The Polish Artist Stanisław Witkiewicz Made Portraits While On Different Psychoactive Drugs, and Noted the Drugs on Each Painting

Much of the infor­ma­tion in this post comes from Juli­ette Bre­ton at the Pub­lic Domain Review. See her post for more.

At least once a day, staff at art muse­ums and gal­leries world­wide must hear some­one say, “the artist must have been on drugs.” It’s the eas­i­est expla­na­tion for art that dis­turbs, unset­tles, con­founds our expec­ta­tions of what art should be. Maybe some­times artists are on drugs. (R. Crumb tells the sto­ry of dis­cov­er­ing his inim­itable style while on acid.) But maybe it’s not the drugs that make their art seem oth­er­world­ly. Maybe mind-alter­ing sub­stances make them more recep­tive to the source of cre­ativ­i­ty.…

In any case, artists have long used psy­choac­tive sub­stances to reach high­er states of con­scious­ness and cope with a world that does­n’t get their vision. In the ear­ly days of LSD exper­i­men­ta­tion, one psy­chi­a­trist even test­ed the phe­nom­e­non. UC Irvine’s Oscar Janiger dosed vol­un­teer sub­jects at a rent­ed L.A. house, then had them draw or oth­er­wise record their expe­ri­ences. He ulti­mate­ly aimed to make a “cre­ativ­i­ty pill,” test­ing hun­dreds of will­ing sub­jects between 1954 and 1962.

Had Pol­ish artist Stanisław Igna­cy Witkiewicz (1885–1939) — who went by “Witka­cy” — lived to see the spread of LSD, he would have signed up for every tri­al. More like­ly, he would have con­duct­ed his own exper­i­ments, with him­self as the sole test sub­ject. The War­saw-born artist, writer, philoso­pher, nov­el­ist, and pho­tog­ra­ph­er died in 1939, the year after Swiss chemist Albert Hoff­man acci­den­tal­ly syn­the­sized acid. Through­out his career, how­ev­er, Witka­cy exper­i­ment­ed with just about every oth­er psy­choac­tive sub­stance, antic­i­pat­ing Janiger by decades with his por­traits — paint­ed while… yes… he was on lots of drugs.

Unlike his con­tem­po­rary Dalí, Witka­cy did not claim to be drugs. But he was hard­ly coy about their use. He made notes on each paint­ing to indi­cate his state of intox­i­ca­tion. “Under the influ­ence of cocaine, mesca­line, alco­hol, and oth­er nar­cot­ic cock­tails,” Juli­ette Bre­tan writes at the Pub­lic Domain Review, “Witka­cy pre­pared numer­ous stud­ies of clients and friends for his por­trait paint­ing com­pa­ny, found­ed in the mid-1920s.” The drugs induced “dif­fer­ent approach­es to colour, tech­nique, and com­po­si­tion. The result­ing images are sur­re­al — and occa­sion­al­ly hor­rif­ic.” Some­times the drugs in ques­tion were lim­it­ed to caf­feine, a dai­ly sta­ple of artists every­where. He also made por­traits while abstain­ing from oth­er addic­tive sub­stances like nico­tine and alco­hol.

At oth­er times, Witka­cy’s notes — writ­ten in a kind of code — spec­i­fied more pro­nounced usage. He made the por­trait above, of Nina Starchurs­ka, in 1929 while on “nar­cotics of a supe­ri­or grade,” includ­ing mesca­line syn­the­sized by Mer­ck and “cocaine + caf­feine + cocaine + caf­feine + cocaine.” Anoth­er por­trait of Starchurs­ka (below) made in that same year involved some heavy dos­es of pey­ote, among oth­er things.

Witka­cy’s inves­ti­ga­tions were lit­er­ary as well, cul­mi­nat­ing in a 1932 book of essays called Nar­cotics: Nico­tine, Alco­hol, Cocaine, Pey­ote, Mor­phone, Ether + Appen­dicesThe book “owes much to the exper­i­men­tal works of oth­er Euro­pean psy­cho­nauts through­out the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies.” Invok­ing the deca­dent moral­ism of Thomas De Quincey and Baude­laire, and it antic­i­pates the utopi­an, psy­che­del­ic prose of Aldous Hux­ley and Car­los Cas­tane­da.

Where he might ful­mi­nate, with satir­i­cal edge, against the use of drugs, Witka­cy also joy­ous­ly records their lib­er­at­ing effects on his cre­ative con­scious­ness. His chap­ter on pey­ote “most close­ly approx­i­mates the spir­it” of his paint­ings, notes Bibil­iokept in a review of the recent­ly repub­lished vol­ume:

“Pey­ote” begins with Witkiewicz tak­ing his first of sev­en (!) pey­ote dos­es at six in the evening and cul­mi­nat­ing around eight the fol­low­ing morn­ing with “Strag­gling visions of iri­des­cent wires.” In incre­ments of about 15 min­utes, Witkiewicz notes each of his sur­re­al visions. The wild hal­lu­ci­na­tions are ren­dered in equal­ly sur­re­al lan­guage: “Mun­dane dis­um­bil­i­cal­ment on a cone to the bark­ing of fly­ing canine drag­ons” here, “The birth of a dia­mond goldfinch” there. 

Else­where he writes of “elves on a see­saw (Comedic num­ber)” and “a bat­tle of cen­taurs turned into a bat­tle between fan­tas­ti­cal gen­i­talia,” all of which lead him to con­clude, “Goya must have known about pey­ote.”

Nar­cotics func­tions as a kind of key to Witka­cy’s think­ing as he made the por­traits; part drug diary, part artis­tic state­ment of pur­pose, it includes a “List of Sym­bols” to help decode his short­hand. The artist com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1939 when the Red Army invad­ed Poland. Had he lived to con­nect with the psy­che­del­ic rev­o­lu­tion to come, per­haps he would have been the artist to make psy­chotrop­ic drug use a respectable form of fine art. Then we might imag­ine con­ver­sa­tions in gal­leries going some­thing like this: “Excuse me, was this artist on drugs?” “Why yes, in fact. She took large dos­es of psy­lo­cy­bin when she made this. It’s right here in her man­i­festo.….”

See many more Witka­cy por­traits by vis­it­ing Juli­ette Bre­tan’s post at the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Aldous Hux­ley, Dying of Can­cer, Left This World Trip­ping on LSD, Expe­ri­enc­ing “the Most Serene, the Most Beau­ti­ful Death” (1963)

Artist Draws 9 Por­traits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Exper­i­ments to Turn LSD into a “Cre­ativ­i­ty Pill”

R. Crumb Describes How He Dropped LSD in the 60s & Instant­ly Dis­cov­ered His Artis­tic Style

Take a Trip to the LSD Muse­um, the Largest Col­lec­tion of “Blot­ter Art” in the World

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • Danelle says:

    Well I cer­tain­ly can relate. I had a niece who lived with me. How I for­got I had a meet­ing with her teacher? By the time I remem­bered I had tak­en a 2 way hit of pur­ple bar­rel acid. The meet­ing seemed to go well. Lat­er the teacher told my niece I was one of the nicest most enlight­ened par­ents she had met. I have sev­er­al sto­ries I could relate.
    Butt laws got stricter I gave up all drugs to raise my chil­dren.

  • Joseph looper says:

    Amaz­ing cre­ative also very inspir­ing thank you for this arti­cle it real­ly cheered me up LSD unlight­ed my youth l would love to expe­ri­ence pey­ote but­tons I heard it’s an amaz­ing in body expe­ri­ence always want­ed to try it

  • Joseph looper says:

    Amaz­ing cre­ative also very inspir­ing thank you for this arti­cle it real­ly cheered me up LSD unlight­ed my youth l would love to expe­ri­ence pey­ote but­tons I heard it’s an amaz­ing in body expe­ri­ence always want­ed to try it

  • Travis says:

    Pret­ty cool arti­cle. Im a lit­tle sur­prised with how loaded this artist could get that there isn’t more expres­sion. And it must have real­ly been a dif­fer­ent time to share this kind of thing more open­ly.

  • Pamela Beavens says:

    Inter­est­ing– I con­sid­ered paint­ing on LSD in the late 60’s, but decid­ed against it by decid­ing to reach the state of un/consciousness by nat­ur­al means. I knew it was some­where deep inside me or ” far out” and I could find it with med­i­ta­tion, prayer or oth­er ways. Til this day I have not tried Mar­i­jua­na (did­n’t inhale– yes, Bill Clinton,I believed you), LSD, or coke.) And like Jonathan Win­ters, I some­times had a dif­fi­cult time get­ting back… Maybe its just that I was just plain chick­en to try the stuff after read­ing about the pros and cons… (judge­ment call). How­ev­er, my curios­i­ty did­n’t pre­vent me from try­ing to make acid for a sci­ence project (fun­ny sto­ry).

  • Hanna Wielgusz says:

    Wow I love Witka­cy! His paint­ings the most, I guess, but the books are also fas­ci­nat­ing. I’ve read a lot of his works, also the one about drugs. I love his describ­tions of those crazy visions he had had after pey­otl. He was a great artist, one of the best pol­ish ones, but I have a feel­ing that here, in Poland, he’s under­es­ti­mat­ed :(

  • Daniel Nichols says:

    I don’t rec­om­mend tak­ing drugs to be “more cre­ative’
    You’re either cre­ative or not, hav­ing said that I have done in the past but found the work to be unfo­cused and a bit all over the place. But I guess that’s the idea!

  • Victoria says:

    I love vit­ca­cy

  • Zachary Carr says:

    Try paint­ing on Salvia Divi­no­rum lol that would be inter­est­ing

  • Zachary Carr says:

    Have nev­er tried pey­ote but have used torch cac­tus which was pret­ty fun. Any­how been com­plete­ly sober for years now which is quite bor­ing. Also if you are look­ing for a good legal high try Amani­ta Mus­caria those red mush­rooms with white dots on the caps they get you absolute­ly wast­ed.

  • Zachary Carr says:

    Acci­den­tal­ly did x once thought it was a skit­tle as I was already super drunk and high. Any­how that is a few days I have very lit­tle rec­ol­lec­tion of. So not know if I have ever tried LSD though would love to do stud­ies with it about altered states of con­scious­ness.

  • Zachary Carr says:

    Any­one else done mesca­line then thought dark brown looked like red? Just inter­est­ed.

  • Zachary Carr says:

    Do not know not so not know. Eh spell check­er mess­ing up my oth­er­wise cor­rect lin­go.

  • Anthony says:

    Per­haps eas­i­ly let peo­ple know what drugs he was on in what paint­ings instead of forc­ing us to be sub­ject­ed to this unread­able click bait arti­cle. Ads con­sumed, cook­ies accept­ed. good work!

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