Witkacy (Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz) was an outsider to the Polish artistic avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century; philosopher, playwright and painter, he is a mysterious figure often forgotten by cultural history. Contemporary to major European avant-garde movements such as Formism, Dadaism and Constructivism, Witkacy is most known for his work as a painter and playwright. His theory of pure form stressed the importance of art as a mode of ‘exciting the deadened nerves’ of desensitised society. Art must bare no resemblance to reality; it must move beyond representation into the realm of transgression.
This theory of pure form very much informed Witkacy’s dramaturgical practice, focused on exploring the metaphysical, transgressive and shocking (aspects of his work very much shaped the surrealist movement in theatre, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, and artists like Tadeusz Kantor took a particular interest in staging Witkacy’s work). Explicitly denouncing the well-made plays of 19th century, and the representational, didactic or critical concerns of naturalism and realism, Witkacy advocated for a theatre of the senses based on distortion. Surreal and dream-like, his plays appropriate as much as they distort.
So it’s a bold choice for artist Paulina Olowska to appropriate and stage one of Witkacy’s most surreal works, The Mother: An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue in the ‘Realisms’ display at Tate Modern. The play follows the relationship between matron Janina Eely and her son; the matron, now an old woman, knits in order to keep up with her son’s frivolous passions, multiple mistresses and eccentric lifestyle. Yet this is a world of dusty bourgeois eccentrics, hallucinations, madness and drug addiction; of death and decay, of welcomed excesses and incomplete characters. The play speaks with an overtly stern theatricality that somehow neither critiques nor represents, but simply plays with the illusion of the real, concerned with constantly shifting morals and dusty corners of cultural history (Witkacy explicitly alludes to Richard III throughout the play, whilst the son reminds us that art, after all, is dying).
If Witkacy’s The Mother were not surreal enough, Olowska introduces other dimensions to the work: materiality, through the presence of huge piles of wool that fall out of dressers and spread throughout the room, as well as cross-dressing, working both with professional performers (Valerie Cutko as the son and David Gant as the matron) as well as artist friends who take on a parade of characters, from prostitutes and dilettantes to members of the aristocracy. Her take on Witkacy places equal importance on atmosphere and theatricality, but is underpinned by an explicitly feminist discourse (a challenging task with Witkacy) in direct conversation with the vaudevillian world of the play. There’s a constant battle for power in this microcosm that Witkacy has created, and the cross-dressing only adds to this representational fight- Olowska herself stands stage left, dressed as a violinist, providing an appropriately disjointed soundscape between acts.
There’s the explicit antagonism between the unfolding play and the works displayed in the gallery, but Olowska’s intervention places as much emphasis on scenography as it does on dramaturgy. Enter the ‘Realisms’ room at Tate Modern and you’ll be confronted with a curious blend of scenography and fine art: a mural from the 1930s suggesting a wooden house; an old a dresser, an oak table, all reminiscent of an era gone by; and the paintings in the space, (Matisse, Picasso, Derain) in situ, recontextualised by this scenographic intervention. This setting blurs the boundaries between the representational spaces of the paintings and the identity of the scenographic intervention; these are only further activated by the surreal theatricality of The Mother and its staging in this space, activating a complex, fascinating and bold set of questions surrounding art, representation, critique and the everyday.
Olowska’s work draws heavily on Eastern European imagery, and as a painter, the space she constructs in the Tate gallery comes with a sophisticated understanding of the ways in which the pictorial creates multiple spaces. This is how she renders Witkacy’s work with such a strong sense of atmosphere, and navigates between the fictional and the representational with ease. Given the setting, we encounter this as both cultural re-enactment and theatrical intervention; we lose ourselves into the world of the play, led by the excellent Cutko and Gant, with their dusty theatricality and penchant for the grotesque, whilst reminding ourselves occasionally of this fictional home we’ve so easily inhabited: a dream and a cabinet of curiosities at the same time.
What Olowska gains in bringing visibility to a forgotten cultural figure in such a fascinating manner, she also loses in sharpness when it comes to the performance itself. At times, the dramaturgy doesn’t move past this explicit antagonism between the theatrical and pictorial forms representation brought in conflict, and the danger is to reduce the characters to archetypes of a lost era. At the same time, this uncertainty is very much part of the fabric of Witkacy’s work, and if Olowska’s rendition focuses more on the dreamlike than the formal or abstract, it’s to bring to life this curious and critical scenography.
It’s a rare occasion to encounter so many histories of art, so clearly demarcated and placed in conversation with each other – this is a productive meeting point between museology and theatre, art history and performance. In the past, Tate’s programming has simply sought to foreground the formal whilst discounting the institutional, but this strikes me as a valuable and intriguing approach to bringing alternative theatre histories and art practice in conversation.