Exhibition of Antiquities and Objects of Art in Warsaw (1856/7)

– Aleksandra Fedorowicz-Jackowska

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In the 1850s, with no improvement of the political situation on the horizon, Polish society, particularly metropolitan intelligentsia, began to actively advocate for the development of culture and art. As a result, the Warsaw antiquarian milieu came up with an idea to organise the Exhibition of Antiquities and Objects of Art held from June 1st 1856 to February 8th 1857. It was on this occasion that Karol Beyer (1818–1877), the foremost personality in Polish photography in its early period of development, produced a full-leather album with 31 hand-mounted salted paper prints with detailed captions in cursive script and lithographed borders showing selected artefacts from the exhibition.

The Warsaw Exhibition of Antiquities and Objects of Art presented to the public almost 1500 artefacts sent by collectors from all three partitions. To the untrained eye the objects may have functioned as mere curiosities and randomly amassed group of objects. This was strengthened by the exhibition’s style of presentation, classification of the objects by purpose or function, and even the exhibition title as it makes no mention of the origins of the displayed artefacts. The exhibition was advertised mostly as a charitable initiative (the official title of the exhibition was: The Exhibition of Antiquities and Objects of Art To Finance the Most Holy Virgin Mary Shelter) and without the aid of the printed material that accompanied the exhibition it remained a group of interesting and at some point functional historical objects with no clear past nor context. The reason for that was the political situation and the ever-present censorship, which made the organisation of the exhibition of the Polish monuments of art and antiquities impossible. Nonetheless, the same exhibition objects as presented by Beyer in his album, first and foremost attested to the long history of the Polish territories and the unequivocal right of the nation to independent existence.

Comparing the few wider shots from the album one observes a pretty straightforward approach to the strategies of display—objects of diverse origins are grouped together, forming a horror-vacui-like composition. However, at the same time Beyer’s album’s captions inform the viewer about genealogy of the photographed objects. The dressing table from plate number XXX features the coat of arms of the queen consort to the Polish king Jan III Sobieski (La Grange d’Arquien) and the Polish emblem. The gold and chalcedony cup from the same plate belonged to Stanisław Małachowski, the first Prime Minister of Poland. Furthermore, plates number XVI and XXVIII refer to the Battle of Vienna, which was the crowning and final achievement of the Polish protection of Europe against ‘barbarian’ enemies, when the Polish king Jan Sobieski led the Polish army to rescue Vienna from the Turks. What we see on plate number XVI is an oval gold-plated salver embossed with a scene of the triumphant entry of Jan III Sobieski in city of Kraków. Plate XXVIII presents an ebony cabinet inlaid with tortoise shell and ivory. The piece of furniture is adorned with the Sobieskis’s coat of arms. From the photograph’s caption one finds out that the cabinet was a gift to the Polish king from Pope Innocent XI after the 1683 siege and liberation of Vienna.

Beyer’s album follows a simple model of presenting the pictures, with one image mounted per page and a singular photograph of the exhibition’s few artefacts and title on a title page. What should be considered quite forward-thinking at the time is the use of artefact scales to give a sense of the object’s size. Perhaps it was there to give the image more scientific weight and credit, perhaps it was something Beyer copied from albums he knew beforehand. Beyer’s album is also quite user-friendly, to borrow a word from our twentieth-first-century vocabulary. Each photographed object has its own handwritten identification number and there’s always a caption beneath the image. Each photograph has its own lithographed gold frame with contact information of its author and the exhibition details (photographs were also available as singular plates, while the whole album was sold for 50 silver rubles, the plate was available for 2).

At the beginning of Beyer’s venture, there must have been a consideration of how historical and cultural content could be suitably presented to be relevant for contemporary Polish audience. Beyer was a businessman and he ran a business enterprise, hence the album was a means of exploiting financially both the popularity of antiquarianism and the wish for national distinction at a time when Poland was erased from the political landscape of Europe. His clear association of objects with events acted as fuel for the creation of monuments as memorials of the nation’s past, its previous glory, military prowess, and cultural taste.

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