Can History of Art be fascinating?
My work is very interesting and varied. If I can use the metaphor, quoted by my beloved promotor, an art historian is like Columbus and Pasteur. While of course he’s not sitting on a ship or in a laboratory, but metaphorically he travels in space and time and examines a micro-world through the magnifying glass of research tools. I study the architecture of the 19th century. History of Art consists of very varied areas, each of which has its own methodology and its own characteristics. I travel a lot as part of my work, examining old buildings but I also go deep into the history, sitting in libraries, researching notes in archives and recreating that world. As well as that I analyse the artistic aspect to what was happening at the time.
What exactly is your specialisation?
I’m interested in the 19th century architecture of Gdańsk, especially the man who was the city architect for 36 years and who had a significant influence on the shape of the city as we know it today. The research I conduct along with my colleagues is pioneering, since 19th century Prussian Gdańsk for a very long time was not an object of research, given the post-war political situation. Because of this, our work has been made difficult but it also brings great satisfaction. The period I’m interested in, from about the middle of the 19th century to its end, is a period when the city thrived, because until then it had been a provincial garrison centre. Thanks to the cooperation between the burgomaster, the city architect and the people they attracted to work on developing the town, Gdańsk diametrically changed its face. It was given a metropolitan character. Of course within the limits of its day.
Is a doctorate in History of Art the result of other BA and MA studies?
No, from the beginning I have studied History of Art, from BA to the doctorate. I had periods in different other schools, I graduated from a post-secondary school of art and there were a few other courses along the way.
When did you discover that this branch of knowledge would be your path in life?
My situation is quite special, but I think from the point of view of the history of art, it’s also quite similar. I had slightly different interests and I wanted to go to the Academy of Fine Arts, but I was a few points short. I was very unhappy and came to the decision that I would sit it out on the History of Art course. Once the course began, however, I realised it was something that I found really fascinating and that I really wanted to do, so I stayed on the course.
After the doctorate do you see yourself working at the university or outside, doing “field work”?
I have been thinking about that for a very long time as I have several other professions under my belt. Somehow I will always get by but in my case you can see that if you want something hard enough and can find your feet in the academic world, then there are a lot of opportunities. Since the beginning of the doctorate, I haven’t had to have a paying job. I’ve had several good grants and most of my doctoral studies was spent on German grants of various kinds. I was also involved with the DAAD and spent over a year at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, a lot of time in Berlin and less in the Herder Institute in Marburg. Apart from that, I’m involved in general academic things like organising conferences, for example, which I do for the University and it’s for the benefit of this university and of other institutions. I can see a chance for myself in academic life and it suits me, the style of working suits me.
Apart from the academic work, you are involved in organising conferences and symposia – could you mention a few?
One conference was strictly academic and closely related to what I do at the University of Gdańsk and was connected to the issue of cities around the Baltic and that was a typical academic conference but with the bonus of an academic trip. I managed to do some work at a conference for the Baltic Sea Cultural Centre and that was slightly different in character. It was about cultural institutions which are housed in old sacred buildings and more than being a strictly academic conference, it was a pretext for meeting for the people who work in these institutions, it was as it were designed from above. The papers were more planned and ordered than sent in. Lately we did a student-doctoral congress held two years ago in Cracow. It was a great idea that allowed academic and private contacts to connect and it was orientated around the studies of my colleagues from other institutions. We were eager to keep this up and so we did one in Gdańsk.
With so many obligations, do you have time for a hobby?
I have loads of time – I work it blocks, sometimes I’m sitting from dawn to dusk doing academic work and then later I allow myself to do other things. A lot of my free time I spend with my mum in Kashubia relaxing, I walk in the forest, cycle, swim or ski. My biggest passion is travelling. Last year I was in Georgia with friends, two years ago we went climbing up a volcano in Guadalupe. Now I’ve just got back from a symposium in Wrocław, but I took advantage of the moment to go on a one-day trip with a colleague to Kłodzko.
As you know about old buildings and history, it’s also well known that the guides who lead the various tours are not always 100% faithful to historical facts. Have you ever reacted to hearing such things?
It happens because it’s part of my character, I don’t mince my words, if things reach a critical stage then I have been known to comment.
You have admitted yourself that the period of history you’re interested in is not well-known because of political events. What annoys you most when it comes to perceptions of 19th century Gdańsk?
Now we’re moving away from denying the ‘Germanness’ of Gdańsk, which is self-evident. This was a very cosmopolitan city but there were periods where it was simply Prussian and there’s no point denying it. The second thing is the forced attempts to replace things which don’t exist anymore and can’t be recreated. This isn’t just a problem for Gdańsk, it’s a pan-European problem. What is being built is some sort of historical eye-sores that have nothing in common with the monuments or buildings that stood there earlier.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski