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Piotr Piotrowski: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Jul 22, 2015

Amy Bryzgel is lecturer in history of art in the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

The field of art history and culture in Central and Eastern Europe mourns the loss of its unofficial cultural ambassador: the art historian, curator, and critic Piotr Piotrowski, who died on May 3, 2015, at the age of 63. The author of numerous publications, Piotrowski was a pioneer of new methods of study and approach to the art history of the region.

Piotrowski was professor ordinarius in the Department of Art History at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, where he was also chair of the department (1999–2008) and head of modern art history (1996–2009). He was director of the National Museum in Warsaw from 2009 to 2010 and served on a number of advisory boards, such as those for the National Gallery of Prague (academic board), Ars (Slovak Academy of Sciences), and Art Margins (MIT Press, editorial board). Piotrowski was also a permanent research fellow of the Graduate School for East and South-East European Studies, a program of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich and Regensburg University. In 2010 he was given the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory, which acknowledges the dedication of an arts and culture professional to deepening and broadening internationally the knowledge of visual art and culture in Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe. He held numerous academic fellowships, from the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts (2009), CASVA in Washington, DC (1989–90), and most recently the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles (2015). Piotrowski’s most recent books, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989 (Reaktion Books, 2009) and Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (Reaktion Books, 2012), have set the standard for comparative studies of modern and contemporary art in East Central Europe. Both are key texts not only in the field of Central and East European art history, but also for art history in general.

Piotrowski’s contributions to the field, however, go well beyond his substantial and impressive list of accomplishments. He was one of the guiding forces in the field of Central and Eastern European art history. His publications are at the forefront of the academic study and research of an area that had largely been neglected by Western scholars throughout the Cold War and is only recently expanding from its previously self-contained national histories. What’s more, Piotrowski’s project didn’t just unearth these practices and expose them to the West; in writing these histories he also criticized the so-called universal canon of art history, offering a view from “the margins” to “expose fractures within center,” to use his words. His project was to subvert the traditional geography of art, calling for a horizontal approach that would eventually contribute to the globalization of Eastern European art and help to develop a true global art history.

Those who knew Piotrowski remember his warmth and generosity and his quick, infectious sense of humor. Regardless of the situation, his personality always shined through—despite being a man of considerable achievements, publications, and awards, he was incredibly humble. Furthermore, he was extremely dedicated to the field and to his work and uncompromising in his principles, regardless of the cost to him personally or professionally. In October 2014, he organized a large and very successful conference in Lublin, Poland, entitled “East European Art Seen from the Global Perspective: Past and Present,” and was working to produce the conference reader up until his death.

All who knew his work agree on one thing: Piotr Piotrowski left us far too soon. Most of us expected to look forward to many more years of his talks, publications, exhibitions, and projects. One small bright spot we can look forward to is his forthcoming publication, From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum, edited with Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius and published by Ashgate. Furthermore, it must be remembered that Piotrowski was a teacher—not only to his many undergraduate, postgraduate, and PhD students, but also to those who read his work and followed his example. Piotrowski taught us all very much, and in our future work, we can only hope to insure that his spirit will live on.

Filed under: Obituaries