On Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’ Still Life with a Clock.
Still life constitutes one of the principal modern painting themes, often treated by the artists in a very particular way. In the 17th-century Dutch art, paintings depicting an arranged fragment of inanimate reality began to carry various symbolic meanings.
In his artistic work, Witkacy painted still lifes relatively rarely. He used it in his adolescence (approx. 1910) as an exercise in painting. Among his paintings from the Formist period, created in the early 1920s while implementing the postulate of Pure Form, still life is an exception. These paintings usually constitute complex figural scenes, which include a number of themes related to the readings and literary works of the author, as well as to religion, philosophy or mythology. Many of the hidden meanings hidden therein are still to be discovered. Above all, however, Witkacy wanted his audience to find the directional tension in his paintings, to seek the nuances of colour and to be able to compile a whole out of the individual elements of an image. There was no question of hidden meanings in the paintings, associated back then literariness, which the avant-garde fought against. It was the painting as a formal whole that was meant to affect us – regardless whether it was a still life or a scene full of creatures and people such as The Temptation of St. Anthony.
Witkacy was an extremely consistent artist. We can surmise that such a complicated, at first glance, composition as Still Life with a Clock, as well as other Pure Form paintings, conceal something more than a juxtaposition of nearly abstract lines and patches of colour, arranged into random objects.
Can we decipher the ingredients of the composition? Does it carry a message, and if so, what is it? Is it possible to arrange objects in a way that results in the distortion which seems to constitute the theme of this composition?
Undoubtedly, the element that Witkacy wanted us to focus on was the face of the clock, which is unquestionably a real object. The still life elements were placed on a round table, whose edge is visible at the bottom of the composition. On the right, towards the back, you can see what seems to be a fragment of backrest of a wooden chair with a turned bar. On the left, on the table, there is an oil lamp partially obscured by a skewed piece of clear glass in the form of an obelisk. It is this element that is responsible for the distortion of the image of the lamp and other elements of the composition placed behind it. At the top, in the centre, you can see eyes – is it the author’s face reflected in a piece of broken mirror? However, in my opinion, three other easily readable elements of the composition are of paramount importance for a possible interpretation of the meaning of the painting. The first one is a flower whose stem rises from behind the obelisk on the left side of the image. The first impression suggests it’s an alpine violet (cyclamen) – a small flower visible from behind its characteristic leaf. Not a very impressive flower, a little wilted. On the other side of the mirror, a little red head, undoubtedly a lamb’s head, protrudes from something that resembles a contour of a kettle. The third element is the fruit scattered on the table, typical of still lifes imitating the compositions of the founding father of modern still life, Paul Cézanne, and also known from Witkacy’s early still lifes – visible at the bottom right and left, and inside the clear shape in the middle of the table, or perhaps reflected in a metal dish.
How should we interpret this painting?
Judging by the shape and colours, it is not a depiction of fruit, but of Easter eggs. An Easter lamb in Lenten red constitutes a matching element. There is also a flower – a traditional Christmas table decoration of that time (Christmas Star, poinsettia – very popular these days) which established itself in Poland only in the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps it survived (slightly wilted) until Easter, as in 1921 it fell quite early – on 27 March.
This still life is somewhat suspended between the symbols of Christmas and Good Friday. The beginning and the end. Is it, therefore, a vanitas-type representation – a still life addressing the issue of passing and time? We can come across characteristic elements of 17th-century painting presenting similar depictions such as fire (in this case – an oil lamp) or a clock. A mandatory theme in these depictions – the human skull – has been replaced here by a distorted image (of the author?) reflected in a piece of mirror. Witkacy also painted an obelisk, an ancient motif laden with meanings, here – on the verge of decline. The decorated eggs, a symbol of a new life, change the meaning of Witkacy’s painting, introducing an element of hope. They constitute a perverse play with tradition.
By the way, I wonder if Witkacy painted eggs. Perhaps he decorated them just like the ones depicted in the painting?
And finally, the central theme of this vanitas and, as I said, the most obvious – namely the clock. Among all the items depicted in the painting, it seems indisputable. That’s probably what Witkacy meant – to make the viewer want to check the time. Well, what’s the time?
Or perhaps he wished to tell us that it’s unimportant, that „vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas” (vanity of vanities and all is vanity, Eccl 1,2).
Światosław Lenartowicz – curator of the exhibition titled Witkacy’s Pure Form in ‘Atma’, specializes mainly in Polish art of the interwar period. Author of exhibitions and publications devoted to the art of Jacek Malczewski, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Zbigniew Pronaszko, Emil Krcha, Zofia Stryjeńska and others.
Photograph of Światosław Lenartowicz next to the painting – Mirosław Żak, NMK Photography Studio