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  • Urszula Dragońska

What is the Enlightenment? – Exhibition on 200 years of the Print Room of the University of Warsaw L

The Print Room of the University of Warsaw Library was established in 1818 when the collection of prints and drawings gathered by Polish king Stanisław August has been purchased for the newly opened University (1816). Both, the King’s collection and the private donation of Polish statesman, writer and art historian, Stanisław Kostka Potocki, were the core of the graphic holdings at the academy. Until 2018, during those 200 years, the Print Room’s collection had a fascinating history.

In 1832 the collection was confiscated and taken to Sankt Petersburg (it was a part of repressions after the November Uprising). After more than 90 years it was fortunately given back to Poland and returned to the University. The Print Room, enlarged by new acquisitions in the interwar period, suffered extensive losses during the Second World War. Nevertheless it did not stop being one of the most precious collections in Poland, still open to public. Over many years of its existence it served as a didactic material for students of art and art history and became field of research for academics as well as a source of inspiration for artists. Finally, in recent years, it is successfully going through processes of modernization (cataloguing and digitization). All the best experiences are continued; failures are named and fixed whenever possible. The Print Room is a very lively place! Many actions have been already undertaken and accomplished (exhibitions, publications of catalogues etc.), but plenty of them are planned and await their completion according to the set schedule. However to celebrate a 200th anniversary of the Print Room we needed to prepare something special – we wondered if we can find a new quality in the oldest public graphic collection in Poland.

The idea to start the cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, an utterly different institution, was like an impulse. The University of Warsaw Library was looking for the professional exhibition space, and the Museum of Modern Art recently has become more and more interested in historical collections, which could be treated as "archives of modernity". This unexpected marriage leads us to the exhibition "What is the Enlightenment?", which tried to answer the famous Immanuel Kant’s question in modern context by exploring the king Stanisław August’s collection and adding the commentary by contemporary artists.

Two curators, Tomasz Szerszeń and Łukasz Ronduda, and an artist and curator Goshka Macuga, were working with the Print Room’s team to understand the king’s collection. They often passed over the best artistic works and names in order to choose artworks with social or moral context. Their main criterion was not the aesthetic value but the meaning of work, related to the short time of modernization of Kingdom of Poland led by Stanisław August’s court at the end of 18th century. Selection of more than 100 works (by such an artists like Jacques Callot, Matthaeus Deisch, William Hogarth, Tadeusz Kościuszko, Johann Heinrich Müntz, Ferdynand Pinck, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Jean-Louis Prieur) was presented to contemporary artists (Anna Boghiguian, Andrea Bowers, Pablo Bronstein, Olga Czernyszewa, Camille Henrot, Ewa Juszkiewicz, Nikita Kadan, Zbigniew Libera, Goshka Macuga, Anna Niesterowicz, Nomadic State, Roee Rosen, Mikołaj Sobczak) who were asked to prepare a modern commentary relating to the meaning and features of the historical works.

Those pairs of old and modern works juxtaposed together were then presented on thematic tables taking up the entire exhibition space. Those tables were focused on some of the aspects of Enlightenment which could have an impact on today’s world like Emancipation, Liberalism, Revolution, Colonialism or Nations. The effect of mutual reflection of Enlightenment and contemporary was strengthen by adding an immense mirror covering one of the walls.

We could not be more pleased with results! The exhibition designed by the architectural studio of Maciej Siuda was very minimalistic and based on the effect of light and shadow. The darkness of the space broken by points of light above the tables and its reflection in the giant mirror created a mysterious ambience which encouraged contemplation. In those favorable circumstances exhibited prints and drawings were eagerly studied by the audience. Pairs of works – the old ones from the king Stanisław August's collection and the modern ones, prepared especially for the exhibition – while presented in dialogue, stressed attention on those aspects of Enlightenment which can be still current. By using the historical collection, curators wanted to show Polish Enlightenment as an unfinished project, which has its continuation in our times. The discussion about the relation between modernity and 18th century, which was initiated by the exhibition, was a confirmation that those kind of innovative projects are worth dealing with and can be a source of new cultural quality. Furthermore, the exceptional interest of the audience, who were astonished by the fact that those unknown treasures are kept in the building of the University of Warsaw Library, proved that the anniversary exhibition was a good idea!

Photographs by Jadwiga Antoniak-Sadlakowska, edited by Magdalena Herman

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