‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ by Agata Chinowska

In August 1694 Mrs. Herbert and a draughtsman named Mr. Neville, the characters of Peter Greenway’s film, signed a contract that included the following conditions: ‘Mr. Neville’s service as draughtsman for twelve days, for the manufacture of 12 drawings of the estate and gardens, parks and outlying buildings of Mr. Herbert’s Property. The sites of the twelve drawings to be chosen at his discretion, though advised by Mrs. Herbert (…)”.
The Arsenal Gallery is found in the center of Białystok, in a historical building near the Branicki Palace. Theoretically, Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s could have played out precisely here. Alluding to the British director’s famous work and considering the context of the location, the Gallery has invited three artists to create an artistic work/project that would have the Branicki Palace as its subject. Each artist has spent somewhat more time here than Mr. Neville did at Mr. Herbert’s estate. In effect, three independent creations were born, thankfully without a corpse in the background. The “Draughtsman’s Contract” exhibition constitutes a summary of the successive residencies, lasting from July to September 2017, of: Karolina Bielawska, Julie Chovin and Rafał Żarski. And although the Arsenal Gallery has been situated in the Palace’s vicinity for over 50 years, “Draughtman’s Contract” is the first exhibition that has taken this special location of the institution as its subject.
The Branicki Palace is the central point and most important building in the city. In 1691, Stefan M. Branicki started reconstruction of his seat in Białystok, transforming it into a baroque residence according to the design of Dutch architect Tylman van Gameren, who was already well-known at the time. Works lasted until 1697, and the architect’s bold decisions decided the appearance of the Palace today. Stefan Branicki’s plans were expanded with great success by his son, Jan Klemens, and it is he who is called the architect of a great Białystok. The role of Hetman Branicki’s third wife, Izabella Branicka née Poniatowska, cannot be overlooked, as she “brought a dowry of half a million zlotys and high culture into the relationship”.
The first to visit Białystok was Karolina Bielawska, for whom working with the history and context of a place is typical. She often creates site-specific works, building her own narrative while relating to the very essence of painting at the same time. The artist’s residency at Arsenal Gallery coincided with conservation works in the Aula Magna of Branicki Palace. This situation became a starting point for Bielawksa. She created a painting installation titled Complex, which consists of three paintings painted with exactly the same colors and paints (silicate) used during restoration works in the Aula. The titular Complex refers to the space of Branicki Palace: its interior decoration and architecture, as well as to the entire park and palace complex. On the other hand, it ties into the Palace’s fate and turning points in its history. Bielawska draws attention to the problem of destruction of cultural goods and the architectural situation of the palace after the political and social changes of the 20th century. And in the end, the artist’s creation is, above all, a work of pure painting, confronting the structure of painting and hence the organization of all elements making of this discipline of visual art – starting from the material and technical aspects, through the meaning and content of the painting, and ending with the idea of imaging thoughts and emotions itself.
Rafał Żarski also created a work directly relating to the Branicki palace and park complex titled A palace stands at the center of the city. This tri-channel video installation consists of three parts, with one part filmed from a bird’s-eye view, the second part endeavoring to show the natural daily rhythm in the palace gardens, and the third involving actors. Żarski’s work confronts the palace concept from the times of Hetman Branicki with its actual function, utility and method of use by today’s residents of Białystok. The video has the character of an instructional mockumentary, with the script being created on the basis of daily observations of the Palace’s surroundings, repeating events arising from the scenery, the atmosphere of the place, as well as regulations concerning use of the Palace’s infrastructure.
The result of French artist Julie Chovin’s month-long residency in Białystok is a project consisting of a film and a part inspired by the residential architecture of Białystok in the 1990s and early 2000s. The film, titled Escaped in a Formal Garden, relates to the conventions of wildlife films. A zoo, called Zwierzyniec, neighbored the palace gardens of Izabella and Klemens Branicki, housing exotic animals from faraway lands. The artist spun this thread, creating something that is nearly a Jurassic Park remake.
The second, much more complex, work titled Variations on Residences: Białystok was the result of Chovin’s numerous journeys and walks through Białystok. The artist went beyond the walls of the palace and its gardens and reached residential estates distant from the city center. The style of development shocked her. And it is quite a spectacle indeed. Here, Robert Venturi’s rule of “less is a bore” – being a paraphrase of modernist pioneer Mies van der Rohe’s famous “less is more” – was applied with gusto by the architects who designed the estates of Nowe Miasto II, Leśna Dolina, or the so-called Nowe Bojary. Even today, Venturi is acknowledged as one of the most important representatives of post-modernism in architecture, and if post-modernism is pastiche, mixing of styles, and its central rule is that there are no rules, then the estates of Białystok should be recognized as a jewel of Polish post-modernism. It seems to me that this is perfectly illustrated by a quotation from the text of Grażyna Dąbrowska-Milewska, published in the book Zabudowa mieszkaniowa w kształtowaniu przestrzeni miasta Białystok 1989–2004 [Residential development in the shaping of the space of the city of Białystok 1989-2004], describing the residential development on Kręta street (part of the Nowe Miasto II estate): “The architect, Agnieszka Duda, operates using known and accepted forms originating from the tradition of good urban architecture. Here we have, above all, elements of existential architecture translated into the language of architectural space; boundaries determined by peripheral development, symbolic gates – entrances to the complex flanked by towers, the place – the green heart of an oasis”, and later: “The carefully chosen, sober color scheme draws attention – the subdued green, greys, creams on walls and the warm terracotta red of the roofs. From a more distant perspective, the complex appears as a small town with a picturesque silhouette of a vibrating line of roofs. Thanks to its contents, it creates the impression of a defensive structure – the border structures protect the interior securely”[*].
Chovin found elements of the Palace in these “well-known forms” – could the book’s author have had precisely the Branicki Palace in mind as an inspiration for the post-modernist estates of Białystok? The artist made a series of photographs titled Post-Palace – three of them can be seen at the “Draughtman’s contract” exhibition. And finally, those colors described by the author of the cited publication – during her stay in Białystok, Chovin learned a very important term characterizing a Polish residential estate: PASTELOZA (Eng. PASTELOSIS)!

Agata Chinowska, 2018

[*]    G. Dąbrowska-Milewska, „Rozwój osiedla Nowe Miasto II”, Zabudowa mieszkaniowa w kształtowaniu przestrzeni miasta Białystok 1989–2004, pod red. G. Dąbrowskiej-Milewskiej, Białystok 2005, s. 131.