20th Century Aesthetics in Poland

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20th Century Aesthetics in Poland. Masters and Their Followers

Edited by Krystyna Wilkoszewska

ISBN 978-83-7507-139-9
format B5, s. 292

Aesthetics understood as the philosophy of the fine arts has always been an object of lively interest in Poland. It is Józef Kremer (1802‐1875, a specialist in Hegel’s philosophy, a professor at the Jagiellonian University and the Cracovian School of Fine Arts) who is recognized as the first Polish academic aesthetician. His works Podróż do Włoch [A Journey to Italy] and Listy z Krakowa [Letters from Cracow] dealt with problems from the area of art and aesthetics and – like his lectures on the history of art – earned him the highest praise. Despite his clearly Hegelian background, he did not accept the theory about art being inferior to philosophy. Neither did he approve of the thesis about the end of art. In accord with the spirit of Romanticism he supported the cult of art and praised creative fantasy. He was the first to discuss systematic aesthetics and, simultaneously, his thrilling descriptions of pieces of art and aesthetic experiences presented in literary form in his A Journey to Italy influenced the aesthetic tastes of his contemporaries.

Apart from Kremer, his friend Karol Libelt – a philosopher, aesthetician and a specialist in Hegelian philosophy as well – defended the autonomy of art, which was supposed to serve beauty only. The representatives of Polish aesthetics of Romanticism also included Bronisław Trentowski and August Cieszkowski.

Although the beginnings of academic aesthetics in Poland date back to the first half of the 19th century, it came to the flourish in the period between the World Wars in the 20th century. This was when the giants of aesthetics – Władysław Tatarkiewicz, Roman Ingarden, Stanisław Ossowski, and Henryk Elzenberg – appeared; they also pursued their interest in aesthetics after the Second World War.

Moreover, a lively interest in the problems of aesthetics was manifested by art and literary critics (including Stanisław Witkiewicz, Henryk Struve, Michał Sobeski, and Mieczysław Wallis) as well as the artists, who combined their artistic practice with theoretical reflection. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Jr. – called Witkacy – and Władysław Strzemiński were outstanding artists of the first half of the 20th century representing the formalist current, and were the authors of original theories of art – the theory of Pure Form and the theory of Unism, respectively. Leon Chwistek, a mathematician, an artist and a philosopher, was the author of the conception of the plurality of realities in art.

Through their works and lectures, they were all teachers of subsequent generations of Polish aestheticians. Their followers include Stefan Morawski and Tadeusz Pawłowski who reached high positions in aesthetics.

Aesthetic theories were assimilated and further developed within their related domains: in the theory of music (Zofia Lissa), in architecture (Julian Żórawski), in pedagogy (Stefan Szuman), and in the history of art – Jan Białostocki.

In 2004, the publication of the series “Klasycy Estetyki Polskiej” [The Classics of Polish Aesthetics], which includes selections of articles on aesthetics written by eminent aestheticians, was initiated by the Polish Society of Aesthetics. Twenty volumes have already been published and further books are being prepared for print. The series is characterized by the fact that the editors of particular volumes (who execute the selection of works and write the introductions) are frequently disciples of the classic masters. They have thorough knowledge not only of their written works, but also remember their seminars and lectures as well as the atmosphere of personal contacts. The above‐mentioned series has become the basis for the present book published in English, addressed to a foreign reader and presenting briefly the contributions of selected Polish scholars to the domain of aesthetics.

What is more, this contribution does deserve attention. In the 20th century, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, Roman Ingarden, and later Stefan Morawski enjoyed great fame. Some of their works were published abroad, and translated into various languages. The output of other authors, however, is also important enough to be preserved from oblivion.

Polish aestheticians representing various approaches – from phenomenology to Marxism and analytical philosophy – discussed in their works the most important issues of aesthetics of those days: the problem of the work of art and the aesthetic object, aesthetic experience as well as aesthetic and artistic values. The offered outlines of theories are sometimes close to each other, and sometimes they differ strongly due to adopted research procedures. Tatarkiewicz was, first of all, a his‐ torian and – having a good knowledge of vast historical material concerning art and philosophy – he offered a moderate and pluralistic approach. Roman Ingarden was inclined to avoid the historical context, offering a decidedly phenomenolog‐ ical approach in the ontology of the work of art, which encompassed the specific character of the aesthetic experience and axiology. Ossowski introduced a socio‐ logical perspective; his considerations are characterized not so much by the need of theoretical clarity as by the striving to present the complexity and versatility of aesthetic phenomena submerged in the practice of social life. Elzenberg, introducing the absolutist approach in axiology takes a yet separate position.

Historia estetyki [History of Aesthetics] in three volumes, written by Władysław Tatarkiewicz, is well known all over the world. He also was an expert in history of art and this is why the author of the article concerning her Master (published in this book) emphasizes, first of all, his historical methodology and its results in discussing the problems of aesthetics. Roman Ingarden’s works in aesthetics are equally famous in the world. Ingarden created an extensive and, at the same time, concise and coherent aesthetic theory, which would be difficult to fully discuss in a relatively short essay. This is why the author of the article included in this book chose one basic thread – the multilayered structure of the work of art. Neverthe‐ less, references to numerous other aspects of the theory of the Polish scholar can be found in other articles too, since for many Polish aestheticians Ingarden was an important reference point in the construction of their own conceptions. The aesthetic theories of the historian and the phenomenologist are supplemented by S. Ossowski’s sociological theory of aesthetics. He frequently dealt with the same problems as Ingarden, but they differed greatly in their approaches. This fact is emphasized by the author of the work about Ossowski, who compares and contrasts the conceptions of the sociologist and the phenomenologist as regards their understanding of the basic aesthetic categories such as aesthetic attitude, aesthetic experience, artistic values and aesthetic values. Henryk Elzenberg, who was not included in this book, dealt mostly with axiology, considering aesthetics and ethics to be its two components. He introduced the concept of the perfect value, that is, the aesthetic value connected with the ethical value. The identity of beauty and good indicated Plato as the source and led to an extremely absolutist conception of values. The access to beauty is possible in an aesthetic experience, which may be either contemplative or expressive, but always of an emotional nature. Elzenberg’s aesthetics differed from the pluralistic approaches or moderately relativistic ones, which were far more common in those days.

The construction of aesthetic theories was continued by Leopold Blaustein, Tadeusz Pawłowski and Stefan Morawski. Due to his premature death, Blaustein did not manage to fully develop his theory. What he had developed, however, is remarkable. The author of the essay about Blaustein places his works within the domain of analytical phenomenology (the aesthetician himself considered his studies, especially those concerning various kinds of representation, “on the borderline between psychology and aesthetics”) and describes them as “difficult”, particularly due to the rigorous language devoid of metaphors and digressions in which he discussed the problems of perception and aesthetic experience. In his approach to the aesthetic experience Blaustein referred to Ossowski, while discussing the problem of perception of the literary work he referred to Ingarden.

Tadeusz Pawłowski and Stefan Morawski took up their research after the war. Pawłowski specialized first in the methodology of the natural sciences, then of the humanities, writing his works in an analytical and logically formalized language. This area of study gave rise to his aesthetics, which focused on precise descriptions of concepts and the problems of formulating definitions. This is why the author of the essay discussing Pawłowski refers to the context of analytical aesthetics. The theory of Panaesthetism created by Pawłowski, which could be summarized with the brief statement that “any property is a potential aesthetic value”, gained wider recognition. In this way this thinker of analytical orientation entered the domain of studies on aesthetic values. Morawski, initially seduced by Marxism, built the foundations of his aesthetics on the basis of this very orientation. After a time he gave it up and transferred his attention to the problems of avant‐garde art and contemporary art in general, studying it on the background of broader cultural transformations. His admirable erudition was the reason why another generation of Polish aestheticians considers him their teacher both in the area of new aesthetics and art, and appreciates him as much as they do the former Masters.

A large group of aestheticians combined their reflection over the fundamental aesthetic concepts and problems with practicing art criticism. Stanisław Witkiewicz (the father of the famous son – Witkacy) was an artist, but he made his name as a thinker fighting for new aesthetics and new art at the turn of the centuries. It was from his writings in the field of art criticism that the foundations of the modernist theory of art, especially of painting and architecture, emerged. Witkiewicz took part in bitter controversies with contemporary representatives of “old” aesthetics of idealistic orientation, for instance with Henryk Struve. Struve was, predominatly, a philosopher, and it was in this area that he was most appreciated, but he was also interested in the issues connected with art. This is why his considerations in this domain have been included in this book. Both essays, the one concerning Witkiewicz and the one dealing with Struve, are mutually complementary giving us an insight into the atmosphere of the turn of the century.

Michał Sobeski and Mieczysław Wallis erected the foundations of their aesthetic theories on the basis of art criticism. The author of the essay on Sobeski places the aesthetician’s views on art at the intersection of aesthetics and the philosophy of culture, with the additional support of psychology, which gave rise to his own philosophy of art covering the issues concerning imitation of nature, the creative process and the form as an expression of the “emotional message”. Wallis, who is considered a pioneer of semiotic studies in aesthetics, included a broad range of problems from the area of meta‐aesthetics, aesthetics (the aesthetic object, aesthetic experience, aesthetic values, and reception of art), aesthetic culture, the history of art and artistic criticism in his aesthetic theory. The systemic character of his theory puts him close to Ingarden to whom he refers either by modifying his own approach under the influence of the phenomenologist, or by emphasizing – in the arguments with Ingarden – the legitimacy of his views based on different assumptions.

Polish aesthetics is characterized by the fact that it was the artists themselves who formulated the theories. Leon Chwistek and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) were both artists and philosophers, and their proposed theories are original in their character. Moreover, Chwistek was a mathematician and a logician appreciated by Bertrand Russell himself. Chwistek’s aesthetic theory is called “The Plurality of Realities in Art”. As the author of the essay on Chwistek claims, starting with an analysis of the definition of the concept of reality, he believed not only that there are many definitions of reality, but also that there are many realities. He himself distinguished four realities and referred them to art, which allowed him to explain and understand numerous problems connected with the changes taking place in art throughout its history. On the other hand, Witkacy, a versatile artist and the author of his own philosophical system, proposed the theory of Pure Form in aesthetics. In his conception, pure form in art was connected with the expression of the so‐called metaphysical feeling, a sensation of unity in plurality, that is, the Mystery of Existence. Unfortunately, the essay on Witkacy could not be included in this book.

This formalistically oriented circle includes also Władysław Strzemiński, an avant‐garde artist, whose artistic activity was closely related to his theoretical writings concerning particular fine arts – painting, sculpture, architecture, and typography. As the author of the essay on Strzemiński claims, his theory of Unism, though it is associated with painting, has all the markings of a general aesthetic theory. The artist constructed the aesthetics of Unism on the ambiguous concept of organicity of construction as a feature of a work of art, which allowed for recognizing a work of art as a separate whole, an “objective thing”.

Aesthetics pervaded other disciplines of study and was used by them. The three articles concluding the book refer to the presence of aesthetic theories in the theory of music, the conception of aesthetic education and the history of art as well as its influence in these areas.

The pioneering works by Zofia Lissa belong fully to the aesthetics of music. Her interdisciplinary education and great sensitivity enabled her to speak expertly on the perception of music (also among children and adolescents), film music, the aesthetic category of the comic and the meaning in music. Having listened to Ingarden’s lectures she applied the phenomenological method, though she offered her own, different phenomenological conception of a multilayered work of music, and later, in a direct debate with the philosopher in a journal, she attempted a revision of the concepts of his aesthetics through their reference to electronic music. Stefan Szuman, a psychologist and pedagogue, focused all his attention on the relation between a human (an artist, a recipient) and the work of art, influencing the development of personality both in its cognitive and emotional aspects. This was the leading idea in his conception of “education through art”, or aesthetic education. Jan Białostocki, a disciple of Tatarkiewicz and a supporter of Panofsky’s iconology, based his understanding of the history of art on the concept of artistic development, consisting in a changeable relation between the idea and the image. In order to deal with the history of art it is important to understand what a work of art is and what the ways of its creation, reception and evaluation are. This is why aesthetic theories exert a significant influence on the work of a historian of art.

Not all of the aestheticians mentioned here have been included in this book, for different, reasons. The absence of Henryk Elzenberg and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz seems particularly painful. Let us hope that this lack will be an incentive to prepare another volume in which the works of numerous other scholars dealing with aesthetics will be presented beside the above‐mentioned personages.

[ from Introduction by Krystyna Wilkoszewska] 


Krystyna Wilkoszewska



Alicja Kuczyńska
Władysław Tatarkiewicz: Pluralistic Aesthetics

Andrzej Tyszczyk
The Stratified Structure of the Work of Art. On Roman Ingarden’s Aesthetics

Bohdan Dziemidok
Stanisław Ossowski’s Aesthetics


Zofia Rosińska
The Model of Aesthetic Experience. The Theory of Leopold Blaustein

Grzegorz Sztabiński
From Methodology to Aesthetics. Aesthetic Views of Tadeusz Pawłowski

Iwona Lorenc, Grzegorz Sztabiński
Logos, Mythos and Avant‐garde Art. The Philosophical and Aesthetic Views of Stefan Morawski

Aesthetics and Art Criticism

Józef Tarnowski
Stanisław Witkiewicz and Reconceptions in Polish Aesthetics

Jolanta Sztachelska
Henryk Struve – Critic of the Transition Era

Sław Krzemień‐Ojak
Unveiling Michał Sobeski’s Aesthetics

Teresa Pękala
The Aesthetics of Mieczysław Wallis

Dealing with Arts

Teresa Kostyrko
Leon Chwistek – a Protagonist of Modern Aesthetics

Grzegorz Sztabiński
From A Work of Art as an “Objective Thing” to an Expression of Social Awareness. Strzemiński’s Views on Aesthetics

Aesthetics and other Disciplines of Knowledge

Zbigniew Skowron
Music – its Structure, Experience and Message. On Zofia Lissa’s Musical and Aesthetic Explorations 

Maria Kielar‐Turska
Stefan Szuman – Artistically Talented Scholar

Alicja Kuczyńska
Jan Białostocki’s Aesthetics and New History of Art Vision


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