Artibus et Historiae no. 20 (X)1989, ISSN 0391-9064
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JULIUSZ A. CHROŚCICKI - In Memoriam Jan Białostocki (1921-1988)
Jan Białostocki, the great art historian and museum curator whose
manifold contribution to Polish scholarship and personal integrity gave him
enormous authority both at home and abroad, died in Warsaw on December
25, 1988, at the age of 67. Deep sorrow and regret were felt at his death by
scholars and artists all over the world - wherever he had lectured, wherever his
books, articles, and exhibition catalogues, available in at least a dozen
languages, are read and employed as invaluable aids to scholarly
His published writings, which have yet to be collected,
number well over six hundred. For almost half a century, from the days of his
youth to his no less intellectually energetic last years, his ever broadening
interests overlapped with those of philosophers, aestheticians, semiologists,
linguistics, musicologists, sociologists, and historians; thus he formed close
ties with fellow scholars in a wide variety of fields.
For all his international recognition, the incomparable range of
Białostocki's activity merits thorough study with regard to its influence
on the cultural life of his own country since the Second World War.
His books and articles, his educational programs for radio and television,
the exhibitions he organized, the lectures he held both at the university
level and for the general public - all these efforts and more on the part
of Jan Białostocki to popularize the fine arts and the humanities have
played a very important role in introducing successive generations of
Poles to their European cultural heritage.
The curriculum vitae of this eminent art historian was quite
unlike that of his contemporaries at universities in, for example, the English
speaking world. Jan Białostocki was born on August 14, 1921, in Saratov, in
the Soviet Union. His father, also named Jan, became a well-known musician
and composer in the Poland of the inter-war period. He married Walentyna
Wereninow and the couple settled in Warsaw shortly after the birth of their
son, but moved to the town of Grodzisk Mazowiecki in 1928.
Like his parents, young Jan was blessed with an exceptional ear for music;
combined with the other family trait of industriousness, this musical ability
would enable him to master seven foreign languages.
He debut as a writer came in 1938, when a piece he wrote on the german
painter Matthias Grünewald was published in Ignis, a periodical for
secondary-school students in Warsaw. The same text, with some changes
and additions, was used as an entry for the 1973 edition of The McGraw-Hill
Dictionary of Art. All together, Białostocki attended four different schools,
receiving his diploma from the Adam Mickiewicz Gymnasium in Warsaw,
in May 1939. He had wanted to study classical philology at the
Józef Piłsudski University of Warsaw, but the war intervened and thus,
instead, in 1940 he began his study of Greek and Latin at the wartime
underground university, directed by Dr. Maykowski.
The horrific conditions in Poland under Nazi Occupation
demanded of a student far more than mere enthusiasm - they required
heroism. In addition to his studies, Białostocki had to support himself
financially, so from January 1940 to August 1945, he worked as a cashier in
factory. In the spirit of selfless courage which characterized his behavior
throughout his life, he helped a friend, Marcin Sarna, the brother of Felicja
Sarna (later Uniechowska) by hiding him in his Old Town apartment during
In 1942-46, the erstwhile student of classics turned his attention to
philosophy, under the guidance of Prof. Tadeusz Kotarbiński and
Prof. Władysław Tatarkiewicz. The underground lectures and seminars were
held at great risk in the Old Town and various other parts of central Warsaw.
In 1943, Białostocki took up drawing and graphic design, studying under
Tadeusz Cieślewicz, Jr. He designed, among other things, the cover for Juliusz
Oborski's book of verse in 1944. he also became friends with Andrzej
Jakimowicz, an art student who would later be his colleague at the Institute
of Art History at the University of Warsaw.
Following the crushing of the August 1944 Uprising in the Old Town of
Warsaw, where he was living with his parents, Białostocki and his father were
arrested. Jan, Jr., was sent to the Nazi concentration camps of Gross-Rosen,
Mauthausen, and Linz III. His father died in Linz I, shortly after the camp
was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. Białostocki helped organize
artistic and cultural programs for his former fellow prisoners. He worked at
the Polish Center in Linz from May 1st to August 5, 1945, and assisted in
arranging the reparation of his countrymen. When he himself finally
returned to Poland, his food and clothing were stolen en route.
Back in Warsaw, in November 1945 Białostocki was taken on as an assistant
to the great art historian Prof. Michał Walicki at the National Museum.
Simultaneously, he began work at the University of Warsaw as an unpaid
assistant in Walicki's Institute of Medieval Art History. We still have Walickis
formal request of December 17, 1945, to the faculty council of the History
Department for permission to engage Białostocki, though the young scholar
was already active at the university.
The degree of Magister was conferred on Jan Białostocki in July 1946,
upon completion of his thesis entitled "The role of Knowledge in
Experiencing a Work of Art", which he wrote under the supervision of Prof.
Tatarkiewicz of the Philosophy Department. The thesis concludes:
This knowledge, the lack of which in general hinders a proper evaluation
of works of art, is the knowledge of how to interpret artistic achievements
based on the observer's art-historical education. Such information may be
difficult to acquire, but it is so necessary for true comprehension that certain
works are nearly inaccessible for those who do not possess it. It is not easy to
duly appreciate works in different media, from different periods, and in
Here was a kind of signpost for the direction his own life would take. His
early work already reveals a clear and systematic way of thinking, and above
all a strong desire to gain the knowledge that would enable him to undertake
a proper - in the sense of being historically grounded - interpretation of works
His involvement in the preparation of exhibitions and their
catalogues for the National Museum led Białostocki more and more to the
study of Poland's important collections of Western art. He collaborated with
Walicki on the production of European Painting in Polish Collections,
a major work covering the period 1300-1800, which appeared in 1955 in
three different languages, and then on the ninth volume in the series Les
Primitifs Flamands: Corpus de la peinture des anciens Paysbas méridionaux
au quinzième siecle, which dealt with fifteenth-century Flemish
paintings held in Polish collections.
As curator of the National Museum's Department of European Painting, he
organized, over four decades, numerous exhibitions receiving international
attention, among them "Rembrandt and His Circle", "Art at the Time of
Michelangelo", "Early Renaissance Landscape Painting", "Ars Emblematica", and
"Echoes of Raphael".
Białostocki made the most of his dual position as university professor
and museum curator. It enabled him, for example, to train students
expressly for curatorial work.
During the Stalinist era, despite the fact that contacts with foreign scholars
were sharply restricted, Białostocki worked to bring Polish scholarship in line
current international trends. He thereby rendered a great and by no means
riskless service to his field, which the official policy of the time had
condemned to stagnation.
Nor was he exempt from the general repression. After Michał Walicki's
arrest in 1950, Białostocki, as his assistant, was forced to leave the
University of Warsaw. During the 1949/50 academic year, he taught at the
University of Łódź, and then, from 1950 to 1957, at the Warsaw School of
Drama. Nevertheless, he was able to defend his doctoral dissertation, "Flemish
Landscapes in the Mannerist Period (1520-1620): An Attempt at a Synthesis".
As a pure formality, the work was officially supervised by Prof. Stanisław
Lorentz, replacing Walicki. Białostocki passed his doctoral examination in
June 1950. Appointed docent in 1955, he worked for a year in the
Department of Architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic. When he returned, in
January 1959, to the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw, he
worked with Prof. Juliusz Starzyński, who held the chair for Art Criticism and
Theory. Białostocki received the title of associate professor in 1962, and
became a full professor a decade later. In 1971 he was given his own chair
in the History of Renaissance Art. As a result of internal conflicts at the
Institute, he succeeded to the directorship in 1984. He remained head of
the Institute until his death.
As a teacher, Białostocki had enormous influence, educating scores of
graduate students in medieval and Renaissance art as well as in art theory.
Many of the doctoral candidates who received their degrees from
Białostocki after he was put in charge of the Doctoral Examination Board at
the University of Warsaw in 1968, have become distinguished figures
in their own right, such as Zygmunt Waźbiński (1966); Maryla Poprzęcka
(1971); Sergiusz Michalski (1981); Lech Brusewicz (1987); and Małgorzata
Szafrańska (1987). The present writer, too, received his degree from
Białostocki in 1971. Białostocki co-supervised Irma Weber's doctoral thesis, "
Iconography of the Painting of Hans Thoma", at the University of Halle in
1975. He was involved in the habitation of his students Waźbiński (1972);
this writer (1981); and Poprzęcka (1983). He was also invited to be
a member of doctoral, habilitation, and professorial examination boards
at various universities in Poland and abroad (in Germany, the United States,
In the course of his almost thirty-year span of activity at the
University of Warsaw, Białostocki was involved in many key aspects,
administrative as well as academic, of university life. His positions included
the following: vice-chairman of the History Department in charge
of student affairs (1960-62); member of the Council on Ancient Cultures
(as of 1984); head of the Council on Museums (as 1986); representative of
the History Department to the Senate, the self-governing body of the
university (1983/84 academic year); head of the Research Council at the
Institute of Art History (1975-1984); and leader (as of 1968) of
the Institute's Research Team for the History of Artistic Doctrines, which
published five volumes of source material.
And of course, he was a professor at the Institute of Art History, holding
seminars and giving lecture courses on the history of art theory as well
as on a wide range of other subjects. He had a reputation for being an
excellent university teacher who demanded no less of himself than
he did of his students - and the effort he demanded was considerable.
For instance, his organization of lecture time was legendary: he began to
speak as soon as he stepped into the lecture hall, and an hour and a half
later, he made his final remarks on his way out the door. His lectures were
attended not only by art historians but also by students from other
disciplines, even those far removed from the liberal arts - and by actors.
The lectures he gave abroad ended with long ovations by the audience,
as I can testify from my personal experience in Washington, D. C.,
in Grenada, and in Vienna, where crowds of students and friends who had
come to hear him speak hung on his every word.
Although intensely committed to his professional responsibilities at home,
Białostocki spent a good deal of time traveling. All together, he gave more
than 250 lectures in far-flung locations on five continents. In 1947-48
he studied in France on a government scholarship, touring Belgium and
Holland as well. Ten years later, a Ford Foundation scholarship made it
possible for him to work with Erwin Panofsky at the Institute for Advanced
Studies at Princeton University for nine months. In 1963 he was a visiting
professor at the University of Leyden; in 1965/66 he was at Yale; in
1966/67 he lectured in Mexico City; in 1972/73 he was at New York
University, where he gave the Wrightsman Lectures, and again at Princeton;
he was invited to the Collège de France in Paris; he made two trips
to Greece in 1977; visited Australia in 1980; returned to the Institute for
Advanced Studies in 1983; delivered the Slade Lectures at Cambridge
University in 1985; and traveled to Egypt in 1986 (holding lectures in Cairo
and Alexandria), and China (lectures in Beijing and Shanghai) and India the
As a representative of UNESCO - he was chairman of the International Council
on Philosophy and the Humanities - and, from 1969, vice-chairman of the
International Committee for the History of Art, Białostocki took part in
innumerable congresses, symposia, and seminars around the world.
In addition to his foreign travels, Białostocki regarded it as a kind of civic
duty to tour his native country giving talks and meeting his readers, which
he did again and again. These trips, by train, and by car, to the smaller cities
of Poland, needles to say were exhausting, but the rewarding encounters
that resulted, and the inspiring effect he had on his audiences, more than
compensated for the physical strain. As I accompanied him several times,
I can say with assurance that his lectures on European art -whether he
delivered them in Bydgoszcz, or Kielce, or wherever - invariably were on
the highest level and, accordingly, were very warmly received.
Białostocki was equally well aware of the importance of the press in
educating taste and generating increased appreciation for art. In addition
to academic journals, he wrote regularly for many Polish papers and
periodicals aimed at a general audience, including Kultura,
Polityka, and, Tygodnik Powszechny. He had long
recorded radio broadcast; the last one he made was on the occasion of
Pope John Paul II's third visit to Poland. Starting in 1948 he was involved in
making films about art, writing several scripts himself, and he was quick to
grasp the unique opportunity which the new medium of television
represented for his tireless efforts to spread knowledge: in the early 1960s
he appeared live on television, lecturing on the history of art. His new,
five-part series unfortunately was taken off air following the declaration of
martial law on December 13, 1981.
Białostocki became an associate member of the Polish Academy of
Sciences in 1976, having long participated in various of its activities, such
as the Art Studies Committee, of which he was secretary (1962-68),
deputy chairman (1965-72), and finally, chairman (from 1972 on). He
joined the Academic Council of the Art Institute of the Academy of Sciences
in 1960, and coordinated many of the research projects undertaken by the
He had belonged to the Association of Art Historians ever since 1946,
serving as its president from 1962 to 1979, and afterwards as
vice-president. Perhaps the greatest service Białostocki performed to the
discipline of art history in Poland was his organization of the association's
nationwide meetings and the Methodological Symposia that were held
almost every year for a more restricted group of interested participants.
The papers presented at both conferences and the symposia were
subsequently published, and have since become a true memorial to their
instigator and guiding light. Thus he made his influence felt among his
colleagues as well as his students, and in turn contributed to the growing
authority of the Association, for example at the Congress on Polish Culture,
which was disbanded under law shortly after opening as an independent
In the politically turbulent year of 1981, he felt obligated to accept the
deputy chairmanship of the Coordinating Committee of Artists and Scholars.
Jan Białostocki had an acknowledged natural gift for reconciling opposing
sides, in addition to his managerial talents. This gift he used to good effect
as head of the Steering Committee of the Congress on Polish Culture, when
on December 13, at the start of the military crackdown, he did his utmost to
secure the quickest possible release of the congress participants who had
been interned (including, among others, Prof. Klemens Szaniawski, who was
in fact released the same day). Apparently as a result of his courageous
initiative, the doyen of Polish art historians was not allowed to travel to the
United States the following month. In February 1982, the security police
searched his apartment and confiscated all papers connected with the
abortive Congress on Polish Culture.
But the list of organizations, foreign as well as domestic, of which
Białostocki was a member is still not complete. It also includes the Council
on Culture of the Ministry of Culture and Art (1970-81); the Committee for
State Prizes (as of 1975, as deputy chairman of the Art Section); the Poznań
Society of Friends of Sciences and Letters (as of 1961); the Polish
Philosophical Society (as of 1966); the Polish Semiostics Society (as of 1967);
the Polish Writer's Association (1965-82); the Union of Authors and
Playwrights; the Warsaw Education Society (founding member, 1981-82);
the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (as of 1971); the Flemish Academy of
Sciences (as of 1972); the Academy of Literature and Science in Mainz (as of
1973); the Accademia Clementina in Bologna (as of 1986); and l'Académie
européenne des Sciences, Arts et Lettres (as of 1986).
He received, among others, the following Polish prizes: the Minister of
Sciences and Higher Education Prize (1969); the State Prize, First
Class - for individual merit (1978); the Mieczysław Lepecki Prize of the Polish
Pen Club (1979); the Ministry of National Education Prize, First Class
Abroad, he was the recipient of the Herder Prize, Vienna
(1970); Aby Warburg Award, Hamburg (1981); A. Jurzykowski Award, New
York (1981); the Reuchlin Prize, Pforzheim (1983); the Premio Canaletto,
Venice (1988); and the Theo Wormland Prize, Munich (1988).
He was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Groningen
(1969); Mainz (1973); and Brussels (1987).
Among the honors and orders of merit which he was awarded are - although
this list is necessarily incomplete the Corona dItalia (1947);
Chevalier's Cross (1947); Gold Service Cross (1954); the orders of Chevalier
of Polonia Restituta (1961), Officer of Polonia Restituta
(1969), and Commander of Polonia Restituta (1980); and the
National Education Medal.
Białostocki edited the Bulletin du Musée National de Varsovie from
1960 until his death. He was also a member of the editorial boards of
international art journals such as Art History and the Vienna-based
Artibus et Historiae (edited by his former student Dr. Józef Grabski),
and in Poland, or Rocznik Historii Sztuki (Yearbook of Art History)
and Biuletyn Historii Sztuki (Bulletin of Art History). As director of
the Institute of Art History, Białostocki funded the periodical
Ikonotheka, editing its three issues himself.
He was editor of Ideas and Art. Studies on the History of Art and Artistic
Doctrines, a series of books, some by students of his, published by the
State Academic Publishing House.
As it is impossible to present here thorough analysis of Jan Białostocki's
scholarly output, I will note the most influential of his more than sixty books
and catalogues: Spatmittelalter und beginnende Neuzeit, vol. VII in
the Propyläen Kunstgeschichte series (1972/1984); Stil und
Ikonographie, collected essays (1966/1981); The Message of
Images: Studies in the History of Art (1988); The Art of the
Renaissance in Eastern Europe: Hungary, Bohemia, Poland (1976);
Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto (Art More Valuable Than Gold), in four
editions; Myśliciele, kronikarze i artyści o sztuce od starożytności do
1500 (Thinkers, Chroniclers, and Artists on Art from Antiquity to 1500),
vol. I (1978/1988); and Teoretycy, pisarze i artyści o sztuce 1500-1600
(Theoreticians, Writers, and Artists on Art, 1500-1600), vol. II (1985).
Białostocki personally had an enormous impact on the art historian
community, not only because he propagated the latest methodology and
lines of research, but above all because he successfully promoted the
international exchange of ideas and trends - for example, between Cracow
and Vienna, Poznań and Frankfurt, Warsaw and Princeton, or Munich and
Paris. This is yet another aspect of the sever loss which his death constitutes
for the world of scholarship.
I would to recall here the celebration of Białostocki's 60th birthday, held
in Warsaw on October 14, 1981. That morning we had heard him deliver his
excellent paper entitled "On the Facades of Venetian Churches as Monuments
to the Glory of Their Sponsors", at the meeting of the Art Studies Committee
of the Polish academy of Sciences. At six o'clock in the Łazienki Palace, he
was ceremoniously presented with his Festschrift entitled Ars
Auro Prior. Following laudatory speeches by Prof. Lech Kalinowski and
Prof. Aleksander Gieysztor, and the reading of congratulatory telegrams,
Białostocki himself delivered a moving address to his well wishers. Then
there was a chamber-music concert, and finally the guests were served
wine - a luxury not easy to come by at the time. Afterwards, Białostocki
hoster a supper for the contributors to the Festschrift and
out-of-town guests at the Association of Art Historians in the Old Town.
It was an unforgettable occasion for all.
As the years went by, there was much discussion over what we should do
to celebrate the next milestone in Białostocki's life, his 70th bithday. It
would have been in 1991, and for a long time he had been saying, with
some sadness, that in that year he would have to retire from the university.
We thought of repeating the idea of the 1981 Festschrift and
reception, albeit on a smaller scale. Work began on the project in the
autumn of 1986. The National Museum wanted to publish it as a collection
of articles to be written by Polish contributors. In the midst of a general
meeting of the Polish Academy of Sciences on May 27, 1988, Białostocki
suddenly became very ill. The atmosphere at the meeting had been tense
as the Academy authorities, in defending themselves against the charges
contained in an open letter demanding organizational and personnel
changes, lashed out at its authors. One of the first signers had been
He was hospitalized for seven months, during which he was in great pain.
He was then supposed to be flown to a neurological rehabilitation clinic in
West Germany, but on December 22, the day before his planned departure,
his condition worsened to the point at which traveling was out of the
question. He died on Christmas Day. He is survived by his wife, Jolanta, also
an art historian, his daughter, Marta, and a granddaughter.
The death of Jan Białostocki necessitated a drastic change in plans
concerning the articles to be assembled in his honor. When Prof. Maryla
Poprzęcka and I informed Dr. Józef Grabski, whose Vienna-based publishing
house, IRSA Verlag, had just published Białostocki's The Message of
Images, of the sad news, it was immediately agreed that IRSA would
bring out intended Festschrift as soon as possible, as a
commemoration of the life and achievements of our former professor.
Further details were discussed in early 1989, and art historians in several
different countries were invited to contribute to the Festschrift, which now
bore the title "Porta Mortis". In Memoriam Jan Białostocki 1921-1988.
It is hoped that it will be a fitting tribute to the greatness of the man and the
I am grateful to the staff of the Archives of the University of Warsaw for the
help I received there in researching this article. I also owe thanks to Felicja
Uniechowska for her valuable reminiscences. Among the first obituaries to
appear in the European press following Jan Białostocki’s death were:
W. Wiegand, “Mitteleuropa als Aufgabe”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
(Dec. 29, 1988), p. 19; W. Sauerländer, “Kunst ist vor dem Gold”,
Süddeutsche Zeitung (Dec. 30, 1988); A. Chastel, „Un maître de
l’iconologie“, Le Monde, (Dec. 31, 1988); S. Michalski, “Patriot und
Europäer im Denken und Handeln“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Jan. 3, 1989);
and Lyckle de Vries, “In Memoriam: Jan Białostocki“, UK (Jan. 18-19, 1989).
In Poland obituaries were written by the following authors, among others:
J. Łoziński in Życie Warszawy (Dec. 29, 1988); J. Kossakowski in Słowo
Powszechne (Jan. 3,1989); J. A. Chrościcki in Polityka (Jan. 14, 1989); and
M. Poprzęcka in Przegląd Katolicki (Jan. 29, 1989) W. Wyganowska compiled
a bibliography of Białostocki’s work from 1938-81, for the Festschrift in
honor of his 60th birthday, Ars auro prior. Studia Ioanni Białostocki
Sexagenario dicata, Warsaw, 1981, pp. 757-68. The second part of this
bibliography, covering the years 1981-90, is currently being prepared for
publication in the forthcoming Festschrift entitled: “Porta Mortis”. In
Memoriam Jan Białostocki (1921-1988), ed. J. Grabski, IRSA Verlag, Vienna.