Born in 1898 in Moscow, Katarzyna Kobro was one of the most distinguished female sculptors of the inter-war period; she died in 1951 in Łódź.
Although few of her artworks survived, they all have considerable artistic merit. After her death some of them had to be reconstructed to get a sense of the scope of her innovation and courage, since many of her sculptures - mainly her early works - were lost, and are known only from the iconographic record. She was also one of the most tragic figures in the history of twentieth-century Polish art. A war exile because of her German-Russian origins, she lost some of her sculptures when they were tossed onto the scrap-heap during the war. Her dramatic post-war separation with Władysław Strzemiński made it necessity for her to earn a living to care for her child. She also had to defend herself in court against the accusation of "deviating from the Polish nationality", having signed the so-called "Russian list" during the war. All of this, as well as her final battle against a terminal illness, sapped her creative forces during the last years of her life. As result, Kobro has long remained in the shadow of Strzemiński, on the margins of the avant-garde art scene in Łódź. When the first post-war exhibition was opened in 1948 in the Neoplastic Room in the Museum in Łódź, Strzemiński admitted having included five of her Spatial Compositions (Kompozycje Przestrzenne) in the show; however, Kobro herself, who was still alive at the time, was not invited. However, it should be noted that at least in his evaluation of her work, Strzemiński remained loyal to his early opinion, which he had formed as early as 1922 when he wrote about her as being "the most talented of the young" sculptors. He added:
"Her suprematist sculptures are a phenomenon of Europe-wide importance. Her works are an authentic step forward, constituting a victory for impregnable values; they are not an imitation of Malevich, but are rather part of a parallel oeuvre."
Kobro's roots were multinational - her father came from a German family living in Latvia, and her mother was Russian. Katarzyna was educated in Moscow, but she spent her adult life in Poland. Her artistic skills were already apparent in secondary school, during which time she attended the 3rd Female Warsaw Gymnasium and was later evacuated to Moscow. As her daughter, Nika Strzemińska, recalls, it was in secondary school that her mother began drawing and sculpting, first in bread and then in plaster. On her baccalaureate certificate, which she received in 1916, she got the highest marks in drawing, manual work and natural science.
Not every aspect of Kobro's life has been documented; a lot of it remains cloaked in obscurity, and determining the facts requires some guesswork. She probably met Władysław Strzemiński in 1916 in a Moscow hospital. From 1917 to 1920 she studied at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which had been established in place of the Academy of Fine Arts in Moscow. In 1918 she joined the Trade Union of Painters of the City of Moscow, a group of left-leaning artists; its members included Kazimir Malevich, Olga Rozanova, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, most of whom probably had an influence on Kobro's work.
After the third year of her studies Kobro moved to Smoleńsk, where she took up various odd jobs. At the same time, her father, mother and sister Viera moved to Riga, while her other sister, Maria, stayed in Moscow. This was the period when her relationship with Strzemiński blossomed, and she married the artist in 1920. Both were active in the artistic life of the era – they ran a branch of UNOVIS, were in touch with the likes of Malevich and Eliezer Lisicki (El Lissitzky), and were most probably engaged in shaping the new guidelines for Russian art and culture. They were considered representative of "extreme leftist trends" and their studio was remembered as being "a palette of constructivism."
In 1920 Kobro created her first sculpture, although it has since been lost and all that remains of it is a photograph. The work was called Tos 75 - Struktura (Tos 75 - Structure), a combination of futurism and cubism, a dynamic assemblage of ready-made metal elements, wood, glass and fragments of cork. Kobro probably also made two other works in Smolensk, both of which have been lost; created between 1921 and 1922, they were later reconstructed by Janusz Zagrodzki, the first monographer of her oeuvre, and are known today as Konstrukcje wiszące [Hanging Constructions]. The first of them related to the idea of Malevich's suprematism and Rodchenko's spatial realisations. Made of an elliptical form collated with a wooden cube, a metal rod and an adjoining cuboid, the sculpture appeared to defy gravity. The large elliptical form was the biggest of all the elements, and it was placed in the upper part of the construction; however, a complete analysis of the whole is impossible, because the preserved photograph does not allow the material used for each element to be identified. The second sculpture was of a different character, and according to Janusz Zagrodzki it was made of prefabricated elements. As the author writes:
"The mutual arrangement of the particular forms in relation to one another was not stable, and the tension and vibrations of the steel elements caused new dynamic effects and the parts of the sculpture seemed to be in constant motion." But at the same time, in "the space defined by a dynamic shape made from a twisted hoop, full of internal energy, the artist placed symbolic signs, the proto-forms of suprematism: the circle and the cross."
Among the missing works are eight sculptures, one painting (Kompozycja abstrakcyjna (Abstract Composition), 1924-26) and two architectural projects (Projekt kabiny tytoniowej" / "Project for Tobacco Cabin), made together with Władysław Strzemiński in 1927-28, and Projekt przedszkola funkcjonalnego (Project of a Functional Kindergarten) from 1932-34). Apart from the two previously-mentioned sculptures, Janusz Zagrodzki reconstructed four, including Rzeźby abstrakcyjne (Abstract Sculptures, 1924) and Kompozycja przestrzenna (Spatial Composition, 1931). This was made possible by photographs that had been preserved, and by the fact that they had been made mainly of metal and wood. However, Kobro's figurative (Akt" / "Nude, 1931-33) and organic (Akt" / "Nude, 1933-35) were sculpted in plaster, making them impossible to reconstruct.
Following her first artistic experiences, Kobro and Strzemiński left Russia to escape the mounting terror; they probably left at the turn of 1921 and reached Poland via an illegal border crossing. In 1922 they were both staying with Strzemiński's family in Vilnius, but Kobro soon left by herself to join her family in Riga. At that time Strzemiński began to be active in Poland promoting his wife's work, among other things. In 1924 Kobro was a member of the Blok group, a gathering of mainly Warsaw-based avant-garde artists, along with Henryk Berlewi, Henryk Stażewski, Mieczysław Szczuka, Teresa Żarnowerówna and, of course, Strzemiński himself. In the group's magazine, "Blok", there appeared two photographs of Kobro's sculptures (the now-missing Hanging Constructions).
In the same year the couple had a church wedding in Riga, which was necessary in order to allow Kobro to return to Poland. Strzemiński's short stay in Latvia put him in touch with a number of local artists, as result of which that same winter, Blok was able to exhibit its members' work in the museum in Riga; Kobro exhibited the unknown Konstrukcje (Constructions) made of sheet metal and glass. Arriving back in Poland, the couple stayed first in Szczekociny and then moved to Brzeziny near Łódź, to Żakowice and then to Koluszki, as Strzemiński tried to earn a living teaching drawing.
At the end of 1924 Strzemiński left Blok, and Kobro most likely left along with him. The following year she created two crucial sculptures: Rzeźba przestrzenna (Spatial Sculpture) - partly reconstructed today - and Kompozycja przestrzenna (Spatial Composition). In both, the artist used expressive abstract forms, geometric shapes that would soon become the basis for her most distinguished works. At the time, however, her art was not widely understood outside of her own artistic circles (the search for a "universal vision of composing space" and architectural character connected her to architects who belonged to the Praesens group, such as Bohdan Lachert and Szymon Syrkus; Kobro and Strzemiński joined the group themselves in 1926). Her sculptures were exhibited for the first time in Poland as part of a larger Praesens exhibition in Warsaw's Zachęta Gallery in 1926. They were disliked by critics, who expected a sculpture to be made up of a solid mass and refused to accept Kobro's concept of spatiality. An anonymous reviewer wrote in "Sztuki Piękne":
"These 'sculptures' are aimless, even though they are called spatial [...]. Apparently the idea of the sculpture is to model a mass and give it a specific form."
Mieczysław Treter declared in a similarly derisive manner,
"Out of nine ‘sculptures' by Ms K. Kobro-Strzemińska, only one deserves the name: the one made of wood."
This lack of generosity on the part of the critics was made up for by Strzemiński, who was convinced of the uniqueness of Kobro's talent. He demanded that greater attention be paid to her artistic offerings, and that they be properly evaluated. For example, Strzemiński himself wrote to Julian Przyboś that Kobro's plaster Akty (Nudes) are "close" to some of the works of August Zamoyski, "but better." In 1928, during the exhibition entitled "Modernists' Salon" ("Salon Modernistów") at Warsaw's Związek Zawodowy Artystów Plastyków (Trade Unions of the Artists), one of the critics wrote that Kobro was exhibiting "furniture"; Strzemiński replied, "Was it really so difficult to read in the catalogue that this was not furniture but spatial sculptures?"
The turn of the 1920s was a time of close co-operation between the spouses, as both were formulating the theoretical basis of their art. In 1929 Kobro published a response to a poll organised by the editors of the magazine "Europa" (no. 2) about the state of European art, writing:
"It should be definitively, irreversibly and once-and-for-all acknowledged that sculpture is neither literature, symbolism or psychological emotion. Sculpture is simply the shaping of form in space. [...] Its language is form and space. [...] Sculpture is a part of the space in which it is located. [...] Sculpture enters space and space enters the sculpture. The spatiality of its construction, the connection between sculpture and space, force sculpture to reveal the sincere truth of its existence. That is why there should be no random shapes in sculpture. There should be only those shapes that position it towards space by connecting with it. The mass is a lie when faced with the sculpture's essence. [...] Today, the mass already belongs to history and is nothing but a beautiful fairytale of the past. By connecting with space, the new sculpture should be the most condensed and most deeply-felt part of that space. It attains this state because its shapes, through their mutual interdependence, create a rhythm of measures and divisions. The unity of rhythm is the result of the unity of its computational scale. The harmony of unity is the external revelation of the number."
In the same essay the author identified and evaluated the sources of her philosophy:
"In Boccioni's futurist sculptures", she claimed, "he showed us how to free sculpture of the weight of the mass. Archipenko opened up the inside of the mass, while still preserving the closed nature of its circumference. Feeling the need for harmony of measures and modern classicism, Vantongerloo created his sculptures as the interrelation of a few cubes, enclosed in a circumferential cube. Van Doesburg, in his numerous painting and architectural experiments, discovered spatial solutions in the construction of sculpture of planes and mass, but what he had discovered was neither painting, sculpture or architecture. It was only a sketch of the idea of what could be achieved. Malevich, in his dynamic and spatial constructions and his theoretical reflections, grapples with the issue of the balance of the arrangement of the masses' weight in space. Just as he was the prophet of abstract painting, now, in his architectural sculptures, he announces a new era of architecture evolving from contemporary sculpture."
A few years later Kobro wrote an article entitled "Functionalism" in the magazine "Forma" (1936, no. 4), in which she identified cubism, suprematism and neo-plasticism as being the trends that were most clearly articulating their goal of creating "functional" art. Functionalism, she wrote, is opposed to
"any attempt at ornamentation, aestheticisation or contemplation in art, or any 'spiritual' emotional experience." Instead, "it searches for the shortest route toward provoking artistic emotion and considers organising utilitarian activities to be its relief."
Her aim was to work economically and systematically toward one of the avant-garde utopias – the idea of the simplification and facilitation of life through proper organisation.
"The era of building – created by the proper use of contemporary industry's production capabilities, by art and by psycho-technology, all harnessed to meet mankind's needs according to a plan – will be the self-evident justification of functionalism", she concluded in the article.
Kobro herself was mostly interested in
"grasping the form in computational, temporal and spatial rhythm."
The artists' theoretical ideas on this issue were summed up in 1931, in a book entitled "Kompozycja przestrzeni. Obliczenia rytmu czasoprzestrzennego" ("Spacial Composition. The Calculation of Space-Time Rhythm") that she wrote together with Strzemiński. The book was mostly an outline of the principles of Unism, but it went beyond painting, expanding into sculpture and architecture.
At that time Kobro and Strzemiński were already members of the A.R. group, along with Stażewski and the poets Julian Przyboś and Jan Brzękowski. The group took on many important projects, including the creation of the International Collection of Modern Art in the J. and K. Bartoszewicz City Museum of History and Art in Łódź (the Museum of Art). The festive opening of the museum's modern art room took place in 1931.
In the same year the couple moved to Łódź from their home in Koluszki, where they had been living. They were still making a living by teaching, and they led an active artistic life. They accepted an invitation to participate in "Abstraction-Création" and "Internationaler Ring der neuen Werbegestalter" (it is probable that Kobro participated as well, though it is not certain). They also exhibited frequently in Poland, and they continued to write. One of the most important and talked-about exhibitions of the time took place in 1933 at Warsaw's Instytut Propagandy Sztuki (Institute for the Propaganda of Art), also featuring artists from the L'art contemporain circle and the Grupa Krakowska. Wacław Husarski understood the work, writing:
"Stażewski, Strzemiński and Ms Kobro are the most radical in their quest to express contemporary reality, finding the solutions for their abstract problems in linear, coloured, textured or spatial compositions just as a technician mathematically solves the problem of a machine's construction. In these works [...] the tragic element of art is fully exposed, as it strives to suit the mathematical and technical mind-set of the contemporary era."
Apart from her artistic work (which included the "biological" Kompozycja przestrzenna" / "Spatial Composition of 1933), Kobro was also an active organizer. She worked for the Związek Zawodowy Polskich Artystów Plastyków (Trade Union of Polish Artists) - a group of Strzemiński's and Karol Hiller's followers – where she served as vice-member of the board and, from 1935, as treasurer.
In 1936 Kobro and Strzemiński had a daughter whom they named Nika. The child was sickly and required constantly care, making it difficult for Kobro to practice her art. At the end of that year she exhibited her work for the last time, four paintings entitled Pejzaż morski (Seascape) probably painted in Chałupy on the Hel Peninsula, where the couple had spent their holidays. Soon afterward she repeated the main thesis of her credo in "Głos Plastyków" (1937, no. 1-7):
"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."
The task of art, she wrote,
"is to work toward the victory of higher forms of organisation of life. Art's role is the production of form in the interest of social utility."
This is the position from which Kobro attacked the "official and bureaucratic art" of Alfons Karny, the "caligraphic stylisation" of Jan Szczepkowski and the sculpture of Stanisław Szukalski, writing that its "'national character' reminds one of contemporary Nazi sculpture."
Kobro spent the years leading up to World War II mostly keeping house and taking care of the child - it is not known whether she created any new works during this period. The family had to move frequently during the war. In 1940 the Strzemińskis returned to Łódź, only to find that, as a result of their travels, they had lost the work that had been left in the cellar of their pre-war apartment; the occupants that came after them had thrown the artwork away. Kobro was the primary victim of this "cleaning", and she was able to find only some of her works on a scrap-heap. Soon afterward, in 1945, she destroyed some of her wooden sculptures herself, burning them in order to cook a meal for her hungry daughter.
After the war Kobro's life became less and less stable. Strzemiński attempted to deprive her of the right to care for their daughter (he failed), and she was prosecuted for "deviating from the Polish nationality", sentenced to six month in prison and only released after an appeal. She also fell seriously ill with a malady that would later be the direct cause of her death. Among her later works are the plaster Akty (Nudes) in 1948, and crayon landscapes from Siemiatycze. Akty act as a brace for Kobro's sculpture. Janusz Zagrodzki compares them to her Akty of the 1920s, emphasising the greater expressive power of these last works, their monumentality and their dynamics. He draws attention to their formal complication and elaboration, derivatives of the courageous deformation of the human body. But he also underlines their sensuousness, also a characteristics of her earlier works, although the later sculptures are more concise, simpler, "almost Classical" (Zagrodzki). A convoluted path can be traced between those first works and the later ones, a path that traces the artist's evolving social and aesthetic consciousness.
Kobro's aesthetic ideas, like Strzemiński's, encompassed not only the work of art itself, but also art's presence and function outside of the artistic sphere. Strzemiński wrote that in suprematism, "the background is a constructively passive factor," whereas he himself was interested in "the absolute communion of background and shape in one original whole" – in other words, "post-suprematism" (unism). Kobro's ideas were similar, her ambition being to "compose space." Both refused to accept the separation between "pure" and "applied" art. Nor was Kobro interested in intuitive or visionary work, trusting primarily in the rigours of arithmetic and logic.
"She aimed to create a system that would logically combine the dimensions of all shapes, where the arrangement of even the tiniest elements would be precisely calculated", Janusz Zagrodzki writes.
What was important for her was the presentation of her sculptures and the colours of each particular part (in Rzeźby Abstrakcyjne ("Abstract Sculptures") she respected the natural colour of her material, sometimes adding black and white; in Kompozycje przestrzenne ("Spatial Compositions") she used yellow, red, blue, black and white).
Kobro's work, which was perceived as controversial during the inter-war period, was equally mistrusted after 1945. For many years she remained in the shadow of Strzemiński's career. This was particularly apparent at the first post-war exhibition of Kobro and Strzemiński's art, held at the turn of 1956 in Łódź and Warsaw. But part of the problem was the fact that her oeuvre was not widely known. Not until Janusz Zagrodzki began his work in 1966, discovering and reconstructing the missing sculptures, did the art world begin to get a slightly more complete picture of her work. Thanks to this research, it became possible to reconstruct Kobro's ideas about the co-existence of sculpture with space and time, concepts that were fully demonstrated for the first time in the 1973 exhibition Constructivism in Poland 1923-1936. Blok, Praesens, A.R. at Museum Folkwang in Essen and at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo. This contributed to a growing interest in Kobro's work, mainly among critics associated with conceptual art and minimalism who were engaged in the "revision" of the constructivist tradition. The slightly belated fascination with her art - purist and analytical - resulted in her finally being granted a place among the most eminent representatives of constructivism.
Then throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the situation changed. The artist's biography began to interest both critics and researchers (or rather, the biographies of the two artists, Kobro and Strzemiński), leading to a feminist reading of her life and work along with various other interpretations. The 1980s and 1990s was also a time when a number of exhibitions began to showcase Kobro's art, especially international exhibitions. A monographic presentation was organised in 1998 at the Muzeum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Łódź, the comprehensive catalogue including essays by the likes of Nika Strzemińska, Janina Ładnowska, Janusz Zagrodzki and Andrzej Turowski. It also outlined the history of Kobro's exhibitions and provided a detailed bibliography.
There are many books about Kobro, but particularly noteworthy are: Janusz Zagrodzki's Katarzyna Kobro i kompozycja przestrzeni ("Katarzyna Kobro and the Composition of Space") from 1984 (see also his numerous articles on the artist); Andrzej Turowski's Konstruktywizm polski. Próba rekonstrukcji nurtu (1921-1934) ("Polish Constructivism. An Attempt at Reconstructing the Trend") from 1981 (see also his other publications on constructivism itself); and the memoirs of Nika Strzemińska, entitled "Miłość, sztuka i nienawiść. O Katarzynie Kobro i Władysławie Strzemińskim" ("Love, Art and Hatred. On Katarzyna Kobro and Władyslaw Strzemiński") from 1991.
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, June 2004.