Look into my eyes: Witkacy’s “portrait gaze” as a critique and anticipation of the cultural industry

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This article analyzes the construction of the “portrait gaze” as a visual technique that directs, manipulates and challenges the viewer’s gaze in Witkacy’s portraits. Witkacy (1885-1939), often compared to Marcel Duchamp, was one of the most controversial and complex figures in 20th-century Polish art. This article focuses on one of the least explored and confusing phases of Witkacy’s career, especially in international literature, namely portraiture, which he produced from 1925 onwards. In the same year, Witkacy created the S. portrait firm business and sold the portraits as if they were commercial products. Witkacy published a menu-like “Book of Rules” that functioned as a “contract” between Witkacy and his “client”/model, and from which models could order types of portraits. Witkacy’s “Portrait Firm” is often analyzed as “playing with art” and “playing with a model”. But how will our understanding of Witkacy’s aesthetic and commercial position change if we consider his portraits as devices of “playing with the viewer”? ? This article is an attempt to answer this question by addressing several interrelated issues related to Witkacy’s portraiture and his portrait signature. The methods applied in this dissertation will be based on the problems of gaze, vision and visual perception, means of action and audience. Looking at four portraits of Witkacy, this article argues that Witkacy introduces the ambiguous “portrait gaze” as an attempt to anticipate and critique the coming mass standardization of art and its bourgeois clientele.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939), better known by his pseudonym Witkacy, was one of the most sophisticated artists on the Polish art scene of the 20th century, often compared to Marcel Duchamp. He was an artist, photographer, playwright, writer, philosopher and art theorist. This article focuses on Witkacy’s conceptual approach to portraiture, with particular emphasis on the concept of gaze. An analysis of the “portrait gaze” in Witkacy’s portraiture must take into account the unconventional business arrangements of S. I. Witkacy’s portrait firm Witkacy, which led to social and economic tensions at Witkacy-sitter meetings, which was reflected in the “portrait gaze” used by Witkacy. In 1924, Witkacy declared that he could not achieve the goals of his theory of art, which he called the theory of pure form, and abandoned oil painting. The following year, he founded the portrait firm of S.I. Vitkevich, a one-man venture capitalist, where he worked exclusively in pastel, charcoal, and pencil, and executed only portraits.

Modern portrait practice can be seen as a product of bourgeois sentiment, where the financial position of the sitter is confirmed by the possibility of commissioning such an image (Brettell 1999, 164-165). The role of the artist is to give the bourgeois portrait a supposed uniqueness (Brettell 1999, 165). Witkacy ambiguously positioned himself within these conventions of bourgeois portraiture, since his main source of income was portrait commissions from the Polish intelligentsia and bourgeoisie, from politicians to businessmen (Krzysztofowicz-Kozakowska 1989, 45). This reinforces the view of Witkacy’s portraits as “symbolic objects of social prestige” (Piotrowski 1985, 106)1. However, Witkacy’s relationship with his clients suggests that he had a distorted view of the bourgeoisie’s pretensions to pose aristocratically. Most portrait painters of the 19th and 20th centuries played a polite role in the sophisticated relationship of patron and artist, downplaying the commercial aspect of portraiture. Witkacy, on the other hand, maintained a sharp, professional tone in these respects, treating clients as if they were clients.
Witkacy ridiculed the main function of the bourgeois portrait, questioning the commonly held expectation that the portrait conveys the uniqueness of the sitter. By writing a list of portrait types, from Type A to Type E (see Table 1), and providing his clients with image catalogs of his “exemplary” work, Witkacy placed his art in the commercial landscape. As with any “cultural industry” work, Witkacy’s portraits required a conscious and determined injection of superficial individualization in order to differentiate the product (Adorno 1975, 12–19). It has been argued that the systematization of Witkacy’s portrait types implies that Witkacy himself was a “pre-programmed artist-machine” (Piotrowski 1985, 105). However, if the portraits were indeed standardized by a pre-programmed machine, it would be possible to assemble them together into a coherent system. However, this turns out to be an impossible task. Witkacy created his system and his rules only to constantly break them, or at least remain in an ambiguous “between”.

It is important to note that Witkacy, unlike most contemporary painters, was neither a representative of the bourgeoisie nor a fan of the coming utopia. Witkacy saw in his contemporary society the last stage, preceding the total standardization of people for the sake of their seeming happiness. This standardization would lead to the collapse of culture, to the destruction of individuality, and to the end of art.” with which he is in solidarity, but cannot stop its collapse” (Piotrovsky 1985, 107-109). Thus, the portrait signature of Witkacy is a double-edged sword; Witkacy heightens the tension between rebellion and acceptance of the terms of an impending dystopia.

The methods applied in this article will be based on the problems of gaze, vision and visual perception, means of action and audience. Important literature on this topic includes the works of Hal Foster, such as Vision and Visuality, as well as the works of Rosalind Krauss, including The Optical Unconscious and Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes. In addition to analyzing the visual techniques in Witkacy’s portraits, this article will also examine the conceptual and aesthetic design of Witkacy’s portrait signature and its relation to the discussion of the “portrait gaze”.

Witkacy operated within the constraints of his commercial portrait company and its codified “Book of Rules”, social and economic relations with his models, and above all, he created works that contradicted his own theory of what constitutes art. Thus, Witkacy perceives his portraits as ambiguous products of the tension between his dual role: that of an artist and that of a factory manufacturer. This tension culminates in his portraits and is most evident in Witkacy’s handling of the gaze. Witkacy uses the “portrait gaze” to confront and confuse the viewer. He leads the viewer through a series of expressive elements, focusing on the eyes. For the viewer, however, the act of looking reveals, but does not remove, the tension present in Witkacy’s portraits. Rather, the viewer is forced to get lost in the ambiguity of the “portrait gaze” without ever reaching any meaningful climax or denouement.

Witkacy was interested in the eyes and gaze in both his literary and pictorial work. His novels and dramas contain detailed descriptions of the eyes and gazes of characters (Krzysztofowicz-Kozakowska 1989,

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