Thirty years have gone from the death of a critic and painter, Ignacy Witz (1919-1971), Dorota Jarecka recollects.


The last Ignacy Witz’s gouaches of 1974 have bright, even garish colours. Shown on his last exhibition arouse amazement, “he started to talk with the full voice”, they wrote. In the drawings of the mid-sixties, repeatedly appears a scene reminding pietà: a lying man, a woman sitting by his side, bending over him. Elsewhere there is a huge figure with a wing, nearby a smaller one kneeling. Delacroix introduced the subject of the “Jacob’s Fight with the Angel” with a fresco in the Paris church of Saint-Sulpice, later painted by Paul Gauguin and our Jan Spychalski. In 1965 Ignacy Witz was after an extensive heart attack, he could barely walk. Perhaps he felt like a biblical Jacob after the won fight for his life, though paid with his disability. In his lithographs of 1968 the Witz’s line became dramatic. There is in it something of a panicky Witkacy’s drawing from the times when he gave up painting and busied himself with his Portrait Firm.

To Witkacy Witz devoted the first chapter of his book of essays “The Areas of Painterly Imagination” (1967). “A personal tragedy” he called Witkacy’s resignation from painting for a portrait made for money. An artist, writing about the art, like no one else was able to feel the tone of a drama of another artist.

Before the war Witz studied painting and graphic arts in Lvov; he had just enough time to make his debut as a painter and a critic, and to publish a few drawings in the press. When after the war wandering, first in the Red Army, and then in the 1-st Polish People’s Army, he landed up in Lublin and Łódź, and finally in Warsaw, he took up writing. Along the way there was also a co-operation with “Stańczyk” and “Szpilki” (The Pins), where he was making artistic drawings and book illustrations including Julian Tuwim’s "Słoń Trąbalski" (Trunky Elephant, 1-st edition in 1948). But this wasn’t what he wanted to live for. “It’s painting and drawing, where I’m trying to put everything, and people either don’t want to understand anything, or they don’t like it, or it isn’t worth a while. I do it ‘cause I like it” — he wrote to his friend, Józef Gielniak in 1961.

Gielniak suggested (a letter of 1964) that “painting is so damned exhaustive, and you express so beautifully, so wonderfully your world with your drawings, with the line. You are an Absolute there, the Lord and the Creator! Just think, dear friend, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to focus just on this, to seat yourself in this estate of yours? Just like I have done”. Indeed, what fulfilled best in the Witz’s works, was the drawing titled “My Dear Paganini of the Pen”, would write Gielniak to Witz, while Witz after an exhibition of Gielniak’s and Jerzy Panek’s works wrote: “I feel envy”.


In the Schultz’s circle

With was brought up in Lvov. The only in Poland artistic milieu, which adopted the path of the French surrealism, arouse there in the late twenties: a group of artists Artes.

The Artes members painted scenes from imagination and dreams. They sought inspiration in the poetry of an urban shop sign, a lane wandering away into the unknown, a train on a provincial station, a dummy in a shop window. Lvov of the thirties is also the Lvov of Bruno Schulz. “I had my Schulz’s period, was ill with the Schulz’s style and Schulz’s technique. “I was eighteen then,” wrote Witz in “The Areas of Painterly Imagination”. He could meet Schulz at Wanda Diamand, a photographer, and artists’ minder. Lew Kaltenbergh, a writer, remembered Witz from meetings at her salon: “Among many others Witz painted a figurative composition titled >The Plot<. Although the painter, due to being in fact a greenhorn, was not able to express himself fully, he none the less could manifest the grotesque quite accurately”. The painting title was quite Schulz-like, but it could also be a caption under a political caricature. Also in this field Witz took his first steps in Lvov. We can find him among the graphic artists of issued in 1938 magazine of the left-wing youth edited by Simon Wiesenthal.

In the post-war Witz’s works for a long time any relations to Schulz were hardly findable. Only in his drawings of the sixties an erotic, perverse note appeared. Not only Schulz reminds, but also Witkacy from the times when he had painted orgiastic scenes depicting the oddness of human interrelations.


The year 1941

The significance of the Russian episode in Witkacy’s life, which took place at the times of the World War I, was many times pointed out. The Witz’s biography can be looked at as a repeat of this experience. The 20-th century a few times showed him its cruel face. Each time it was a spectacular scene.

Ignacy Witz was born in 1919 in a poor Jewish family. His father, Alfred, was a tailor. “The father used to call him >a waistcoater<”’, recalls Ignacy’s daughter, Anna. Ignacy’s mother died when he was 15. The name of the grandparents of the mother’s side is mentioned in “The Tautologies”, a Witz’s book devoted to the European painting. “The Final Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel brings back violent memories: “ In the crowd of naked figures marching upward on the Michelangelo’s fresco — what a game of associations — I saw the Sixtus Street in Lvov, where I used to walk so frequently, since on the corner, almost at the top, in a tenement, which in >The Sky in Flames< was described by Jan Parandowski, lived my great uncle bearing a resounding name of Chamaides. Next the Sixtus Street turned left and there started a small Łąckiego Street. Just here, right after the beginning of the German-Soviet war in 1941, >a display of corpses< was organized by Gestapo. From there people went naked to heaven, from there they were sent to Piaski, to ditches, to furnaces, to chambers”.

The Łąckego Street prison of 1941 was remembered by Tadeusz Łodziana: “It was silence in Lvov, since Germans had already come close and the Russians had by then been gone. Plain-clothes men with rifles were walking down the streets. Such one fired first, so as not to be shot. In the Łąckiego Street prison backyard corps were lying. Till today I have it before my eyes.

Witz could not have written that these were the corps of prisoners murdered by NKVD just before the Germans entered, and that the Germans purposely publicized those crimes. Anti-Jewish repressions in Lvov started with making Jews work with decomposing corps. The Russians were gone, pogroms started. Witz did not see those scenes. A year earlier he had found himself conscripted into the Red Army. 

In 1939 he already was a graduate of the Institute and belonged to the Artists’ Union renamed into the Union of Soviet Artists of Ukraine. Łodziana remembers the Russian times as the times of certain intellectual revival. To Lvov after September 1939 from the parts of Poland occupied by the Germans refugees were coming. From known artists there were Artur Nacht (later Samborski), Jonasz Stern, Aleksander Rafałowski, Henryk Wiciński. The younger ones studied in the Institute. They made quite a ferment at school. Only about the western arts it was talked about in conspiracy, since socialist realism reigned.

In the summer of 1940 to the Artists’ Union a call-up to the army for Ignacy Witz came. Unwillingly he was telling what he went through. It is known that in the Stalingrad battle a shrapnel ploughed through his face (the moustache covered the scar). For a long time he was in hospital, then for a few months he worked in a library in Kuibyshev. At the end of 1943 he already was in the 1-st Polish Army as an officer, but not a frontline one. He was found to have a severe heart defect, which should have prevented him from serving in the army. Would it protect him from death?

In Lvov his father and sister left. “When the father and Wisia were closed in the ghetto” said his widow, Leokadia Witz, “friends got the papers. They had a bribed Gestapo man, everything was set up. Wisia broke down. She said she would not leave her friends and neighbours. They gave up. Much later, when Witsush was already my fiancée, during a Christmas Eve supper at my sister’s he drank a little and went to bed in another room. I had to hold him, he was shouting and calling Wisia and his father. It faded out in time, but the result was that he used to drink too much. When we met, I was not persuading him to quit, I realised he suffered very much. And later he simply quit”.

Leokadia Witz met her husband, whom she and their friends called “Witsush”, in 1945 in the CZYTELNIK (The Reader) Publishing House at Wiejska Street in Warsaw. He was still wearing a uniform, he was visiting the editorial office of “Rzeczpospolita” (The Republic) edited then by Borejsza. They got married in 1946.

“Just a regulation appeared that everyone must give up arms. At the day of our marriage, when we came back home Witsush, who of course had forgotten that, said he did not know what to do with this. So I tore this gun out of him, filled the tub with water, it became black in this water, and then I dismantled it, and piece by piece we were getting rid of it”.

So ended the Witz’s adventures with the army, but not the obligations. After the unification congress he joined the party.


The year 1950

It has been noticed once that visual arts did not have its “home dishonour”. Nobody has taken seriously into settling accounts in this field. However even a cursory review of the documents must stop condemning assessments. A mass registration of artists for the 1-st all-Poland Art Exhibition in 1950 cannot be explained with a treason or dishonour. The qualifying committee included representatives of all circles: Left-wing Marek Włodarski and conservative Juliusz Starzyński, young Mieczysław Porębski and older Alfred Lenica. Also Ignacy Witz was there. The exhibition took place at the first stage of freeze. Mieczysław Porębski sets the end of this phase of socialist realism in October 1951, when in the Council of State a meeting took place devoted to visual arts, where the voices of criticism of schematism were raised.

“The matters of the Polish poster are not well at the moment, our poster is not able to be a topical work, combative, full of ideological tension” said Witz at the meeting.

“I was writing so boringly because, unfortunately, this was the way I thought” wrote he after years about his social realism episode. His articles in “Przegląd Artystyczy” (The Artistic Review), “Kuźnica” (The Forge), “Nowa Kultura” (The New Culture) and “Przegląd Kulturalny” (The Cultural Review) indeed were not a show of verbal abilities. As long as the writing was limited to general appeals, it was probably quite painless. It became worse when he had to settle accounts with his own past, to condemn what he had been most vitally attached to, while severity was required in the assessment of the art of the interwar period. “Many members of those groups” wrote Witz in 1953 about the interwar avant-garde, so also, among others, about Lvov Artes group “were progressive in political terms, having at the same time, as we can determine it now, obviously reactionary artistic views”. It is hard to believe, but this was the defence of avant-garde against even harsher assessments.

“He never had any aggression in himself” said Aleksander Jackowski about Witz, “he knew more, perhaps this resulted from the distance of a man, who draws the world. He kept detached from matters”.

“All those people, who came back from Russia, were somehow conditioned” said Ryszard Matuszewski, “but Witz never was a political indoctrinator. He was thinking in an independent way, he was characterised by decency”.

In 1954 boring speech lost its raison d’être. A new tone was heard also in Witz’s texts written for „Życie Warszawy” (The Life of Warsaw). In time he was becoming more himself: ironic, witty. He teased fashionable artists, pointed out taking easy ways. He would never be a fan of trends, he would become the fan of persons.


The year 1968

Quickly he lost the illusions brought by Polish thaw in its first breeze of fresh air.

“In 1956, when the Soviets entered Hungary, my husband broke down” reminds Leokadia Witz, “he got a so called mini heart attack, landed in hospital. It was already known then that his heart was weak. He did not return his party card, he simply stopped paying membership fees. I returned his card when he died”.

In 1964, a day before the planned trip to Israel to the invitation of just found relations, he got another heart attack, this time an extensive one. Afterwards his health was getting worse and worse. The crisis came in 1968. “I am wholly covered with mud” he wrote to Gielniak in August.

Anti-Jewish repressions did not touch him personally. He was not fired from work. But what happened, he felt like personal defeat. After a serious disease he passed in Kazimierz in July 1971.

His last years were the years of solitude. He devoted himself to painting and drawing. He was finishing editing his books. Are they worth to reach ones hand for? Sometimes they strike a tone not used today, naive and wise at the same time. “Beauty — what is it?” asks Witz in a book for young people. “We recognize it by the emotions it brings” he replies, “and they are admiration and anxiety, an internal anxiety. Don’t you understand what it means? I am very sorry, I’m not able do describe it another way.



Nasi Przodkowie