New York

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

Robert Miller Gallery

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was one of the key figures of the Modernist avant-garde in Poland. Under the pseudonym Witkacy, he was a renowned playwright whose darkly comic plays presage the theater of the absurd. Between his birth in 1885 and his suicide in 1939 (on the day the Soviet army marched into Poland) he produced philosophical and theoretical writings, novels, and a large body of paintings and drawings, many executed under the carefully recorded influence of peyote, mescaline, and cocaine.

With this recent show we learn of his early and abiding fascination with photography as well. From the age of thirteen, Witkacy made portraits of friends and relatives and photos of improvisational “life theater” works, as well as a body of self-portraits, eventually filling over a dozen albums. None of these was exhibited during Witkacy’s lifetime, and the albums, along with many other works, were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The images that survived elsewhere were first shown in Poland in 1981.

This exhibition brought together a selection of eighty-eight works—vintage albumen, pigment, gum bichromate, and gelatin-silver prints, along with modern prints from the artist’s glass negatives. Though it included a few early (1899) small landscapes depicting clouds looming over the Tatra Mountains, at its heart was a series of extraordinary photos that exhibition organizer Stephan Okolowicz dubs “metaphysical portraits,” mostly taken between 1912 and 1914. Many are extreme facial close-ups, said to be the first in the history of photography, made with a crude extension lens fashioned from a length of plumbing pipe. In coming so close to his subjects, Witkacy eliminated markers of dress, background, even hair styles, so that the faces appear timeless. Among others, pianist Artur Rubinstein, pioneer ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski, and the photographer’s father (himself a famous painter and writer) gaze directly into the lens with unsettling candor. And yet the portraits do not concern themselves with psychology. What is drawn forth and revealed here is not the personality of individuals but their common existential condition.

In his catalogue essay, Okolowicz notes that the artist’s method was to wait until his subjects “assumed an expression of someone struck by the strangeness of existence.” Witkacy’s portraits of his mother are particularly affecting in this way. Maria Witkiewicz looks as if she is gazing through the camera into an abyss of insoluble contradictions. And in numerous portraits, Witkacy’s fiancée, Jadwiga Janczewska, who killed herself in 1914, has that same look of being at the place where self and other dissolve. Rimbaud’s “I is an other” could have been Witkacy’s maxim. Photography was a tool he used to get to that other within. He often photographed a person over and over again—in profile, head on, close up, in different kinds of light, in focus and out—trying to get beneath appearances.

One can imagine that this relentless scrutiny was not always entirely welcome. Two young sisters, Janina and Wanda Illukicwicz, seem more wary than revealing. Witkacy’s portraits of Jadwiga Witkiewicz, whom he married in 1923, are less ruthless in their pursuit, more nuanced. It is clearly in the self-portraits that Witkacy was least forgiving, most determined to break through the surface that separates observer from observed. One particularly disturbing 1913 image shows him beside an ornate oil lamp, resting his chin on laced fingers. The lamplight cuts into his skull and divides his face into light and dark hemispheres, eyes dissolving into indistinct orbs. It is titled Collapse, with lamp.

David Levi Strauss