Harvest Time

28 March 2023

We talk to Robert Piaskowski about Cracovian anniversaries in 2023, and much more besides.

Grzegorz Słącz: This year, events in Kraków are marked by numerous anniversaries. We like them, right?

Robert Piaskowski: We do, but we also need them! Anniversaries reinforce our identity, bring us pride and remind us of the myriad cultural phenomena and personalities from our city. This year’s anniversaries have been officially announced by the Polish parliament; after all Copernicus, Matejko, Tetmajer, Nowosielski and Szymborska aren’t just acclaimed Cracovians – they have a major impact on Poland’s culture as a whole. We are also marking 45 years since Kraków’s historic centre was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, and a decade of Kraków UNESCO City of Literature. This is the perfect opportunity to reaffirm our partnerships and communities; to see how many individuals and institutions work on anniversary projects to bring new meanings and build new alliances. This year, these long-term projects resonate particularly clearly. The centenary of the birth of Wisława Szymborska brings important publishing projects: the complete collection of her poetry by Znak and her correspondence published by a5, the Szymborska Park dedicated to her is due to be launched in early July as an investment financed from the civic budget, and there are plans for an anniversary exhibition in the autumn.
Although in popular Polish narrative Nicolaus Copernicus is more closely associated with Frombork, Malbork and Toruń, the astronomer studied here, at the Jagiellonian University; the manuscript of his most famous work which revolutionised how humankind perceives the cosmos is kept at the Jagiellonian Library. Kopernika Street intersects the Wesoła district – home to innovative cultural concepts. Kraków hosts a science festival dedicated to Copernicus, exploring the ties between science and the humanities. It’s hardly a surprise that Kraków is an active participant in Copernican celebrations!

Jan Matejko, Nicolaus Copernicus, sketch to the painting Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversation with God, oil on cardboard, 1871, in the collections of the National Museum in Krakow, photo by Photo Studio MNK

Are anniversaries no longer one-off events? We had a similar situations with the recent celebrations dedicated to Wyspiański, which lasted almost two years.
That’s right: it’s more like a harvest after a period of hard work. We could mention Year of Lem, or, a bit earlier, Year of Miłosz. Anniversaries are deeply rooted in Kraków’s academic – and cultural! – life. Carefully planned events give them a popular or even mass dimension. Their participatory, inclusive and educational aspects inspire participants to learn more about the individuals being commemorated.
The initiatives showcase people who may seem to have been consigned to history books. Such anniversaries confirm their continuity and serve as a neverending process of reinterpreting and integrating them. This is especially important when it comes to engaging various audiences, in particular young people. 

That’s not always easy…
I must admit, when I first heard about the proposed Year of Tetmajer, I wasn’t especially enthused. In spite of his roots in local and Young Poland traditions, he never seemed to me to be particularly relevant today. But this made me think: not many people appreciate the important role Tetmajer played in Poland’s fight for independence, or his work towards women’s emancipation. Now that we contemplate issues such as the violence of serfdom and the oppression of peasants throughout Poland’s history, Tetmajer’s art and activities beyond it gain a fresh, important meaning. Additionally, when we delve deeper into his artistic journey, we discover a wealth of colours, themes and patterns with a potential for exploration in visual arts. Thus Tetmajer steps beyond the “Young Poland” pigeonhole.

There were no similar concerns with the Year of Matejko, were there?
It’s certainly worth presenting Jan Matejko as an artist who intentionally used the tools of his art to build a vast repository of meanings; as a proponent of identity, patriotism and Poland’s proud history, as an important individual in Kraków’s history. After all, we are talking about the founder of the Academy of Fine Arts – the oldest art school in Poland – and the father of Polish history painting. His works continue to captivate the public: during the celebrations of the anniversary of the Sigismund Bell two years ago, the presentation of the painting The Hanging of the Sigismund Bell at the Cathedral Tower in 1521 in Kraków at Wawel Castle, loaned especially for the occasion, attracted enormous crowds. Matejko’s paintings stir powerful emotions and serve as an example of a subjective version of history created to preserve the nation’s vision of itself. It would be impossible to overstate the love the artist felt for Kraków: he renounced his honorary citizenship of the city as a protest against the destruction of old monastery buildings to be replaced by the present-day Juliusz Słowacki Theatre. He went as far as prohibiting his paintings from being shown in Kraków. And while this gesture reveals his conservative nature, it cannot be denied that he had his own vision and role as a precursor of shaping social narratives based on history and national mythology.

Jan Matejko in the studio by the painting Constitution of 3 May 1791, photograph, 1891, in the collection of the Jan Matejko House – a branch of the National Museum in Krakow, photo by Photo Studio MNK

Let’s jump forward a century: during the 1970s, UNESCO made a decision which turned the world’s eyes towards Kraków.
We owe it to the hard work of Polish historians and custodians. Kraków wasn’t just behind the Iron Curtain – it was undergoing a permanent ecological catastrophe. It’s notable that UNESCO’s decision to add Kraków’s historic centre to its World Heritage List was followed by the foundation of the Social Committee for the Restoration of Monuments of Kraków.
Kraków’s entry was very special, as a city portraying an ever-changing and ever-developing urban ecosystem. If we think more on what UNESCO understands as the Outstanding Universal Value, we’d conclude that the entry also includes Nowa Huta, Fortress Kraków, the abbey in Tyniec and Kraków’s mounds; perhaps not quite in name, but certainly in the spirit of the enterprise. That’s why we changed the signs welcoming visitors to Kraków to say “Welcome to the UNESCO World Heritage city”.
Thanks to that decision of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which turned attention on Kraków and launched a comprehensive programme of renovation of the city’s substance, we can now be proud of the spectacular changes. They include the ongoing cultural ventures contributing to the revitalisation of places such as Świętego Wawrzyńca Quarter, the MOCAK museum and the Schindler’s Factory in Zabłocie, Łaźnia Nowa Theatre and the Utopia House in Nowa Huta, the Museum of Photography… All the activities which find new functions for historic buildings and return them to their past glory are the result of the deep awareness of Kraków’s communities, institutions and the city itself in terms of the significance of the 1978 listing.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Kraków being awarded the title of UNESCO City of Literature. How would you sum up the last decade?
The title helped us take a holistic look at the entire ecosystem of the local literary circles – heterogeneous and powerful yet struggling with their own problems. Within just 12 months of Kraków being awarded the title, the city centre lost four bookshops, including the flagship Empik store – a veritable cultural centre at the Main Market Square. Their loss made us acutely aware of the importance of mechanisms of systemic support.
Many fascinating things have happened since. We are implementing programmes supporting bookselling; we are working to help integrate the industry and support indie and second-hand bookshops. Kraków is now home to creative writing schools, programmes for translators and support networks for publishers. Local libraries have joined forces: the Kraków Library is now one of the largest institutions of its kind in Poland and Europe, and it operates on an IT platform integrated with the Kraków City Card. And let’s not forget the international competition for the design of the Planet Lem Centre of Literature and Language. The popular Conrad and Miłosz literary festivals are being joined by more recent events, such as the Megabit Bomb and the Comic Book Festival.
Although we lost many important, charismatic representatives of Kraków’s literary circles in recent years, including Wisława Szymborska and Adam Zagajewski, a new generation of brilliant authors is emerging and taking the literary competition world by storm. And Kraków has plenty of literary awards of its own, from children’s literature, via poetry and prose to literary criticism.
It’s also important not to lose sight of the enthusiasm of readers of all ages! It is their cultural capital, imagination and ability to read myriad cultural texts that make our city resistant to ideologies, atomisation and social alienation. The category of social wellbeing is closely linked with literature, with reading and telling stories, with finding ever new essences in our city. 

Conrad Festival 2019, meeting with Mariusz Szczygieł, 24.10.2019, Czeczotka Palace, photo by Robert Słuszniak

And let’s not forget another anniversary: 550 years since the first printing press in Poland, in Kraków of course. It will be an important element of this year's Museum Night, coming on 19 May!
It’s significant that the first printed matter was the wall calendar Almanach Cracoviense; it’s also fascinating to note that printing is closely linked with organising the lives of individuals and communities. We could talk for a long time about printing houses which once filled today’s university quarter – they are stories of reformation, counter-reformation, Copernican ideas, early Jewish prints and the first holy books written in Cyrillic. And that’s a fascinating counterpoint to yet another anniversary: the Year of Jerzy Nowosielski, an extraordinary artist who brought elements of the Eastern Orthodox Church sacrum into Polish culture.

Robert Piaskowski
Polish philologist, sociologist, diplomat, musician, commentator on cultural life, music lover, Programme Director at KBF, currently Plenipotentiary of the Mayor of the City of Kraków for Culture.

The interview was published in the 1/2023 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.


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