Born 1920 in Olesko, Ukraine, died 1972 in Warsaw.
In the history of Polish post-war art, Aleksander Kobzdej is remembered above all for two reasons: as the author of one of the best known painted works embodying the tenets of Socialist Realism and as the creator of one of the most interesting Polish versions of "matter" painting.
In 1939 he began studying architecture at the Lviv Polytechnic Institute. Historical circumstances forced him to suspend his studies after only two years. He completed his degree in 1946 at the Gdańsk Polytechnic Institute, where he went on to lecture (to 1950). Simultaneously, it was during the wartime occupation of Poland that he began to study painting under Władysław Lam. After the war he studied at Krakow's Academy of Fine Arts under the guidance of Eugeniusz Eibisch. He began to lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1951. In 1965 and 1966 (while working simultaneously in Warsaw) he was head of the painting faculty at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunste in Hamburg.
Initially Kobzdej painted in a clearly Post Impressionist vein, though he exhibited an interest in abstract art early on. Towards the end of the 1940s both his paintings and drawings began to allude to the 19th century Realist tradition. He enjoyed the widespread recognition of official authorities and received numerous state awards and distinctions. His position grew during the Socialist Realist period. Beginning in 1950 he was an active participant in official arts reviews, including the annual Polish National Visual Arts Exhibitions organized in Warsaw by the Ministry of Culture and Art. At the first of these he presented a painting titled Podaj cegłę / Pass Me a Brick (1949). This work is considered a model realization of the principles set forth for art by Socialist Realist ideologues precisely for its optimistic and propagandistic tone and its formally schematic nature. In other compositions of this period, however, the painter ably depicted the tragic nature of superhuman effort (Ceglarki / Women Bricklayers, 1950).
Signs of impending change appeared in Kobzdej's work at the beginning of the 1950s in a series of drawings he produced as an outgrowth of his travels to China and Vietnam (1954). These works demonstrate his interest in means of expression that do not reflect reality, and transform it instead into art. The artist abandoned the narrative bareness of representation opting for more subtle means of expression in both his paintings and drawings. His final abandonment of Socialist Realist iconography became evident in the series of paintings titled Gęstwiny / Arrays (1955). Towards the end of this same decade, the painter traveled around Western Europe. The voyage transformed his art fundamentally, to the extent that one might even say it revolutionized Kobzdej's work. He discarded representation and began to paint metaphorical compositions with a dramatic, even eschatological mood, which were impressive for their refined color schemes (see the series Idole / Idols, 1958-59; and the triptych Na śmierć człowieka / For the Death of a Man, 1964). This path led him directly to Informel art. He gradually devoted more of his efforts to researching the structure of paintings. He came to underline the material status and rank of paint itself, differentiating textures and highlighting the nuances inherent in color. A masterly example of this approach, belonging firmly within the realm of "matter" painting, is the series Szczeliny / Crevices, dating from the 1960s. These works combine the properties of flat compositions with those of the technique of relief. Though they constitute integral wholes played out on a plane, they simultaneously seek to go beyond the limitations thereof. Kobzdej achieved the effect by layering paint thickly and by introducing non-painting materials, small elements of various derivation (particles of metal, wood, plastic) that seemed to emerge from between two bands of painted canvas. The next phase in Kobzdej's explorations took the form of spatial objects composed of rectangular platens that seemed to press an untamable, pulpy mass out of an invisible tube (Powierzchnia srebrna podparta reliefem / Silver Surface Supported by a Relief, 1967). The artist resorted to yet other solutions during the last years of his life. At this time he created a series of several dozen highly original painterly and sculpted structures formed of a moldable mass "draped" on a metal mesh (Hors cadre, 1969-72). Kobzdej also created a series of paintings intended for specific interiors (Baby gołuchowskie / Gołuchów Babushkas - for Gołuchów Castle), and designed scenery, posters, and book illustrations.
Aleksander Kobzdej represented Poland at the Venice Biennale (1954) and the Biennale in Sao Paulo (1959). Information on his oeuvre is contained, among other places, in the catalogue that accompanied an exhibition of his works organized on the 20th anniversary of the painter's death by the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (1992).
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, Faculty of Art Theory and the History of Artistic Doctrines, December 2001.
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