Slavonic item of the month : April 2014

The re-introduction of Polish Studies in Cambridge has recently come a step closer, with the recruitment of a temporary lecturer currently in progress. The University Library has long collected Polish material, albeit with a modest budget recently, and this month we look at an example of recent purchases – a set on art in post-war Poland.

T. 1-4 of Polskie życie artystyczne w latach 1944-1960 (S950:01.b.153.1-4)

T. 1-4 of Polskie życie artystyczne w latach 1944-1960 (S950:01.b.153.1-4)

The University Library holds over 20,000 items in Polish, stretching from the mid-sixteenth century to the present day. Since Polish ceased to be taught as a degree-level language in the early 2000s, Polish spending in the Library has been modest. The initiative to bring Polish Studies back to the Department of Slavonic Studies, however, has long been an added incentive to ensure that we do continue to build on our existing collection, and this initiative recently received a major boost when funding was made available for the four-year appointment of a lecturer in Polish Studies.

The main areas of focus in Polish-language acquisitions for the Library are literature, history (including a major emphasis on Polish Jewish history), art, and music. The latest consignment of material from Poland, which came through earlier this month, included the first few volumes of Polskie życie artystyczne w latach 1944-1960 (Polish artistic life in the years 1944-1960; S950:01.b.153.1-4), a set which will eventually run to over 10 volumes. The Library has received the four volumes which have been published so far; these cover the period 1944-1950. 1944 and 1945 are, unsurprisingly, represented relatively briefly.

The descriptions of the set available at the point of selection had been fairly short, but the obviously interesting subject matter and the fact that the set was being published under the auspices of a section within the Instytut Sztuki Polskiej Akademii Nauk (the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Art) meant that I was confident this was a resource we should get. I realised when these first volumes arrived that we were getting something rather different to what I had imagined. For example, I’d expected the books to be very illustration-heavy and was a little disappointed to find that even the few illustrations each volume contains are provided in black and white. Looking more closely at the books, though, I realised that what we had received was of a different but very great value.

The set provides a detailed chronology of events in Polish artistic life. The standard format is: date, place, description, and a list of sources which refer to the event in question. In many cases, this format is expanded with quotations from the sources. The events covered vary from competitions to conferences, with an overall preponderance of exhibitions. If we look, as an example, at April 1948, 32 of the 50 events covered for that month are exhibitions. The month’s pattern also shows that Warszawa (Warsaw) saw by far the greatest level of activity, with 17 events listed there. The remaining events, however, are widely scattered, with 19 other locations hosting events. The two most active after Warszawa in April 1948 were Poznań and Kraków.

One of the more heavily covered events in April 1948 is an exhibition of works by 57 Jewish artists who died during the German occupation of Poland. The exhibition was held in the library of the Żydowski Instytut Historyczny (the Jewish Historical Institute) in Warszawa and ran from the 18th of April to the 15th of June. A good twenty sources are listed, with lengthy quotations from three of them completing the entry.

An example of another kind of listing is the announcement on the 15th of April of the end of the architectural competition for the building to house the Panorama Racławicka (the Racławice Panorama, the famous >100-metre-long cycloramic painting initiated by Jan Styka which shows the 1794 Battle of Racławice). After the war, the vast painting was moved from Lwów – which had now become Ukrainian L’viv – to Wrocław – which had just ceased to be German Breslau. The listing also contains information about what happened afterwards (this is an occasional feature in the set). None of the eleven entries to this first competition was awarded first prize. The next contest was held in 1956, with the eventual building opening only in 1980 – and access to the full painting was first given to visitors only in 1985.

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

Mel Bach

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