CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Joanna A. Tomicka Curator of European Prints, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie in Warsaw (April, 2023)

To celebrate CODART’s 25th anniversary, this year the Curator in the Spotlight section will feature members that have been involved with CODART since the very beginning.

Having received the very kind invitation to share my reflections to mark CODART’s 25th anniversary has made me realize that I have become one of its veterans. Time flies when you’re having fun! It really has been a wonderful experience and I can hardly believe so much time has passed since we started out.

Joanna A. Tomicka

Joanna A. Tomicka

It was in my high school years that I first became interested in graphic arts – with a special focus on the twentieth century. Somewhat later, in the second year of my studies at Warsaw University’s Institute of Art History, I attended Professor Jan Białostocki’s lectures in Early Modern Art. He inspired me to broaden my range of interests and I became fascinated with this early period. Professor Białostocki’s approach had a lasting impact upon his students’ approach to research, their appreciation of the humanist context, and in numerous other ways. He had a very incisive way of formulating questions and analyzing problems, and his lectures as well as his writings were expressed with remarkable clarity and beauty.

Professor Białostocki supervised my MA thesis Relations between Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and emblems in the 16th and 17th centuries in graphic art. The subject of this thesis determined my subsequent field of research, to which I returned in my exhibitions and publications. Professor Białostocki, as Curator of the Gallery of European Painting at the National Museum in Warsaw, offered me a position at the Print Room, which was then part of the Gallery. This collection of European graphic art is one of the largest in Poland. It has some 100,000 prints, including works produced by the main schools and some that are not represented in any other Polish collection. While I pursued my postgraduate studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the museum became my second home. In my work I often returned to themes such as the traditions of ancient art, humanist iconography, and formal and technical discussions of artists active from the late fifteenth century to 1800. In 1999, I prepared a text including the list of objects for the exhibition Ars mitologica, which I curated in partnership with colleagues at the museum. The show focused on the way in which graphic arts distilled and disseminated subjects and iconographical representations throughout Europe, with special emphasis on the key functions of interpretation, allegory, symbolism, illustrations, and portraits. This perspective was further enriched by examples from the applied arts and their use of graphic prototypes and original iconographical concepts. Since 1996, I have served as Head of what is now the Cabinet of European Prints. I have special responsibility for graphic works of the Netherlandish, Dutch, Flemish and French schools up to 1800.

It was Maria Kluk – CODART’s pioneering spirit in Poland – who introduced me to what was then still a small group of curators of Dutch art. I was honored to be invited to join this distinguished group. Kluk was curator of Early Netherlandish and Dutch painting at the National Museum in Warsaw and had been contacted by Gary Schwartz. She supported the formation of CODART in Poland and was a constant source of new ideas and proposals. The tenures of two directors – Gary Schwartz and Gerdien Verschoor – have spanned most of the twenty-five years of CODART’s existence. Thanks to their efforts, CODART’s formula has expanded with the passage of time, not only in terms of representatives of new countries (such as Argentina, Cuba, and Japan), but also with the greater focus on Flemish art. Most important of all, perhaps, CODART has developed a dynamic network, which was created and cultivated for many years by Gary Schwartz as webmaster. This network, through which members are updated on exhibitions and publications, and receive papers written specifically for CODART as well as interviews with its members, constitutes an invaluable source of information.

Hans Bol (1534-1593), <em>Codex of the Armorial of the Order of the Golden Fleece</em>, 1577<br>Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Hans Bol (1534-1593), Codex of the Armorial of the Order of the Golden Fleece, 1577
Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Gerdien Verschoor constantly sought to provide grants to enable members from countries or institutions whose financial resources were overstretched to attend CODART conferences – a policy maintained by the present director, Maartje Beekman, who took over in 2019. I have attended ten congresses, including one dedicated to Netherlandish-Polish influences and relations (Utrecht, 2004) and the congress organized in Warsaw (2017). Each one has greatly impacted my professional life. They gave me an opportunity to further develop relationships with experts with whom I had in some cases collaborated in the past – authors of successive volumes of The Hollstein Dutch and Flemish Woodcuts, Engravings and Etchings and later The New Hollstein, including Dr. Nadine Orenstein, Dr. Huigen Leeflang, and Dr. Erik Hinterding. Each one visited our collection, many of them multiple times, contributing their precious observations. In some cases, their research findings made it possible to update traditional attributions, or to identify compositions or print states not found anywhere else.

These contacts provided a welcome opportunity to exchange experiences and to collaborate on exhibition catalogues – such as the monographic exhibition of Hercules Segers, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2017. They also yielded invitations to speak at conferences and to collaborate on publications. A wonderful case in point was the collaboration with Dr. Stefaan Hautekeete, whom I consulted about a precious work from our collections, the Codex of the Armorial of the Order of the Golden Fleece (1577). In 2017, the research findings of Dr. Stefaan Hautekeete and myself, concerning both the traditional attribution from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as this work’s intriguing provenance were published in the Journal of the National Museum in Warsaw (New Series). Stefaan Hautekeete reattributed the Codex, attributing the drawings to Hans Bol.

In 2019, the anniversary year of two great artists, I prepared two exhibitions: Rembrandt In Person and Bruegel In Company, both based in their entirety on the collections of the National Museum in Warsaw. The display of works after Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the etching The Rabbit Hunt – the only one by the artist’s hand – was the first full presentation of the works by Bruegel held by this museum. It should be added that the National Museum is the only institution in Poland to possess a collection of early impressions after Bruegel, as well as his own etching – an impression of excellent quality.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1526/1530-1569), <em>The Rabbit Hunt</em>, 1560<br>Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1526/1530-1569), The Rabbit Hunt, 1560
Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

The catalogue accompanying the Rembrandt exhibition updated the states and dating based on Hinterding’s research as published in The New Hollstein of 2013. The show followed another large Rembrandt exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw, in 2006. I prepared Rembrandt’s Drawings and Prints in Polish Collections in partnership with Dr. Anna Kozak and other Polish colleagues. The accompanying publication has become a compendium of the artist’s works on paper in Polish public collections.

CODART gives us so many benefits. It provides a platform where experts who have a great deal in common can exchange ideas, and opportunities to visit collections during congresses or study trips. Equally important is the chance to propose themes for subsequent congresses – themes that reflect current problems or deal in depth with those that are a constant presence. We are treated to presentations ranging from general reflections on our field to perspectives based on specific examples. Topics such as digitization, deaccession, and the conservation of works – emphasizing the crucial importance of collaboration between curators and conservators – tend to recur. This is inevitable, given the constant expansion of our experience, changes in legal provisions, and the development of new conservation technologies. We live in an age in which almost everything tends to be relativized. This instills in curators worldwide a strong urge to set limits and to guard principles in reference to artworks, principles which should not be relativized.

CODART provides a vital platform for discussions on key issues, for spirited debates and controversial proposals. One issue that is becoming more pressing all the time is the task of educating viewers. This task is increasingly assigned to museums – which are expected not just to give background information on artworks but also to educate the public on matters of culture and history. Schools rarely devote enough time to history lessons. This means it is up to museums to provide indispensable context, including the reception of works. Only then can our visitors appreciate what they are seeing not just in terms of aesthetic and emotional factors, but with a fuller picture of the conditions in which they were produced and first seen.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), <em>St Jerome beside a Pollard Willow</em>, 1648<br>Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), St Jerome beside a Pollard Willow, 1648
Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

I have been lecturing at the Graphic Arts Department of the Fine Arts Academy in Warsaw for over 20 years. Over time I have witnessed changes in the initial knowledge with which students are armed upon arrival at the Academy, as well as in their approach to the history of the graphic arts and indeed to history in general. For centuries, graphic art was the lifeblood of art, distributing new iconographical and formal solutions, creating or transmitting new trends, disseminating information about the world. Some centuries-old prints seem both topical and timeless, by reason of their subject matter and/or the means of expression adopted to convey the artist’s perspective. There are other prints, however, whose full appreciation requires an introduction to the historical, social, religious, and political conditions of their day, as well as the indispensable analysis of artistic means. In addition, in this genre we must also take care to give the precise meaning of terms that are often used achronologically – “reproductive graphic art” for instance. This phrase cannot be used in reference to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries in the way it is used of later periods. An analogy with a musical composition is useful. If a score composed for harpsichord is transcribed for an orchestra, we do not call this a “reproduction.” It is a transcription. If a painting or sculpture is rendered in a print, it is subject to interpretation in the process of that transfer. We therefore speak of “interpretive graphic art or “graphic transcription” in certain publications.

This raises an important point, which is salient in many disciplines but particularly so in the graphic arts – the genre of the original. It remains crucial to encourage viewers to study the original. In these days of widespread opportunities to access artworks online, this point is often neglected. While it perhaps matters less in the case of temporary exhibitions – which naturally attract visitors because of their ephemeral nature – it is very important as regards works on permanent display. This recurrent problem calls for innovative solutions. At some point we will reach the point at which all European – if not global – collections are fully digitized. This will provide both a great opportunity and a considerable challenge for future researchers. They will be able to verify or document diverse influences, relationships between artists and workshops, innovations, or other factors previously overlooked. In the case of Old Masters, it is obvious that they form a closed set – that is to say, no new sixteenth-century works can be created; only later versions can be discovered. With such interpretations or new versions of Old Masters, I believe comparisons with the original work are particularly indispensable, for casual viewers and experts alike. This also means that while the curators of the future will need to be proficient in using the new electronic systems, they will also need to possess the same qualities as their predecessors – that is, the ability to tell an original from a copy, ingenuity in devising new ways of displaying a collection and communicating with the public, sensitivity to the changing context, and the ability to strike a balance between presentation and preservation of the artworks’ intrinsic values. Art is a world of infinite complexity, brimming with ideas and forms of expressions. Furthermore, art as commentary, as reflections on the world or attempts to document it, will always remain a fascinating source of knowledge about the world and human experience – fields in which the process of learning and research never ends.

I would like to wish CODART, its team, the Friends, and last but not least the entire membership, a wealth of fresh brilliant ideas and professional satisfaction in this 25th anniversary year and for many years to come.

Joanna A. Tomicka is Curator of European Prints at Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie in Warsaw. She has been a member of CODART since 1998.