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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Katarzyna Kobro

I had never heard of Katarzyna Kobro (1898–1951) before seeing “Kobro & Strzemiński: New Art in Turbulent Times” at the Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden, which features more than 60 Kobro and Strzemiński works, augmented by others by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Theo van Doesburg, Henryk Stażewski, Jean Hélion, Piet Mondrian and Georges Vantongerloo.

Deeply engaged with the avant-garde movements of their time; Kobro and Strzemiński were on the artistic vanguard, developing innovative ideas and producing extraordinary work, yet they remained virtually unknown until only recently.

Kobro, the more interesting artist, worked in sculpture, painting, architecture, set design and graphic design. Though her life began auspiciously—she was born into an affluent German Russian family in Moscow—hers was an existence marked by persecution, illness, war and betrayal.

As a young woman, Kobro studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and was a member of the trade union of artists from the City of Moscow which included Kazimir Malevich, Olga Rozanova, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. In 1920 she married Władysław Strzemiński (1893–1952). Two years later when the Soviet regime cracked down on artistic freedom, the couple fled to Poland.

The first decade in Poland was professionally rewarding for both Kobro and Strzemiński. Fresh from Moscow, a dynamic art center, they were immediately embraced by the Polish art scene and joined (in successive order) the important artists collectives, Blok, Praesens and the a.r. group, all of which drew inspiration from constructionism.

It was a heady time. Kobro gained widespread recognition when she presented her work first at the International Theater Exposition in New York and then in 1928 and 1929 when she exhibited in the two Salon for Modernists shows in Warsaw and the Autumn Salon in Paris. Following this, her sculptures were exhibited in Brussels, The Hague and Amsterdam. In 1931 Kobro and her husband published their seminal essay “Composing Space/Calculations of Space-Time Rhythms”, which examined sculptures’ relation to space throughout art history. In 1932, Kobro became a member of the Abstraction-Creation Group which brought together avant-garde artists from across Europe.

But following the birth of her daughter, Nika in 1932, Kobro’s life began to unravel. The baby was sickly and Kobro had to devote all her energy to caring for her. 

When Germany invaded Poland, Kobro, Strzemiński and their daughter fled to the East of the country. But then the Soviet Union invaded Poland, and fearing they’d be sent back to the Soviet Union if discovered, they returned to Łódź where Kobro found that many of the works she had left behind had disappeared. In the war years that followed, the family was destitute. Kobro was forced to use her wooden sculptures as firewood. In addition to the hardships, the couple was also in considerable danger as the a.r. group was looked upon as degenerate. The difficult conditions caused Kobro and Strzemiński’s relationship to fall apart.

Things did not improve when the war ended and the couple separated. Kobro was not well and her husband tried unsuccessfully to get custody of Nika. He also used his academic position to blackball Kobro so she couldn’t find work at the university. To make matters worse, Kobro was accused of "deviating from the Polish nationality", by having signed the Russian List during the German occupation. She had done so to get better food rations and to prevent her belongings from being confiscated. Sentenced to six months in prison, she was released on appeal. When Łódź’s Museum of Modern Art reopened in 1948, Kobro was not invited to the opening despite the fact that her work was in the exhibition. Around this time, she produced her final sculptures—weighty, sensual female nudes, a significant departure from the objective abstractions of the 1920s and ‘30s. Made of plaster, they are quiet, self-contained little gems with nothing extraneous added.

In 1951 at the age of 53, Kobro died. At her death and for many years thereafter she was overshadowed by her husband. With the advent of the conceptual and minimalist movements, a renewed interest developed around her work. Finally, in 1991 Kobro’s first solo exhibition was held posthumously at the Abteiberg Museum in Mönchengladbach, Germany.

Kobro relied on arithmetic and logic to create precise abstraction, determined to produce form devoid of any kind of individualism, subjectivism or expressionism. For her, sculpture was: “a laboratory experiment into methods of resolving space.” Her spatial theories were radical. In sculpture, she did not view space as separate from mass, she felt it should be invited into the composition, coexisting with it as part of the work. It made sculpture a far more expansive art form than painting, as space, which she considered part of it, is limitless.

"Sculpture is a part of space. That is why the condition for its organic character is its relation with space. Sculpture should not be a composition of form enclosed in mass, but rather an open space construction where the inside of the compositional space is connected with the outside. Rhythm is compositional unity. The energy of subsequent shapes in space produces a spatiotemporal rhythm."

Kobro’s small-scale sculptures have a presence that belies their size and such elegant restraint. Those made with thin painted sheet metal bend and undulate with a seductive fluidly. These resemble architectural fragments—two walls meeting at a corner and a doorway, or 3-D versions of passages from a painting by Mondrian or van Doesburg. In one architectural maquette, one of her sculptural forms is incorporated into a house and it fits perfectly in like a missing puzzle piece.

Although she lived through extraordinary events, the Russian Revolution and World War II, which each tainted her existence with their dual tribulations, Kobro stands as a perfect example of the struggle women face as they pursue an artistic life. She never got to experience the success that was her due, but the work remains, and it ensures she will not be forgotten.

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