Remaking History

7 minute read

It’s not only the summer sky over Berlin that’s a luminous blue these days. After it was hidden under a coat of biege-gray paint for decades, the elegantly curved “firmament” celing arching over the famous dome hall in the Old National Gallery in Germany’s capital, too, now shines in its original cerulean color again. But that’s not due to the benevolence of Saint Peter but the skills of 69-year-old painter Jadwiga Styrna-Nawrocka, a member of the renowned guild of Polish restorers who practice their craft all over the world, who painstakingly recreated the former spelndor of the 19th century museum’s main attraction with pencil, airbrush, and paint rollers.

Poland has produced a steady stream of highly skilled, internationally active restorers and conservators like Styrna-Nawrocka since the end of World War II, when much of the country’s cultural heritage was lying in ruins after six years of occupation and warfare. The Nazis had systematically demolished the historic centers of Warsaw and other Polish cities to crush the population’s national pride and identity. The reconstruction of these buildings was therefore much more than merely the pragmatic rebuilding of destroyed tenements. It became an emotionally charged effort of paramount national importance. “Our fatherland was so terribly destroyed that it needed conservatory revival,” says Iwona Szmelter, the plenipotentiary of the rector of Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts. “Hardly anywhere in the West did such wholesale destruction occur. That’s why our experiences are unique.”

To provide the many qualified conservators necessary to work on the giant, rubble-strewn building sites all over the country, Poland “had to accomplish a revolution in professional training,” says Szmelter. While in other countries, restorers were usually self-taught or graduates of craftsmen’s colleges, Poland set up university courses in conservation and restoration techniques in Krakow and Warsaw in the 1950s and in Torun in 1969. Like Jadwiga Styrna-Nawrocka, who studied painting and restoration at the Krakow academy in her youth, students can specialize in anything from conservatory chemistry to the preservation of stone sculptures, mural paintings and historical textiles.

Early in the 1950s, recognizing the propaganda value of recreating Poland’s national heritage, communist authorities also founded the Atelier for Conservation of Cultural Property (PKZ) and staffed it with the scores of restorers and conservators graduating from the fine arts academies. In its hey-day, the workshop grew to “gigantic proportions, comprising some 10,000 employees working in 21 regional branches,” says Jerzy Kowal, head of the PKZ foreign trade office in Cologne, a privatized offshoot and successor to the formerly state-run PKZ in Warsaw. This branch of the PKZ helped renovate the interior of Berlin’s Old National Gallery. Unique in Europe because of its large number of specialists, the PKZ became a giant conservatory institute offering a wide array of services including art-historical research and documentation.

With their superior qualifications, Polish restorers and conservators soon were greatly sought after abroad as well. Many left to work for PKZ’s foreign field offices, which have been established in various European and Asian countries since the 1970s. Others went freelance, joining in prestigious restoration projects like Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s temple, the 16th century citadel in Algier’s Casbah and the Cambodian temple complex of Angkor Wat. “There are two Polish export specialties,” jokes Szmelter, “vodka and conservators.”

Germany has been a special focus of Polish restoration companies ever since 1970 when, after Chancellor Willi Brandt’s historic visit to Poland, Hans-Jochen Vogel, then the mayor of Munich, invited a PKZ team to conserve the murals adorning the famous medieval town gate, Isar Tor. Other state-subsidized projects, both in the west and the communist east of the country, followed, including the restoration of the baroque Augustusburg palace in Brühl and Sanssouci, the residence of the Prussian kings in Potsdam.

For historic reasons, “there was a lack of conservators in Germany at the time,” says Andrzej Tomaszewski, a professor of art history from Warsaw’s Technical University. Frustration after the war and a feeling of guilt made the Germans want to break with the past and block out history by erecting new buildings rather than reconstructing the old ones, he explains. The royal City Palace in East Berlin, for instance, fell a victim to this policy and was torn down in 1950-51. The same fate befell a large number of historic edificies in Kassel (and many other German cities) in the utilitarian Wirtschaftswunder days of the 1960s. The current debate about the government reoccupying old third Reich and communist buildings like the Palace of the Republic — which was erected on the site of the former city palace between 1973-76 and is now, ironically, in danger of being torn down in its turn — is a 21st century echo of the post-war trend to do away with the relics of an infamous past.

More than 30 years after they first came to ply their trade in Germany, Polish conservators and restorers still have excellent reputations — among both the public and the experts. “Their absolute strength is the authentic reconstruction of objects d’art,” says Wilfried Hansmann, chief conservator of the Rhineland Agency for the Preservation of Monuments in Pulheim, “because they are exceptionally well-trained in artistic [restoration and preservation] techniques.”

Unlike German firms, which usually specialize in only one field of restoration, such as stucco reconstruction, PKZ and its successors offer several crafts under one roof. “They were able to work on all the different groups of materials present in the museum,” says Bernhard Maaz, an art historian at the Old National Gallery, who co-supervised the $58 million reconstruction process. “That was essential for us.” Of the 40 experts the PKZ sent to the Berlin art hall, which was built between 1865 and 1876 to designs by Friedrich August Stüler, some were gilders, some painters, while others were stucco-workers or metal restorers.

Given their skills and reputation, it’s not surprising that most Polish restorers consider themselves more than simple technicians who repair what past masters have created. “I am an artist,” boasts the Lemberg-born Styrna-Nawrocka confidently as she looks at the newly resplendent stucco walls of the dome hall which she painstakingly repainted in a red-and-black marble pattern.

This attitude, ambitious though it is, can sometimes be considered a weakness. Although he admits that “the results [PKZ] achieved in the end are very, very good,” the way they were reached “wasn’t always easy because of the strong artistic demands of their restorers,” says Bernhard Maaz. While the curatorial board of the Old National Gallery demanded that all reconstruction strictly conform with special samples previously approved, the Polish artist-artisans insisted on some artistic license. “We had different aesthetic ideas,” concedes PKZ’s Teresa Stankiewicz, who was in charge of the restoration. “That was the problem.”

Ultimately, the reason the Polish restorers and their clients don’t always see eye-to-eye is a diverging concept of the aim and purpose of restoration. Shaped by their nation’s traumatic past, which called for the complete reconstruction of the facades of historic buildings damaged in the war, it is the Poles’ goal “to bring back the old splendor,” as PKZ’s advertising slogan declares. Internationally, however, “the trend is toward the conservation rather than the recreation of monuments,” argues Andreas Krupa, a member of the managing committee of the Association of German Restorers. “Our aim is to show the entire history of a work of art, including the destruction it might have suffered.”

Although Polish restoration firms are still doing good business, all is not as rosy as it used to be. At the beginning of the 1990s, the state-owned PKZ with its huge number of restorers and conservators was privatized and split into a number of smaller enterprises. While the old national enterprise, which had access to almost unlimited public funds and could thus afford to work for low wages, the new offshoots have to work cost-effectively in an increasingly competitive market. “Economically, it just doesn’t make sense to hold onto rarely sought-after trades,” says Jerzy Kowal from Cologne PKZ, which has 100 employees, most of them sculptors, stone-masons, gilders and painters. “That’s why, once the present generation retires, they are in danger of dying out.” Unless Poland’s expected membership in the European Union triggers another boom in the country’s restoration and conservation industry, it may soon be time for the Poles to conserve their conservators.

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