The exhibition attempts to respond to the current debate in Poland and around the world on the “crisis of Enlightenment values.” The issue of the Enlightenment is always an issue of the here and now: any understanding of today’s reality without drawing on the sources of modernity will always be incomplete. This is clearly evident in the Polish context, where discussions and conflicts over the approach to modernity, and the role of religion and tradition, the significance of what is public and shared, have remained unresolved since the days of Stanisław August, but continue to drive thinking about a better future.
Two hundred years ago, in 1818, the Commission for Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment purchased the famed Cabinet of Drawings from the heirs of King Stanisław August—a collection of drawings and prints reflecting the modernizing passions and ambitions of the ruler, but also created with an eye to the artistic education of future generations. The king’s print collection at the Royal University of Warsaw, expanded by a gift from Stanisław Kostka Potocki, formed the core of the first public collection of drawings and prints in Polish lands, and functions to this day as the University of Warsaw Print Collection—one of the city’s little-known but publicly accessible treasures. The exhibition "What Is Enlightenment?" thus touches on the identity of two institutions. On one hand, it re-examines the canon of the University of Warsaw Print Collection, and on the other hand contributes to the reflections on modernity carried on by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, embodying the very origins of the notion of modernity.
The dialogue presented in the exhibition generates a vision of the Enlightenment as an era marked by crisis and conflict, but also an era that still endures—not as a phantom or absence, but as a living framework shaping our contemporary world. The Enlightenment will last as long as an attitude of critical thought is pursued.
Exhibition prepared by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Library of the University of Warsaw. Project co-financed by the City of Warsaw.