While in his early thirties, Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz adopted the pseudonym “Witkacy” in order to distinguish himself from his famous father, Stanisaw Witkiewicz (1851-1915). The elder Witkiewicz, whose family belonged to the landowning aristocracy of Lithuania, was a painter by profession; he was also highly influential as an aesthetic theorist. His most important book, a long treatise entitled Sztuka i krytyka u nas (1891; art and the critics in our country), argues that painting should be judged solely on the basis of formal criteria that are independent of religious, literary, or patriotic values. His own paintings were realistic in style, but he was at the same time a passionate admirer of the folk art and rustic architecture that were to be found among the mountaineers in the Tatra region of southern Poland. In 1883, he married Maria Pietrzkiewicz (1853-1931), a member of the petty gentry, who had been graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1873 and taught music from time to time in order to supplement the income of the Witkiewicz family. Their only child was born in Warsaw on February 24, 1885. Five years later, the family moved to Zakopane, a village in the Tatra Mountains located sixty miles due south of Krakow. It was there that the child was baptized in 1891 in a ceremony in which the celebrated actress Helena Modjeska served as godmother.
By moving to Zakopane, the elder Witkiewicz sought to escape from the physical and spiritual miasma of the industrialized world. Convinced that formal schooling stifled creativity, he educated his son at home with the assistance of tutors. Under this enlightened tutelage, young Witkiewicz soon acquired a reputation as a child prodigy. He was taught the piano by his mother and the art of painting by his father. Somewhat to his parents’ surprise, the boy displayed an inordinate fondness for reading plays and even wrote a few at the age of eight. The first of these was entitled Karluchy (1893; cockroaches), a work that depicts the invasion of a mythical kingdom by a horde of these vermin. Among the closest companions of his boyhood were Bronisaw Malinowski and Leon Chwistek. Both these youths went on to become figures of international repute, Malinowski as an anthropologist and Chwistek as a philosopher. Between 1900 and 1905, Witkiewicz visited St. Petersburg, Munich, and Vienna as well as several cities in Italy. Such travels enabled him to keep abreast of the latest developments in the world of art. At age twenty, he decided to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow despite his father’s heated objections that such training would lead to conformism and mediocrity. While the bohemian aspects of student life attracted the young man, the course of studies at the academy itself failed to interest him in any way. He therefore dropped out of the academy after about a year and returned home.
For the next few years, Witkiewicz led the life of a drifter. He painted bizarre pictures, wrote a novel, traveled abroad, and engaged in a number of serious love affairs. In 1913, owing to fears of impending madness, he sought treatment from a psychoanalyst who subscribed to the doctrines of Sigmund Freud. In the belief that marriage might be the best form of therapy, he also became engaged to Jadwiga Janczewska. His fiancé, however, committed suicide shortly thereafter because of a suspicion on her part that Witkiewicz was involved in a homosexual relationship with the composer Karol Szymanowski. Soon after this tragic event, Witkiewicz’s mother decided that a prolonged stay abroad would do much to restore her son’s equilibrium. She therefore made arrangements for him to accompany Malinowski on an anthropological expedition to the South Seas as private secretary and photographer. Things went well at first. He joined Malinowski in England, where his boyhood companion was then a postgraduate student at the London...
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