Acropolis – Kazimierz Michałowski
Kazimierz Michałowski's Akropol (Acropolis) is a harbinger of a popular series of albums devoted to his research on ancient art and culture.
Its succeeding volumes, which were provided with a uniform design and illustrated with Kazimierz Dziewanowski's photographs, usually concentrated on the sites of the professor's archaeological research. Akropol is, however, a particular prelude when it comes to both its programmatic and artistic value. The photographs were authored by two outstanding photographers who were at the peak of their careers at the time – Edward Hartwig and Tadeusz Sumiński. Ideologically, the album perfectly subscribes to the nostalgia manifested by the Polish humanists of the first half of the 20th century, most succinctly expressed right before the outbreak of World War Two, in the title of Jan Parandowski's article published in the Arkady monthly – “Polska leży nad Morzem Śródziemnym” (Poland Lies by the Mediterranean).
The name of Akropol's publisher, Arkady, established in 1957, was a conscious reference to that luxurious art magazine, while journeys towards ancient times were one of the possible paths leading to the other side of the Iron Curtain. On one hand, this timeless story about the Acropolis of Athens catered to the hunger for travel, unattainable to majority of the citizens of Polish People's Republic, and on the other, matched a broader cultural and civilizational longing. The archaeological expeditions led by Professor Michałowski in Egypt, which resulted in, among others, the notable discovery of the Farras frescoes, were a substitute for Poland's pre-war pipe dreams and colonial ambitions, whereas in the Polish People's Republic, they fortified the propagandist image of a country priding itself in its high level of education, culture, and art. Such also was the aesthetically sophisticated and quite modern image of the Acropolis created by Hartwig and Sumiński.
The book's theme is rather unusual for both photographers. Hartwig, who in the 1960s modernised his pictorial view of reality (which he demonstrated in Fotografika, published almost at the same time), here had to adjust his expression to the static forms of classical architecture. Sumiński, these days known mostly for his photographic monumentalisation of industrial forms, also suspended his creative point of view for the duration of the Greek trip. Both photographers present relics of old shrines in a similar way (it is even hard to distinguish between their respective shots). The narrative corresponds with the logic of sightseeing – from open views of the hill, through gradual close-ups, to details, including elements of sculptures photographed at the Acropolis Museum. The album is not so much an exercise in new ways of looking as the creative execution of a specific commission.
The seemingly textbook-like formula does not exclude an element of photographic play. Some of the photographs include self-referential motifs: figures of the photographers at work and large format cameras set up among the ruins. The Acropolis is an immensely cliché theme – both for professional and amateur photographers. While wandering through the ancient columns, Hartwig and Sumiński searched for less obvious frames, games of light and shadows, gladly introducing human staffage. It is an idyllic, aestheticised depiction of the Athenian hill, from the times before it was flooded with tourists. The pensive, filigree silhouettes of the visitors effectively complement the views and serve a more powerful representation of the monumental scale of the Acropolis, without, however, interrupting its majesty. It is a contemplative, nowadays impossible, account.
The book seduces with the rotogravure print, typical of its era, whose heavy blacks and silvery greys enhance the monumentalism of the portrayed antique architecture. Its modern, moderate graphic design is also noteworthy. It is based on two types of spreads: the first, prevailing one comprises two photographs – one on each page – separated by a thin stripe of white margin running along the spine; the other one, recurring every dozen or several dozen pages – is a single photograph imposed with bleed across the entire spread. The dust jacket is also interesting, with a simple dominant typographic composition edited into a graphically manipulated and attractively framed photograph. It is one of those fortunate cases where a book's cover is appealing despite the limited, poor resources.