Not unlike many of my peers, as I embark on a path that will supposedly lead to expertise in a highly-defined, rather obscure area of knowledge, I am not without my doubts. These doubts range from the minor (will I pass my German exam?) to the major (will I find a job five years from now?).
As I muddle through my final days on this side of the Atlantic, however, my thoughts turn to a slightly different question, namely, “how can I be so ignorant about so many things, specifically in art history?” I recall a lecture by one of my former professors in which he discussed the waxing and waning of artistic styles through the centuries, and casually commented that this phenomenon applied equally to the popularity of art historical subjects. For instance, the history of Russian art was never popularized or widely taught in the United States. When I took 19th century painting as an undergraduate, I remember one chapter of our widely-read, well-received textbook being devoted to Russian art — which, of course, was not assigned for the course. Whenever I attend a symposium, I am almost always surprised by the discussion of something like Albanian modern art, for instance. If anything, these areas are given some attention when discussing Greek or Roman settlements in the ancient world, but even then it is usually ancillary to the main discussion. While it is true that less time is devoted to Chinese, Japanese, and African art in U.S. universities, they are certainly given more consideration than the art of Russian, Poland, or any of the other Eastern European countries.
So it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I approached the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art housed in the upper floors of the Cloth Hall in central Krakow, wary of having my ignorance fully revealed to me. The Gallery was light and airy, with high ceilings and brightly painted walls. There are two main wings along with two smaller rooms at the center of the building.
The paintings on display are hardly dissimilar from what one would find in a French collection — there was a mix of history painting and still lifes, portraiture and landscapes, all executed in the normal stylistic trajectory of the 18th and 19th centuries — Neo-classicism to Romanticism to Realism to Impressionism (yes, I know this is a crude summary) with a smattering of others (or am I only imagining a Pointillist painting? Maybe I am.). With the obvious exception of national history, the subjects would not be particularly foreign to anyone with a passing knowledge of 19th century artistic conventions.
Here are a few of my favorites:
While I hope that my dismay at being so ill-informed will translate into a project of educating myself, I hardly have any suggestions to remedy the narrow view of western art in general. Of course, there is the matter of resources, hours in a lecture, lectures in a week, weeks in a semester. And then there is the question of experts — I recall that it took the Mead Museum at Amherst nearly a year to find a Russian art curator. Also, how do you incorporate Russian or Polish or Romanian art into a course when you can barely get students to grasp the basic concepts of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in geographical areas they are supposed to be familiar with? Perhaps I am just ashamed of my own ignorance and wish to find reasons for it. But shame, in my experience, is also an excellent motivating force.