Sex, Drugs and the Grotesque in Interwar Poland
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog staffer Julia Butareva reviews Ignacy Witkiewicz’s show of contemporary drawings at the Ubu gallery.
In the corner of drawings by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, you find letters and numbers assembled in what looks like an obscure mathematical formula: NP, NTT 7 m. What do they mean? Apparently, they’re abbreviations that indicate the drugs that the artist was taking or abstaining from while at work on the drawing. “C” indicates alcohol, “Mesk. Merck” is mescaline, “Co” means cocaine, “NTT” signifies abstention from alcohol, and “NP” is abstention from cigarettes. After one look at these at once arresting and repellent drawings, you won’t be surprised.
Witkiewicz was a Polish artist and intellectual whose career started in 1913, when, at age 28, he had his first solo exhibition and published his first novel. It ended in1939, when, cornered by the Nazis, he slit his wrists. After his introduction to narcotics when he was wounded in World War I, he came to believe that the controlled use of drugs could allow him to access the psychology of his subject matter.
Most of these drawings were completed in the 1930s, when his contemporaries, German Expressionists like Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, were producing disturbing works that expressed their horror at the Great War and disappointment with humanity in general. But while Beckman and Dix showed with sometimes-unbearable explicitness the horrors to which war subjected the human body and mind, Witkiewicz’s work turns inward. He allegorizes and literalizes what he finds animal and disgusting in people themselves.
Witkiewicz’s sexual grotesques invite a comparison with Egon Schiele, both for his electric, forceful line and for his apparent disgust not with sex itself as much as its outward denial by the prudish bourgeoisie that surrounded them both. But where Schiele relied on stylized renditions of the human body performing sexual acts, the highlighting of nipples and genitalia with bright colors, and, sometimes, in his portraits, simply a hint about the hands to remind us that man is a sexual animal, Witkiewicz anthropomorphizes the sex itself. “Cock on the Brain” (NP + pywo [beer in Polish]), for example, is a gross literalization of it in every sense. It depicts a lumpy, hairy human figure with its legs spread, a face with a mouth that is running into its female genitalia, and, instead of a human head, the head of a penis. It may be repellent, but just try to look away.
“The Delights of Father Jeroboam” (NP, NTT, + 2 pyfka [ 2 beers]) shows a man with lecherous eyes, sensual lips, and a body that is taken over by his genitalia. His giant testicles seem to be crushing a woman who is vainly attempting to stretch her tongue toward the head of his penis. The reference here is Aubrey Beardsley’s slyly humorous erotica, especially his illustrations for Lysistrata. One of them, “Lacedomonian Ambassadors,” shows pained-looking men carrying monstrous erect penises before them.
In “Delights,” as in several of the other drawings, a grinning figure hovers in the background. He seems to be a sort of wise man, and unseen voyeur or judge. In “Zoological Atlas” (NP, NTT), which shows two imaginary nightmare animals, he stands at the edge of the paper, wearing glasses, a beard, a thoroughly disgusted expression on his face, and what looks like a cross between a toga and a straightjacket, like some modern-day malcontented philosopher. A figure like him is implied or sometimes even shown in Goya’s Caprichos, which tackled a similar satirical project.
Of course, like Schiele and Goya, Witkiewicz uses these wildly sexual drawings to accuse his society of a deeper hypocrisy. But there is plenty of frank obsession with sex here, too. This series is angry, subversive, and mesmerizing. Go see this. You will not have another chance.
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz: Drawings from the 1930s
Through April 22nd
416 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022