the Formist movement. His approach differed from that of other Formists, as Witkiewicz believed that "pure form" was not fully abstract and possessed symbolism that embodied the restlessness and multiplicity of the human spirit. As a wounded officer, he had begun using narcotics. He came to believe that the controlled use of drugs (ranging from mescaline, peyote and cocaine to caffeine and alcohol) liberated him and opened windows into the psychology of his subject matter. He meticulously recorded on his works each of the substances that he used while creating them. In the fantastical drawings at Ubu, these notations appear next to his signature like obscure scientific equations. When Witkiewicz opened the "S.I. Witkiewicz-Portrait" Company in 1924 in order to support himself, he continued this controlled drug experiment as a means of gaining access to the "masks" that revealed and concealed his subjects' inner tensions. These intimate portraits (labeled type "C" among his "categories" of portraits lettered A, B, C, D and E) were reserved for family members and friends, and were generally not for sale. The artist also explored the complex inner workings of his own psyche in a peculiar series of photographs that document his facial grimaces - attempts at capturing his own evasive masks.

Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz, Juz wtedy robil takie rzeczy, 1931, Pencil and colored pencil on paper, Signed, titled, dated and annotated on recto, 8 1/4 x 13 3/8 inches (21 x 34 cm), (WITK 24)

Throughout the 1930s, Witkiewicz continued to make commissioned portraits and to write articles about philosophy and theater. He composed his fourth novel entitled The Only Way Out while touring Poland as a lecturer on aesthetics. Plagued with bouts of depression, he became obsessed with the idea of suicide. In September 1939, when Witkiewicz learned that Russian troops were invading Poland from the East (having already fled from the German troops that were advancing from the West), he killed himself by slitting his wrists.

Quite apart from his philosophical essays and other creative work, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz is also known as one of Poland's most important playwrights of the 20th century. Witkiewicz wrote over 30 plays between 1918 and his suicide in 1939. About a third of these are still unpublished. Yet Witkiewicz, who was practically ignored in his time and left no direct disciples, bestrides the avant-garde like a colossus, mysteriously arousing more excitement in young playwrights than practically any other 20th century writer, even O'Neill. His influence is perhaps magnified by the enthusiasm of European scholars, but his standing as progenitor of the avant-garde is unquestioned. "Witkacy" is known for his outrageously extravagant scenes influenced by all kinds of cults and philosophical speculations.

Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz, Atlas zoologiczny, 1932, Pencil and colored pencil on paper, Signed, titled, dated and annotated on recto, 9 7/8 x 13 3/4 inches (25.1 x 34.9 cm), (WITK 35)

In a recent wave of interest, New York has seen several adaptations of Witkacy's work: TUMOR BRAINIOWICZ, presented by the Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf at La MaMa E.T.C. in 2002; THE MOTHER, by the same company, presented by La MaMa E.T.C. and the Polish Cultural Institute in 2003; THE CRAZY LOCOMOTIVE, by The Classical Theater of Harlem at the Harlem School of the Arts in 2003; and THE PRAGMATISTS, by Piper McKenzie's Workshop at The Brick in Williamsburg in 2004. The Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf was actually named after THE METAPHYSICS OF A TWO-HEADED CALF, a lesser-known play by S.I. Witkiewicz, whose best known is THE WATER HEN.

For a recently published selection of Witkiewicz's dramas and essays on theatre, click HERE.

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