Documenting Drugs The Artful Intoxications of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
In pursuit of Pure Form, the Polish artist known as “Witkacy” would consume peyote, cocaine, and other intoxicants before creating pastel portraits. Juliette Bretan takes a trip through Witkiewicz’s chemical forays, including his 1932 Narcotics, a genre-bending treatise that warns of the hazards of drugs while seductively recollecting their delirious effects.
April 7, 2022
1:52 – The visions seem to be waning.
2:05 – Ages pass. Entire mountains, worlds, and gaggles of visions. Too many reptiles. The last one: A cave made of pigs. I’m in a gigantic moving pig, made of piggish tiles. Narcotics spawn styles in art and architecture.
4:10 – I see graphic depictions of all my flaws and mistakes.1
Perhaps it is the main subject of the self-portrait that captures your attention. Debonair in a crisp blue shirt and spotty tie, Polish artist, writer, and philosopher Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) strikes a classic pose: head slightly turned away, steely gaze, half-smile. Or maybe your eyes pan beyond Witkacy to the strangely apocalyptic background — ruined buildings, rendered in smudged grey and yellow pastel, leaching smoke into the air. A prophetic vista, given that the portrait was completed in 1938. Either way, it is easy to overlook the inscription, in the black crayon of Witkacy’s spiky hand, jotted across the bottom of the image: [P + 2NP1]. It looks almost like a signature, a cipher, or a record of ownership. This is Witkacy’s formula for keeping note of the substances he had consumed during the artwork’s composition, and of a previous spell of sobriety. In this case, P denotes “palenia”, or smoking tobacco, while 2NP1 signals one month and two days of “non-smoking”.
Under the influence of cocaine, mescaline, alcohol, and other narcotic cocktails, Witkacy prepared numerous studies of clients and friends for his portrait painting company, founded in the mid-1920s; the mix of substances inducing different approaches to colour, technique, and composition. The resulting images are surreal — and occasionally horrific. Heads become disembodied busts, suspended in the night sky. Bodies are transformed into worms. Faces seep down the paper.
Witkacy’s experimentation with drugs was not limited to the studio. In 1932, he authored Narkotyki (Narcotics), a series of essays describing his intake, alongside analysis of contemporary attitudes towards drug use. During the 1920s and 30s, substance abuse in Poland was increasingly seen as less a medical issue, more of a social and even national concern, perceived as a threat facing the newly-independent Polish state. Particular criticism was levied against alcohol, though other drugs, including tobacco, were also criticised at times for their detrimental health effects.2 At first glance, Narkotyki appears to employ a similar rhetoric of abstinence. The front cover ominously lists a roster of recreational substances, in blazing red and yellow.
In the preface, Witkacy claims he is “writing in total seriousness . . . to produce something useful”; describes how his “main aim is to save future generations from the two most monstrous stupéfiants, tobacco and alcohol”; and claims substance use “ultimately lead[s] to a personality becoming entirely altered, spiritually disfigured”.3 His is a “purely psychological” method, he adds.4 It's a very honourable approach — but, typical Witkacy, this was all a bit of ruse.
Narkotyki owes much to the experimental works of other European psychonauts throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Witkacy’s idea of drugs as being both sublime artistic fuel and a fast-track to the doldrums evokes Thomas De Quincey’s opium-laced visions in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821); his playfulness with style, reflecting the ephemeral escape offered by drug-taking — and his acknowledgement of its longer-term, more pernicious social consequences — smacks of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry and writing on hashish.5 Like Baudelaire, Witkacy frequently situates his experiments within wider ideas about the role of the artist in an increasingly modernised society, and the possibilities opened by altering the perceptual faculties. “As humanity adapts to society, to the progressive mechanization and quickening pace of life”, he writes, “the artist, a specialist in channeling the immediate expression of metaphysical sensations, has had to distance himself formally from the social foundation, though it is where his life is rooted.”6 Whatever his debts to other explorers of altered states of consciousness, Witkacy was also future looking. At certain points, he adopts a process of time-stamping his experiences as they progress after ingestion: a method that anticipates the internet’s Erowid portal — a sort of intoxicated version of the Mass Observation project, which allows volunteers to submit public accounts of their experiences on various substances. And his intoxication was both physical and formal. As the translator of the 2018 English version of Narkotyki, Soren A. Gauger, notes, Witkacy’s prose is often tricksy and double-crossing: he is “exhilarating and exasperating”, writes Gauger, “no matter what he was writing, it seems he wished he was writing something else”.7
Born in 1885 in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire, Witkacy was raised in the southern mountain resort of Zakopane — the air and spirit of which would later lead him to deem it “the chief production plant of a unique, purely Polish drug, Zakopanine”. His formative years were spent around cultural innovations, including those by his father, painter and critic Stanisław Witkiewicz, who was associated with the innovative Młoda Polska (Young Poland) Arts and Crafts movement.8 Initially home-schooled, Witkacy later studied at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, debuting his paintings — Romantic depictions of landscapes which bore similarities to his father’s works — in 1901. A trip to Paris in 1908 sparked an interest in avant-gardism, and he began experimenting with photography, extending lenses with the help of drainpipes to make strange portraits. A macro focus and claustrophobic cropping brought his subjects oppressively close to the viewer; their wide-eyed and grimly-serious faces staring out of the bromide murk.9
Witkacy’s early career was marred by tragedy. In 1914, his fiancée Jadwiga Janczewska took her own life, sending him into a tailspin. As a distraction, his childhood friend, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, invited him to photograph an upcoming research expedition through Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and Australia to what was then the Territory of Papua. It was a disastrous trip. En route, the pair spent most of the time in their cabin, deep in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim; upon arrival, Witkacy’s letters to his father reveal an ongoing preoccupation with thoughts of his late fiancée, in which descriptions of the environment interweave intense colour and toxicity:
The trees are covered with flowers going from scarlet and orange vermilion to violet and lake. . . . All this causes me the most frightful suffering and unbearable pain, since she’s not alive with me. . . . Everything is poison which brings close thoughts of death. When, when will this inhuman suffering end?10
At one point on the trip, Witkacy held a Browning pistol to his temple for an entire night. His relationship with Malinowski prickled — the anthropologist compared it to “Nietzsche breaking with Wagner” — and Witkacy soon returned for Europe to enlist in the Russian Imperial Army, whilst Malinowski continued to the Territory of Papua.11 The friendship between the pair never fully recovered.
Drafted into the Pavlovsky Guard in 1915, Witkacy fought on the frontline of World War I in autumn of the following year — though was severely wounded, come summer, in eastern Ukraine.12 Witkacy spent the remainder of the war convalescing, during which time he developed his artistic style on an industrial scale, creating around eight hundred works, both in painting and photography.13 One composition, produced in St Petersburg (then Petrograd) circa 1917, was his “Multiple Self-Portrait in Mirrors”: an unnerving photographic portrait taken in a reflective hall, depicting five Witkacies, dressed in military uniform, staring each other down with The Lady from Shanghai-ish paranoia.
In mid-1918, Witkacy was able to leave St Petersburg and return to Zakopane, where he began exhibiting works with the avant-garde Formist group: a Cubist-Expressionist-Futurist-folk mashup movement, where psychedelic scenes, popping with colour, met more graphical, geometric designs. Around the same time, he formulated the principles of his theory of Pure Form, which stressed composition over content, and a break away from realism, naturalism, and linear narrative. For Witkacy, artistic works served as autonomous units rather than reflective enterprises, prompting free association among viewers, untrammelled by logic or consistency.14 In a 1923 lecture, he explained:
On the stage, a man or some other creature could commit suicide as a result of a glass of water spilling, the same creature that danced for joy over the death of his beloved mother five minutes ago . . . . Art with a tendency towards Pure Form is something absolute . . . occupying a given period of time.15
Despite his aesthetic innovations, Witkacy’s works weren’t selling as much as he hoped. In 1925, he decided instead to establish a portrait firm and — under the motto “the customer must be satisfied” — proposed seventeen increasingly sardonic rules, including the classification of portraits into a number of separate styles:
— Type A: “‘Slick’ execution, with a certain loss of character in the interests of beautification, or accentuation of ‘prettiness.’”
— Type B: “More emphasis on character but without any trace of caricature”
— Type B + d: “Intensification of character, bordering on the caricatural.”
— Type C: “executed with the aid of C2H5OH [ethanol] and narcotics of a superior grade . . . . Approaches abstract composition, otherwise known as ‘Pure Form.’”
— Type D: “The same results without recourse to any artificial means.”
— Type E: “Spontaneous psychological interpretation at the discretion of the Firm.”16
Later in the rule-book, Witkacy added: “any sort of criticism on the part of the customer is absolutely ruled out . . . if the firm had allowed itself the luxury of listening to customers’ opinions, it would have long ago gone crazy.” Anticipating his writing in Narkotyki, Witkacy’s portrait painting company was less a serious enterprise than an experiment in boundary-breaking, mischief, and devilish contradiction. Thousands of images were subsequently produced, signed under various pseudonyms: Witkac, Witkatze, Vitecasse (French for “breaks quickly”).17 Many of the Type C, mid-inebriation portraits were made at so-called “orgies” in which Witkacy experimented with drug combinations, overseen by a friend in the medical profession, Dr Białynicki-Birula.18 Rumours about these parties — and Witkacy’s habitual drug-taking — abounded among the general public; even a decade later, in the late 1940s, Białynicki-Birula issued a letter to the press confirming their serious nature, and refuting the suggestion that Witkacy was ever addicted to drugs.
Throughout the interwar period, Witkacy garnered a reputation among artistic circles as Poland’s resident eccentric. For writer and playwright Witold Gombrowicz, he was: “never at rest, always highly strung, tormenting himself and others with his perpetual playacting, his craving to shock . . . forever cruelly and painfully playing with people”.19 Photographs of Witkacy are peak interwar slapstick: in one, he is irascible and grimacing; another shows him looking pensive in ski goggles; in a third, he has an arm around the usually shy Polish-Jewish short story writer Bruno Schulz, who has his fingers over his eyes. Witkacy also took to novel writing, composing several bizarre and impressionistic works. His debut, Farewell to Autumn (1927), was to a degree inspired by his travels with Malinowski, and features a cocaine party. The next, Insatiability (1930), is a narcotics-fuelled and eerily prescient dystopia, narrated around the year 2000, in which Europe is overrun by war, facilitated by the hallucinogenic “Murti Bing” pills.
There’s a psychoactive bite to much of Witkacy’s work — which makes his preface to Narkotyki all the more farcical. If Witkacy was Poland’s answer to De Quincey, then his was a more confounding approach to substance intake: one part didactic, one part satirical. “I will write the chapter on nicotine in a sorry state of withdrawal”, he claims, then adds: “of course, I might very well begin smoking again in the middle of writing . . . so many times this has happened!”20 Just as his innovations in the visual and literary arts embraced the eccentric and contradictory, Witkacy’s nonfiction was also charged with paradox, reflecting his ambivalent relationship with indulgence and withdrawal.
Though written with all the fastidious composition of a lab report, Narkotyki blends objective documentary with more personal, somatic, and often hilarious explanations of Witkacy’s experience on drugs, and the complexities of addiction. Drugs are a gateway “to see the world from ‘the other side’” (similar language also appears in Farewell to Autumn, but here they do not offer an escape from reality, instead revealing its contradictory and fickle undercurrents). Narkotyki slips from desire, greed, and vanity to disappointment and blame; from chronicles of social mores to sharpened invective; intimate reminiscences to artistic theorising.21 At one point, Witkacy breaks away from drug-talk to dedicate several pages to refuting supposedly serious allegations against him:
I deny having had sexual relations with my Siamese cat, Schyzia (a.k.a. Schizophrenia, Isotta, Sabina, of whom I am so fond, but nothing more), and that the mongrel kittens she bore in any way take after me. . . . I deny being a braggart and a womanizer always on the make, or having seduced the wives of other men. I deny having hiked up to the summit of Giewont in a tuxedo (I have never even owned a tuxedo), written plays as a lark, swindled and mocked, and not knowing how to draw.22
While one of Witkacy’s central ideas about art was a belief in the growing mechanisation of the world, and the separation between artist and society, Narkotyki combines culture, life, and psychology, exposing both individual effects and general attitudes towards drug taking.23
The first chapter, on nicotine, begins with Leo Tolstoy and ends with existentialism — “what are a few meager puffs when nothing has any meaning” — via segues from moralistic suggestions for its “absolute prohibition”, to the acknowledgement of the “unadulterated bovine pleasure” of cigarettes, and of differing global smoking techniques: “we Poles, Russians and Balkaners of all stripes, to say nothing of the real East, suck the foul smoke right down to our navels, poisoning ourselves some 80% more than those in the West”.24 There are diatribes on how smoking cheapens art — Witkacy suggests smokers see value in the most “hideous literature for cretins . . . those ghastly detective novels”; how it “saps your courage”, causing all manner of ghastly mental and physical symptoms.25 But cigarettes are also near-impossible to jettison. Witkacy frequently mentions the regret of the smoker, who has “squandered all his life’s bright opportunities for the dreary inhalation of an inadequately toasted demon weed substance from hell”. It is not difficult to trace this description, and the careful commentary on stages of withdrawal, back to Witkacy’s own perception of himself.
Following his fiancée’s suicide, Witkacy spent much of his life treading the edge of a breakdown: some of his more private writings express fears for the demise of individuality, or describe impending catastrophe, even suicidal ideation. But Narkotyki never reaches complete apocalyptic gloom. Witkacy’s style shifts throughout: rambling, excruciating descriptions of the after-effects of abstinence are defused with impeccable comic timing:
First thing in the morning your toxin-paralyzed cells seem to revive, and not just in the brain and the nervous system, but throughout your body. You feel as though they were balls in their sockets, freshly oiled and cleaned. Of course, the first thought, or scraps of thought, you have are: “What a load of crap.”
Reality opens its gelatinous and reeking maw, its derisive eyes goggling with wild abandon . . . by increasing the dosage of the intoxicant you can always occasionally return to the old ecstasy and gain at least a wan simulation of life.26
The fourth chapter, on peyote — a small cactus containing mescaline and other psychoactive alkaloids — is Witkacy at his most breathless. Of all the drugs listed in Narkotyki, peyote takes on a particularly mythical status: noting the difficulties in acquiring the substance in Europe, Witkacy explains he will be “grateful until [his] dying days” for the seven pea-sized pills he received from Prosper Szmurło — an “authentic Mexican peyote, from the modest stocks of Dr. Osta, President of the International Society for Metapsychic Research”.27 Witkacy even notes he abstained from drinking and other intoxicants after using peyote; an astonishingly foresighted understanding of the impact of different substances on the human body, which prefigures present-day research into the effectiveness of hallucinogens to treat alcoholism.28
The subsequent thirty pages offer an eleven-hour account of Witkacy’s emotional and physical state while under the influence of peyote: the rate of his pulse; the raging appetites; the drawings he attempts to create; his inability to sleep; and the ceaseless hallucinations (of green embryos as big as a St Bernard, of anteaters spinning backwards, of piscine cross-sections — or, as Witkacy puts it, “giant shark cold cuts”; of imaginary and fantastic meetings with Polish politicians; of rotting body parts; of erotica; of skiing).29 “Peyote reality”, he summarises, “is like our own seen through a microscope . . . the longer the eyes are shut, the more the field broadens and sometimes even ‘envelops’ the peyote user like everyday reality, creeping up on both sides and even producing the strange sensation of having eyes at the back of your head”.30
Drug reality, though, comes in many forms; sometimes physical, sometimes cultural. A compulsive code-switcher, Witkacy’s understanding of experimentation (with art or drugs) as a technique to create formal and social distance also includes a sensitivity to the failings of ordinary language to capture experience. In the preface, he notes:
I hope to show you the small mental shifts that ultimately lead to a personality becoming entirely altered, spiritually disfigured, devoid of Geist (the Polish word for “spirit,” duch, does not convey the range of the German Geist and the French esprit – knack, spark, glimmer, drive, etc.), creative power, and a striving toward the Unknown, which requires courage and a carefree attitude that are systematically pulverized by an odious addiction.31
Visual artworks, Witkacy’s or otherwise, and language — of dance, song, incantational poetry, and prose — can cause the beholder and reader to feel spiritually altered; a transposed trip, a kind of second-order intoxication, or a contact high from the artist’s own altered state. I think here of the whirligig beat of a waltz, and of a velvety voice crooning among lamenting violins:
This is not Witkacy speaking. These are the lyrics of a mesmeric Polish song written in 1933, “Opium”, which was performed in the leading cabarets of interwar Warsaw. But in many ways, the song proves Witkacy’s point: despite official condemnation, drugs — soft and hard — were substantially intertwined with everyday culture in the early twentieth century, both in Poland and on a wider scale across Europe. Another case study might be found in the 1936 Polish tango “Morfina” (or Morphine), with similar lyrics, about a beguiling drug-turned-lover; or in the plethora of advertising songs for cigarette companies produced in the period — like the 1937 tango “Nikotyna”, the tale of a femme fatale called Nicotine, who turns blood to wine and drives men to despair. Additional examples would include the musical first-aid-kit of interwar Polish advertising songs for painkillers and medications; or the high-quality pictorial advertisements for pharmaceutical firms of the era, including by illustrator duo Jan LeWitt and George Him (who later designed wartime propaganda posters for the British war effort).
Narkotyki became an immediate hit, acquiring almost modernist cult status: Gauger notes that one contemporary critic suggested the book “needed no introduction because half of Poland could be seen carrying it around”.32 Was this because Witkacy’s public could relate to the content? Because he dared to toy with societal rules and authority? Or because he left it ambiguous as to whether the book was a serious project at all? Witkacy’s oft-overlooked appendices to Narkotyki have a commonplace focus, emphasising prosaic habits — washing, shaving, and haemorrhoid care — sometimes with recommendations for treatment, and sometimes appealing to readers directly. Perhaps this was why his works gripped audiences. Witkacy always skated the thin line between relatability and absurdity; between the educational and the visceral; between life and art.
Witkacy’s fate, though, was decidedly more grim. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he fled east to Jeziory with his lover, Czesława Oknińska. Seventeen days later, Soviet forces also invaded the country — and Witkacy took his own life. After the war, his sealed coffin was moved and reburied in Zakopane; several years later, Polish authorities re-exhumed his remains, and opened the coffin.
Juliette Bretan is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, researching Anglophone and Polish literature of the early 20th century. She has previously featured on the BBC World Service, and written for the Sunday Times, The Independent, Euronews, and CultureTrip about Polish culture (especially of the interwar period) and current affairs.