Artibus et Historiae no. 59 (XXX)2009, ISSN 0391-9064
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JERZY GADOMSKI - Jerzy Żarnecki (George Zarnecki) 12.9.1915—8.9.2008
Jerzy Żarnecki started his academic career in the 1930s at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. During the Second World War he made his way to England, became a British citizen, George Zarnecki, and held there many prestigious, both administrative and academic posts. He made Romanesque art, especially English sculpture of the period, the main subject of his research, one on which he became a world authority.
Żarnecki was born on 12 September 1915 in Stara Osota on the former Polish eastern borderlands, the son of Zygmunt Żarnecki, civil engineer, and his wife Julia (née Wolszczan). After Poland had regained its independence in 1918, the family settled in Poland as did many other refugees. In the 1930s Jerzy, took up studies at the then Department of Art History of the Jagiellonian University, where on 1 November 1937 he was appointed junior assistant, a post, which he occupied till the outbreak of the War. On 24 June 1938 he received his MA in art history, having submitted a thesis entitled: The Wall-paintings in the Holy Cross Chapel at the Cathedral on Wawel Hill (1470). It was already at that time that he developed his interest in medieval art on which, as well as on early modern art, he then published several articles .
Called up as a reservist, he left Cracow in the first days of September 1939, and after having fought in the Polish defence campaign he made his way to Bucharest, from where he proceeded to France via Italy. There he underwent military training with the Polish Army and fought on the French front in 1940. Further fights in Alsace brought him the French Croix de Guerre and the Polish Cross of Valour for exceptional service. After the fall of France he was captured by the Germans and spent two years as a prisoner of war. Repeated attempts to escape (two of which ended in his recapture) finally succeeded in 1942. With the help of forged documents of a French national he passed through the south of France and crossed the Pyrenees. All he could offer the local Spaniards who had helped him to cross the mountains by night was a fountain pen, his last valuable possession. He was interned in Spain and spent over a year there but finally, in 1943 he managed to reach England through Portugal. In London, while still in the army holding the rank of corporal, he joined a group of art historians — his colleagues from Cracow: Dr Karol Estreicher and Dr Anna Maria Mars — who were compiling an index of cultural losses sustained by Poland as a result of the Nazi occupation .
The marriage with Anne Leslie Frith (1945) and contacts with the London scholarly circles he had established, and perhaps also the political situation in his homeland, must have prompted Żarnecki's decision to stay in England and to settle there permanently. Right from the beginning he joined the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. He also met a pre-war German émigré, Fritz Saxl, an "iconologist" from the circle of Aby Warburg, connected with the London Library of the Warburg Institute. In 1949 Żarnecki became the librarian of the Courtauld Institute's Conway Library where he managed a remarkable collection of photographs of architecture and sculpture. The holdings of the library were substantially enlarged thanks to the photographic campaigns in Europe he undertook together with his friend Peter Lasko, a fellow medievalist. The experience he had gained then was of crucial importance for his subsequent research, which from the late 1940s started to bear fruit in the form of several publications on English Romanesque sculpture. At the same time Żarnecki did not forget about his alma mater and in July 1949 he donated several boxes of photographs of European works of art to the Department of Art History in Cracow.
Encouraged by Fritz Saxl (d. 1948), Żarnecki for several years had assembled materials for his doctoral dissertation. He received his PhD from the Courtauld Institute in 1950, having presented a dissertation on Regional Schools in English Sculpture in the Twelfth Century. The 1950s were filled with work at Conway Library (till 1959) and further intensive research mostly on English Romanesque sculpture. It was then that the foundations had been laid for his future position as a leading authority in the field.
Between 1959 and 1961 he was Reader at the University of London and in 1960/1961 held the Slade Professorship of Fine Arts at Oxford. In 1961 he became the deputy director of the Courtauld Institute. He was made Professor of Art History at the University of London in 1963 and in 1966 became a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
At that time he belonged to several learned societies. He was actively involved with the British Society of Master Glass Painters, the conservation committee of the Council for Places of Worship and the Royal Commission for Historical Monuments. Apart from that, Żarnecki was a fellow of the prestigious Society of Antiquaries, of which he had been vice-president for some time, and which awarded him Gold Medal in 1986, while also an honorary member of the Royal Archaeological Institute. Yet the greatest honours were still to come: in 1968 he became Fellow of the British Academy and in 1970 he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
The end of his official relationship with Sir Anthony Blunt, whom he met already in 1944, was traumatic. Blunt had been Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures at Buckingham Palace and later became director of the Courtauld Institute. Żarnecki, who had been connected to the Institute since 1945, succeeded Johannes Wilde as deputy director at the Courtauld in 1961 (a position he held till 1974) and served as Blunt's right-hand man. According to Peter Kidson, it was Żarnecki who in fact carried the main administrative burden of running the Institute on Blunt's behalf and who was responsible for all its activities. Żarnecki's friendship with Blunt was abruptly broken in 1979, when it was revealed that Blunt, together with Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had been Soviet spies. Though profoundly shocked by the fact, Żarnecki had remained the Institute's mainstay during this crisis and in the opinion of the London circles, he had "cleared" Courtauld "after Blunt": it was only through his efforts and thanks to the authority of its former deputy director that the Institute survived the scandal and retained its prestige. Żarnecki left Courtauld in 1982 and in 1986 had become Honorary Fellow of the Institute.
All the while Żarnecki was active internationally, both in Europe and in America. He visited many foreign research institutions, reviewed the most important exhibitions and participated in the International Congresses of Art History (CIHA) — in Amsterdam (1952) and in New York (1961). Żarnecki visited Poland several times, e.g. in September of 1976, when with a group of Polish medievalists he made a tour of historic Romanesque buildings of Lesser Poland. In October 1977 he held lectures and seminars at the Art History Institute of the Jagiellonian University, and in December 1980 took part in a conference and social meetings organised on the occasion of the 60th birthday of Professor Lech Kalinowski, with whom Żarnecki had been regularly in touch. On 13 June 1992 he was made foreign member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (PAU).
Though in 1982 he retired from his professorship at Courtauld, he did not stop his research activities. One of his most important undertakings at that time was the important Arts Council of Great Britain exhibition, English Romanesque Art 10661200, held at the Hayward Gallery (5 April—8 July 1984), of whose organising committee he was a chairman. The show was in fact a summing up of Żarnecki's lifetime of research on the Romanesque . Then, in 1987, together with Neil Stratford of the British Museum (Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities) and under the auspices of the British Academy, he initiated the long-envisaged corpus of Romanesque stone sculpture in Britain and Ireland (British Academy's Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, CRSBI). After the proposal had been approved by the Academy in May 1988, he became a member of the CRSBI scholarly committee, whereas Peter Lasko took lead of the project as its chair.
On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Żarnecki's friends and students offered him a two-volume Festschrift, which also comprised a bibliography of his works . In his social milieu, Żarnecki was held in high esteem not only as an outstanding scholar and teacher but as someone who was also well liked, a friendly, open-minded person, often described as "generous", "charming", "charismatic" and "witty". When on 15 September 2005 the Courtauld celebrated his 90th birthday (in the presence of many of his old-time colleagues, friends and young art historians from Poland, whose doctoral dissertations he supervised), he was honoured — in Professor Paul Crossley's words — as "one of the most generous, influential and beloved figures in the history of the Institute".
George Zarnecki died four days before his 93rd birthday, on 8 September 2008, leaving a wife, daughter and son. London bid him farewell in a mourning ceremony on 22 September 2008.
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Żarnecki started his research and scholarly activity already in Cracow. His early papers, written by him while still a student, dealt with Gothic wooden sculptures in Brzeziny and Nowy Korczyn . In his contribution to a monograph of the Cracow Observant Franciscans church, he concentrated on its historic furnishings . His main area of interest, however, had been the woodcarvings of Lesser Poland. In the course of the fieldwork he undertook, there appeared new discoveries, the results of which he published either still before the War or shortly after its end . He also authored a little booklet on historic artworks in Wiślica .
Żarnecki's wartime experiences and his life in England afterwards completely changed his scholarly orientation. Even while in London he had published several works on Polish art but at the same time, being a medievalist and having decided to settle in England, he started the research on the art of the Island, its early "history written in stone": English Romanesque architectural sculpture. It was that choice, done shortly after the war, that determined the main subject of his research, carried until his very last years.
As "by-products" of his dissertation, supervised by Fritz Saxl, there arose articles on sculptures of the Romanesque Reading Abbey, close to London, in which he demonstrated that the iconographic formula of the Coronation of the Virgin, carved on one of the abbey's capitals around 1130, predated analogous examples from France . His doctoral dissertation on regional schools of English sculpture in the 12th century remained unpublished in its original form but its chronologically enlarged and altered version was used in two separate volumes, published in 1951 and 1953 . The revealing character of his research could be seen already in those two concise syntheses, which were to serve generations of students as classic textbooks.
Over the next forty years, Żarnecki had written numerous books, research papers, articles and chapters in collective works, introductions to and entries in exhibition catalogues, booklets and reviews, dealing with English Romanesque sculpture. Among the most important of them were the sumptuously published monographs of the sculpture of Ely (1958) and Lincoln cathedrals (1963, 1970, 1988) . He also embarked on detailed studies, both on individual sculptures and their ensembles at Chichester, Minster-in-Sheppey, York, Worcester, Canterbury, and Colchester — to mention but a few , and dealt with English metal doorknockers, sculpture in lead and other areas of Romanesque art . More often than not, these are fairly short pieces because the author's style is concise and pithy. The forty-two most important studies were later united into two volumes of his collected essays, published in 1979 and 1992 .
In specialists' opinion Żarnecki not only insightfully defined the character of English Romanesque sculpture but his most revealing achievement was to explain the changes that occurred in English art shortly before and right after the Norman conquest in 1066. The first time he expressed his views on that problem was in publications based on his doctoral dissertation (and his fresh, renewing "external" look changed the hitherto accepted opinions), and he developed them in his later research. Though he had illustrious predecessors in "his" field (e.g. D. Talbot Rice, T. S. R. Boase, F. Saxl), Żarnecki's work was considered pioneering.
He had questioned the generally accepted view which held that it was the Norman conquest that introduced "foreign", Romance influences to Anglo-Saxon sculpture, thus putting an end to the old style. Żarnecki, however, contended that "already around 1050 English painters were heading towards the Romanesque, with no relation to Normandy whatsoever", and proved that the old artistic traditions, developed in the so-called Winchester School and strengthened by the Scandinavian animal style, survived the Norman conquest and inspired the flourishing of sculpture in Norman times. Anglo-Saxon art did not "die an heroic death at Hastings" but it survived the conquest and joined in the remarkable development of Romanesque sculpture, up until its mature forms of the 12th century. What is more, it even influenced the art of Normandy and other areas in northern France. We can quote here Neil Stratford, who said about Żarnecki that "he has quite literally rewritten a whole chapter of England's artistic history, taking the sculpture and 'minor arts' of the Norman period and placing them firmly in the wider spectrum of European Romanesque".
Żarnecki was as well acquainted with this European "context" for English art as he was with Romanesque England itself. His trips to the Continent resulted in numerous studies — on French sculpture, e.g. Gislebertus and Claus Sluter , and on Scandinavian, Swiss, Spanish, Italian, German and Polish art . In several dozens of his reviews of publications and exhibitions he took his own stand on various areas of European art: architecture, architectural and free-standing sculpture, wall-painting, stained glass and manuscript illumination, as well as artistic handicrafts.
It would not be easy to draw up a full list of Żarnecki's interests, as they reached far beyond the Latin world , nor of his preferred artistic genres . This broadness of horizons, spanning various areas of art and various regions of Europe, was united by a common research method: examining a particular work of art in relation to the output of other artistic milieus. This quality gives Żarnecki's research a supra-regional dimension. His early association with the Warburg Institute and Fritz Saxl (as well as his later close friendship with Ernst Gombrich) did not influence his research methods. Although he has left several iconographic studies , it was the stylistic features of a work of art, its genetic relationships and the migration of forms between various artistic milieus that have remained the main focus of his scholarly interest.
On the basis of his analytical reflections Żarnecki founded studies dealing with more detailed problems. He devoted special attention to the art of medieval monasteries (1972) ; in independent articles and contributions to collective works he analysed whole epochs and particular areas in medieval art ; he investigated far-reaching phenomena and stylistic transformations . His Romanesque Art (1970) was translated into several languages, e.g. Japanese and Polish , whereas the Art of the Medieval World found its readers in China .
In England, a beautiful crowning of his lifetime of research was the organisation of the aforementioned, London exhibition of English Romanesque art (1984) and the texts he published in its catalogue . He was also deeply engaged in the realisation of his last great achievement: the corpus of Romanesque sculpture in Great Britain and Ireland. First, he introduced its programme to wider audience, and then reviewed the resulting volumes .
The sixty-five years spent in England had made Żarnecki a scholar devoted to the artistic history of his foster fatherland. Yet, till the very end he had preserved the deep consciousness of his national roots, which manifested itself in regular contacts with fellow medievalists in Poland and the numerous gifts he sent to the library of the Art History Institute of the Jagiellonian University. In whatever way he felt this bond, Jerzy Żarnecki was an outstanding art historian; he was, too, a great man.