Photo History: Stanislaw Witkiewicz Photographic Portraits
So this episode of TFG is about an artist who was also a photographer (or the other way around). I was spurred to look at Stanislaw Witkiewicz by Phillips’ May Photographs sale because one of his prints sold really well.
I’d never seen a photograph by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz before (hereafter referred to as Stanislaw Witkiewicz). I think I first came across his name when I was researching for my MA thesis. I came across the name again when I was looking at Phillips’ Photo sale results from earlier in May and saw that they’d sold a self-portrait for probably around £40,000. This is a rough approximation because I didn’t write down the hammer price, didn’t consult an auction catalogue prior to calculating and also didn’t allow for any other taxes to be added – stop talking just continue –
Talking About the Past
Stanislaw Witkiewicz was named for his father (same name) who invented the Zakopane Style, a Polish national artistic style created during the Arts and Craft movement, which went on to inspire a style of architecture that took its inspiration from folk architecture. I used the words “style” and “architecture” so many times within the same sentence. Ugh.
Anyway. The point of this is not to explain to you a very obscure artistic style, it’s to talk about that creator’s progeny and his artistic work. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was many things: writer, poet, playwright, artist, photographer, philosopher, art theorist. Even at a young age, and like many artistic visionaries, he showed a strong predilection for artistic media: painting, photography, music and philosophy.
The way I’ve read things, Witkiewicz acquired a photographic tendency through his father, who presented the medium to him as a utilitarian skill that every artist should possess in his arsenal. With this in mind, Witkiewicz used photography as a preparatory tool that assisted him complete his paintings. If you think about it with today’s mindset it’s a completely reasonable usage for photography in terms of art; the mechanical process captures a certain image and stores it indelibly, which enables the artist to then take his time perfecting the malleable (or plastic) artwork.
“When the camera is perfected to the point that it just becomes a part of man’s nervous system, photography will become merely another improvement, a faster acting pencil or paintbrush.”Stanislaw Witkiewicz 
It was interesting to me that, according to his scholars, he didn’t really invest himself in photography to the extent that he submitted work to exhibitions or developed a stronger technical skillset, like other photographers. He was in touch with a few other Polish photographers but one of them, called Tadeusz Langier, taught Witkiewicz chromate based techniques, like gum bichromate (the one commonly used by Robert Demachy and the Pictorialist school for its inherently malleable qualities – I WANT TO TALK MORE ABOUT THIS I LOVE DEMACHY’S WORK).
A Colourful History
He made most of his photo portraits between 1911 and 1913 and they weren’t disseminated anywhere. This time spent between Cracow and Zakopane was used by Witkiewicz to establish himself as an artist. When his father moved to Lovran for his heath, Witkiwiecz visited and traveled farther afield, across Europe and particularly Paris, where he familiarised himself with the avant-garde painting of the time: Cezanne, Picasso and Gauguin, amongst others.
This vibrant, anti-naturalist method of depiction had a strong impact on Witkiewicz, to the extent that his own expressionist way of painting started to develop around 1908. Current with the modern school, his art was full of non-figurative figures, delightfully bizarre shapes and completely anti-naturalist colour schemes.
The figures in his paintings were monstrous, deformed and inhuman but they were a crucial marker on Witkiewicz’s path to forming an individual artistic tongue. His artistic choice here represented a decisive turn away from the traditional language of realist painting, and especially nationalist or Polish folk art.
In this first decade of the 1900s the Pictorialist school was strong within the photographic community en general as was the tendency to opt for the softness of touch and naturally painterly qualities. But of course Witkiewicz didn’t go for the road slightly more travelled, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about him.
The Polish Pictorialist school developed swiftly and it was strongly influenced by the Pictorialism of the Viennese Camera Club. New photographic journals, despite having a relatively short existence (1903-1906) and translated copies of Robert de la Sizeranne’s, La Photographie est-elle un art? (“Is Photography An Art?”) were published.
Then the photographer Jan Bulhak produced a series of articles for the journal The Warsaw Photographer based on writings that had come out of the Paris Photo Club. These texts that he produced were (according to reading) the first texts to introduce the French photographic aesthetic to a Polish photographic audience, which perhaps naturally came to dominate the Polish perspective.
During this time, when many other Polish photographers were producing the kind of ethereal landscapes and painterly scenes that characterise the Pictorialist movement, Witkiewicz was producing something entirely different. Instead, he was approaching photography almost as a philosophical debate. The photographs he produced around this time (1908-1914) are closely cropped portraits of friends and lovers.
“The world is binary. It is based on the binaries of time and space, change and permanence, outside and inside, and finally it is singular and multiple…
The world can only be described in these sorts of dichotomies… ‘Singularity in multiplicity’ constitutes the essence of Being, which is perceived through ‘metaphysical feelings.’ these, Witkacy described as the feeling of the subject of its identity, the singularity of existence in the contact of the multiplicity of human beings.
The subjects feels his finitude and limitedness in the infiniteness and unlimitedness of Being. On the other hand, he feels a unity with the external world, with other Individual Beings.”Piotr Piotrowski 
None of which makes much sense to me. Except perhaps the part about binarism, which I could almost assimilate as being understandable. Because the world is binary if you look at it in almost any terms: right and wrong, man and woman, up and down. We live in a world of opposites and there’s nothing malicious about that.
Is Photography Art? No.
Now we arrive at the part of the discussion that is guaranteed to pulverise your brain. Stanislaw Witkiewicz looked on something that he called, “Pure Form”. This sounded to me a bit like the automatism promoted by Surrealism, which advocated for the subconscious to be developed in opposition to the realist school of depiction. Effectively Surrealism automatism was about allowing yourself the freedom to explore the weird and peculiar crevices of your mind.
I suppose it’s not quite the same thing because Piotrowski’s not arguing for the mind to be liberated over the body but he is talking about art as being freed from the burden of describing reality, which does sound vaguely similar to Surrealism. In this case, once the art is freed from reality, which is also its appearance, it can ascend to symbolic status and thus reach the “core of reality”, which is the “essence of Being”. 
“By form, and form alone, can the Mystery of Existence be conveyed. In a given metaphysical feeling during the process of creation, works are produced whose construction is legitimated by a structure identical to that of Existence.”Stanislaw Witkiewicz 
But in Witkiewicz’s interpretation, this meant that photography couldn’t fulfill the prerequisites for a work of art according to his own principles because photography was an inherently representative medium in that what the photographer directed it to depict would always be reality, or couched in reality in some way. So photography was not art. At least according to Witkiewicz.
However. Having attempted to explain his artistic ethics, and having assimilated his belief that photography could not be art, Witkiewicz didn’t really seem to be the kind of chap to blindly accept any artistic belief. He completely avoided all other schools of artistic thought, which included any technical mastery or belief that might have affected others. He was “free” to create images as he wished. Which is not an entirely novel notion considering that any major (or indeed minor) development in the field of photography has derived from The Photographer ignoring artistic or technical convention. But still.
In Witkiewicz’s case this lack of concern for technical accuracy led him to create the portraits which jump-started this particular issue of TFG. They’re almost psychological portraits, but they’re not uniform in their composition or structure so that rules out an intentional scientific analysis (on the wavelength of Francis Galton, par exemple).
The way he captured his sitters varies in format quite widely. Some are captured face-on, while for others it would almost appear as though they’d just turned their head to the camera. Half of the chin is excised from the frame, a cheek is partially removed, so that only the framework of the aesthetic structure of the face remains whole: eyes, nose, mouth. What unites all his portraiture however is the lack of consistent focus.
It is quite intense to look at the tightness of these cropped portraits. The lack of consistency across technical questions doesn’t really matter so much because we know his apathy towards such matters. Here, they become part of his aesthetic, much like the oft-mentioned Julia Margaret. The inconsistent focus and diversity of structure becomes almost an aesthetic theme in its own right.
Unlocking the Soul
Scholars talk about the way the light falls on these faces; always one single light source that illuminates only part of the face and leaves the other side in shadow. It’s never the same side of the face that is lit up by the light and never in the same place. I suppose it’s sort of interesting like that, it appears more organic, less planned. The natural photos are often more revealing of the person, and while it looks like the 1912 equivalent of opening your phone and taking a chin selfie (collective shudder, ugh) these portraits were anything but par hasard (for the non-French speaking crowd; by chance) and were everything intentional.
The fact that Witkiewicz more or less focussed on portraiture demonstrates a very keen and deep-rooted desire to discover what was going on internally, and I don’t mean digestion. Witkiewicz undertook several psychoanalysis session at the start of 1912 in Zakopane. So if he were being introduced to psychoanalytical techniques in session, it might be possible that this influenced the way he created his portraits.
We use our eyes to see; whether awake or asleep, it’s through the eyes that we perceive the world and what goes on around us, what happens to us. The mind thinks it knows everything, but the eyes see everything. And even if the mind doesn’t quite assimilate the meaning of what the eyes have witnessed, it’s still in there.
The focus on the eyes, in particular, reads like a desire to travel deeper into the psyche. This is simply my analysis from looking at several of his tightly-cropped portraits and identifying a unifying theme; the chin is chopped off, an ear is absent, but always the eyes are shining. Eyes were key in his portraits, they were the “mirrors of the soul” and therefore always illuminated by the light. 
We see through our eyes, not only what happens physically, literally, but what’s occurring internally, too. Our eyes betray our emotions to others. They communicate what we physically cannot. That’s why they are so important, and why they feature so strongly and boldly in Witkiewicz’s work. Trying to discover the true identity of a person, much as he discovered the identity of pure form in art.
I really hadn’t thought about looking up his results at auction, and given that I don’t have a subscription to artnet’s price database I definitely can’t do that BUT they do allow general searches on their site which deliver you to a page of results that have absolutely the minimum amount of information.
I tried doing a web search and ended up at mutualart.com’s sale of Witkiewicz photographs. Initially I was quite excited because I thought I’d found a route around that pesky subscription obstacle but it turns out mutualart.com operates in exactly the same way as artnet.com. Anyway. It turned out that looking up Witkiewicz’s photographs at auction was quite interesting because it brought me into digital, virtual contact with more of his photographic work. I’d only seen his close-up portraits and I’m not quite sure what else I was expecting.
Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s photographic output was, I think, quite psychologically challenging in the sense that he was using the photograph to explore his subject’s psyche. Is how I see it (intentional sentence). Even this self-portrait, taken fifteen years later than that one I mentioned all the way back up top, is a study in self-analysis and profundity. Look at it and tell me what you see. His gaze is almost overwhelmingly powerful, and it’s all in the eyes. That cigarette held almost casually between his lips (which don’t seem to be doing the job with maximum effort) isn’t really important here; it’s the off-camera direction of his ocular organs. It’s intense.
I think that if you didn’t know that it was a self-portrait that you might imagine him to have been slightly distracted in the middle of doing a thing (smoking a cigarette) and so the visage reflects that momentary disturbance. But it was a self-portrait. So the intensity in his eyes, these eyes that captivate the viewer, that hold your own gaze, that render every other detail superfluous, in really indicative of an intensity that he carried within him. You know how some people are quite intense and they carry that with them always. I think Witkiewicz had an intensity to him. And let me also add that this is based on nothing more than my own opinions.
Not really got a conclusion this time around. If you fancied looking at some imagery by Stanislaw Witkiewicz you could look him up on Facebook, of all places. I deliberately didn’t want to talk about his artwork because THIS IS A BLOG (ugh that word) ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY (mostly). But he did “do” other art, drawing, I mean. And it’s very elegant and refined and reflective of a 1920s-ish style. I will add though, as an addendum, that the focus is still on the eyes of his subjects. Much like Modigliani, who saw the eyes of his sitters as these very narrow ocular orbits with no irises, so Witkiewicz focusses on the optics to a similar extent. It’s a very powerful body of work.
- 1. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Dziwny czlowiek, translation from the Polish by Klara Kemp-Welsh, p.60, quoted in Maciej Szymanowicz, The Photographic Work of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, (MOMA) p.5, https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Szymanowicz.pdf [accessed 19 September 2019]
- 2. Piotr Piotrowski, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Warsaw: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1989) p. 18, quoted in Maciej Szymanowicz, The Photographic Work of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, (MOMA) p.5, https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Szymanowicz.pdf [accessed 19 September 2019]
- 3. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, quoted in Szymanowicz, The Photographic Work of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, p.5, https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Szymanowicz.pdf [accessed 19 September 2019]
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Ewa Franczak and Stefan Okolowicz, Przeciw nicosci. Fotografie Stanizlawa Ignacego Witkiewicza (Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986), p.17, quoted in Szymanowicz, The Photographic Work of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, p.7, https://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Szymanowicz.pdf [accessed 19 September 2019]