The Beginnings of the "Cracow School of Art History"

By Muthesius, Stefan | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Beginnings of the "Cracow School of Art History"


Muthesius, Stefan, Journal of Art Historiography


The term "school" is used here to characterise a strong institutionality of the academic/scien- tific pursuit of the subject. It applies, in my view, most strongly to the ways in which art history has been pursued in Poland, especially in post WWII Poland. In fact there is probably no other country in Europe where art history is such an institution- ally, and therefore nationally recognised pursuit. In Great Britain, for instance, the wording "a school of art history", or an "English school of art history" would hardly make sense. In Germany and Swit- zerland art history was, and is, institutionally strong but we cannot speak much of a "national", nor of individual, localised schools of art history.

Of course one knows of the Wiener Schule der Kunstgeschichte; this is a term which consolidated itself in the early 20th century. It refers principally to a local genealogy of scholars: the founder of the school in the 1850s taught his successor in the chair at the university, who taught his successor, who taught his successor, and so on, until we get to todays professors in Vienna. At the same time such local school may influence others; it may help an- other university to establish its own school. There has been much talk of Vienna helping Cracow; in- deed Cracow's first professor of art history, Marian Sokolowski, actually went to lectures in Vienna for a while in the 1870s; however, so far there hits been little proof of a direct institutional influence1.

A strong school first of all is marked by continu- ity. Only very few outsiders have "entered" art his- tory in and on Cracow in the last 130 years. To its members, the "school" presents a guaranty of quali- ty, it speaks of the constant, dedicated pursuit of its members, it means certainty of method, or meth- ods. And it is the method which is what is imparted from teacher to pupil, from one generation to the next. Basically, of course, a "school" is something that is tied to a locality, Nowhere does this appear more true than in Cracow. It must be understood in the context of the town's extraordinary situation in the second half of the 19th century. Forming part of Austrian Galicia, Cracow was a town of zero politi- cal importance; but by contrast, its cultural impor- tance was huge. In spite of it being only a medium- sized town, Cracow was in fact a cultural Wasserkopf, a constellation that was without parallel in Europe. That cultural importance was tied in with two fac- tors, nationality and history: Cracow, the centre of national Polish history. By any standards this centre contained a large number of art historical artefacts which, everybody agreed, belonged intimately to chat Polish national history; in fact, one could say, these artefacts, these buildings, sculptures paintings etc. WERE the Polish history2.

It was this Polishness which provided the bond- ing of all cultural pursuits in the town. Concretely speaking, the "school", the institution of art history was, and still is, made up of a number of bodies, or consists of a number of parts of those bodies, which can only very briefly be mentioned here. Art Histo- ry, firstly, "happens" within Academy. The Cracow Akademia Umiejçtnosci guaranteed pure scientific pursuit, that is, academic research for its own sake in a range of neatly defined, specialised fields, art history amongst them (from 1873). Linked to the Academy was the possibility of a regular publica- tion of research : the Sprawozdania Komisyi History i Sztuki, from 1877 onwards published the research strictly limited to art history. Secondly, there are che newly established museums. Secondly, there arc the institutions which apply the results of art historical research to the conservation of old buildings, and thirdly there are organisations which serve non- academic audiences, the tourists. More important than all those, except for che Academy is, finally, the Instytut Historii Sztuki, the department of Art History, fully established in 1882, at the venerable Jagicllonian University. …

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