Avant-Garde Artists Were Like Detectives: An Interview with Hans Janssen & Daniel Koep
default, Kobro & Strzemiński in Chałupy, photo: Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, center, Strzemiński, Kobro, Chałupy, photo: Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź
Culture.pl’s Piotr Policht talks to Hans Janssen and Daniel Koep from the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague about their latest co-curated exhibition ‘Katarzyna Kobro & Władysław Strzemiński: A Polish Avant-Garde’, Western and Eastern European art theories, and why writing letters is better than meeting in person. The exhibition was co-organised with Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź and Centre Pompidou, and curated by its director Jarosław Suchan.
Piotr Policht: The Gemeentemuseum exhibition here in The Hague is a part of a European tour of the couple’s art. Its goal is similar to what Ryszard Stanisławski tried to do in the 1980s by organising Polish avant-garde shows in major institutions across Western Europe – to incorporate them into the international canon of modernism. Has the perception of Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński's work and avant-garde as such changed in that time?
Hans Janssen: In the time of Stanisławski it was the [West’s] first encounter with it, and with all its bewilderment and all its surprise. I saw their exhibition in Apeldoorn in Holland at that time. We were just totally knocked off our feet. Now, it’s a meeting on more equal footing. What happened in the West and in the East is seen in the much broader context of the European development. When Stanisławski brought Kobro and Strzemiński to Western Europe for the first time, it was perceived more as a colonial phenomenon.
Daniel Koep: You can now get a kind of comparative view at art histories. You can look at Kobro and Strzemiński through a Russian perspective, but also through a Dutch perspective, as well as look at De Stijl through a Polish perspective. This is a new approach to research.
PP: In the Hague you've linked Kobro and Strzemiński with Dutch neoplasticism and incorporated part of the a.r. Group’s collection into the permanent exhibition of Mondrian and De Stijl.
What brought them to similar artistic explorations? They came from very different millieus – when De Stijl was formed in a peaceful Netherlands, Kobro and Strzemiński were in Russia during the October Revolution.
HJ: What the exhibition makes clear very wonderfully is that it was a shadowy occurrence. Things that look alike happen in similar times in different places because society is somehow asking for it. In Holland, there were artists who didn’t ever meet in person. Mondrian and Van Doesburg never met, Mondrian also never met Rietveld, although they lived about 25 kilometres from each other. But they wrote letters. Most of the artists from De Stijl and from the whole constructivist era in Europe worked with letters and articles in magazines. It’s not necessary to meet. Writing a letter also sharpens your thought process. It’s much better to write a letter than to meet, actually. When you talk to one another you don’t have thoughts that are as sharp, you exchange thoughts. When they meet now in the Gemeentemuseum, you see the results of this sharpening of thought and this strange occurrence of similar phenomena in different places at the same time.
DK: It's really interesting to look at the avant-garde transnationally and see that it's really a network. To look at the journals and the letters, and trace personal connections. Henryk Stażewski, for example, was in Paris and he brought and sent back information; he wasn't just there, he knew what he was looking for and knew what his colleagues did.
Kobro and Strzemiński never had a chance to go to Paris. He knew they needed information, so he looked for the right things: a three-dimensional rendering of space by Theo Van Doesburg was immediately sent to Poland and published in the Blok art journal. They were going around like detectives with their eyes open and their noses sniffing for what was happening. They were not hiding in a fortress and not letting anybody in.
HJ: And right after World War I, Europe was very open to exchange.
Katarzyna Kobro, Spatial Composition 4, 1929, steel, painted, multicolour, 40 x 64 x 40 cm, , photo courtesy of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź/© Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź & Ewa Sapka-Pawliczak
PP: Did the political situation in Russia, Poland and the Netherlands back then influence the ideas of Kobro and Strzemiński and the Dutch avant-garde?
HJ: It's always difficult. I think it was Jacob Burckhardt who said that high art always flourishes in a weak state. Which was the case with the Medici in Florence, which he was writing about.
The Netherlands had a very weak government right after World War I. But I don't know if we would could really describe what happened in Russia after the World War I as weak – I don't think so. I think technological developments were more influential than political ones. In Holland, the regular mail was delivered four times a day. So you could write a letter in the morning, send it with the first mail to Warsaw, and by the evening you had an answer. Newspapers and roads were getting much better, as well as the telephone and telegram networks. It wasn’t really all that different from what we have today in the age of Facebook.
DK: Of course, Russia in 1918 was post-revolutionary and the Netherlands were not post-revolutionary at all. They weren’t even shocked by the events of World War I, like Germany was. So they came from entirely different set-ups and backgrounds.
HJ: And in Poland the neighbours were not friendly, to say the least.
DJ: I think, if Kobro and Strzemiński had been lucky enough to spend a couple years in Paris, the situation would have been completely different – they would be much more famous. It was a platform, a city where modern art was made. They were making modern art but they were doing it in a small place around Łódź, and there was no way to speak to the world. They didn't sell their works. It's absolutely amazing to see what substantive oeuvres they both made under the circumstances: revolution, migration, fleeing, poverty. They were really open to developments in both the West and the East and kept thinking very consistently, perhaps because of that.
PP: When they decided to stay around Łódź, they formed a school in Koluszki to pass on avant-garde ideas and translate them into design and architectural languages. Were there similar attempts in Holland?
HJ: It was completely different. Only after 1932 was there any relationship between artists like Bart van der Leck and Gerrit Rietveld and the industry. In the case of Kobro and Strzemiński, it was much earlier on and the spirit was more Bauhaus-like. It was comparable to Bauhaus, and, thanks to that, more practical.
I always say Bauhaus invented Ikea and De Stijl invented this very posh company, Vitra. Artists were making custom-made objects for clients, while in Bauhaus the client was more or less unknown. They were just working to make something beautiful and putting it into mass production. This was what van der Leck did after 1932, but before they were very autonomous. Kobro and Strzemiński were also very utopian and very remote.
DK: Bauhaus was a bigger network. In Koluszki, there was a Bauhaus model, but if Bauhaus was a university, what Kobro and Strzemiński did was a local school. Once again they didn't have the fortune to be in a wider context. They were really carrying the torch, but they found it difficult to get something out of it.
PP: How would you compare the theoretical output of Kobro and Strzemiński and De Stijl artists? Both Strzemiński and Mondrian were quite orthodox when it comes to their theories.
HJ: Yes, they were, but they both were formulating the theories from their works, from the visual experience onwards. It was very empirical, they based theories on their works of art. So this is a big similarity between them. Kobro didn't theorise as much, I think, but in formal terms she is closest to De Stijl – it's a strange occurrence.
PP: Kobro used to say that she made her small figurative, post-cubist sculptures like other people go to the movies – to relax. Strzemiński, on the other hand, went from thinking about painting to thinking about vision as such, and by that from pure abstraction to figurative connotations. Did the Dutch avant-garde stick to pure abstract art consistently?
HJ: I think every artist is occupied with reality. For that reason, Strzemiński and Kobro’s starting point is complete abstraction, but in a very utopian sense, it still refers to reality. And I think that is the order of things, that artists go from this very radical standpoint towards more relaxed figurative elements because it brings them closer to the reformulation of reality. The same is true for van Doesburg and Mondrian.
DK: For me it’s also eye-opening in the exhibition to see that artists coming from a revolutionary context, like Kobro and Strzemiński, abandon the kind of polemics and ideology, which is considered dangerous within revolutionary politics.
They take a different path in the 1920s. This all took place through their encounter with surrealism and with what was happening in the West. It’s really amazing to come from a constructivist context, wanting to influence and change society, and to find a new approach to it because the world was in crisis. You go from the grid, which is at the core of constructivism, and you go to the cell, which they found in Hans Arp and art from Paris. And then to say: well, isn't a nuclear cell much better for the constructivist approach? So in a way I think this is quite an amazing turnaround.
The visual theory by Strzemiński is also related to the eye and nerve structure. So I think he wanted to merge constructivism with a humanist approach without really abandoning either of the two. So it becomes really interesting, when you see how these networks bring together different kinds of thoughts. And for me, to start from constructivism and to go towards these figurative-abstract styles later in their lives, that's a real revolution. Thinkers and artists are usually not that mobile and able to change direction and adapt so substantially.
PP: Were there also connections within the surrealist circles and De Stijl?
HJ: Yes, there were. After 1932, Mondrian himself emphasised more and more the emotional characteristic of his abstract constructions. He made abstract constructions but was very much aware that certain compositions will have certain emotional responses. You could use all kinds of adjectives for works of art. And this is a very surrealist strain.
Mondrian was also very much interested in what surrealism did. In a discussion with Yves Tanguy in New York, he said that elevators go at different speeds and at different levels, but they all end up on the top floor. So constructivism and surrealism had the same goal. Van Doesburg was always a dadaist. His connection to surrealism is very open and also very early. So I think there were surrealist strains in this constructivist circle.
DK: And Strzemiński also wrote about surrealism.
PP: He and Kobro always wanted to stay very scientific in their approach, they concentrated on the physiological aspects of vision. Mondrian on the other hand was interested in theosophy...
HJ: That’s what they always say, but it's not true. I'm on the verge of saying it is bullshit. There was a dissertation written in 1956, by a complete idiot in the United States, who wrote about the connection between Mondrian and theosophy, and how there was a causal relationship between theosophy and abstraction. If I would have been a professor at the university and this guy would have come to me with this dissertation, I would have thrown it in the bin. But it was very influential. Robert Welsh wrote an article about it in 1971 and since then everybody thinks Mondrian's abstraction comes from theosophy, but it's not true.
He was under the spell of spiritual influences around 1908 to 1911, but after that there's no trace of theosophy in his work anymore. It's a pitiful misunderstanding. But once a mistake has been made, it’s repeated over and over again. Everybody will say I'm not right, but the problem is that... I am.
PP: Are there more misunderstandings when it comes to neoplasticism then?
HJ: Yes, one very big misunderstanding is that the horizontal and vertical strains, the black line and primary colours – red, yellow and blue– are bloodless. That they are devoid of emotion, hygienic and clinical. And it exists because most people only look at the reproductions and never look at the original paintings. And when you look at the original paintings, you immediately understand that it’s not clinical at all.
PP: Many of Kobro's works are known only from reproductions or even descriptions, because they were simply not preserved. She burned some of them herself in the toughest times to heat their apartment.
Personal conflict between her and Strzemiński, not to mention the other mechanisms leading to the marginalisation of women artists, rendered her overlooked for years. Are there such cases within De Stijl?
HJ: Kobro is kind of the Praxiteles of Western avant-garde artists – we don't have works left, but she's the most important artist around. There are many women artists that are still unknown, so there's lot of work to be done. But within the geometric abstract tradition, there were no women artists that I know of that are underestimated.
But there is an artist within the more expressionistic abstract tradition, stemming directly from Kandinsky – Jacoba van Heemskerck. We have a big collection of her works in the Gementeemuseum. She was connected to Der Sturm and very well known in Germany in th 1920s and 30s, but she is completely overlooked now. I would love to make an exhibition with her works in Poland.
Katarzyna Kobro, Suspended Construction 1, 1921, lost, reconstruction 1972, epoxy, glass fibre, wood, metal, 20 x 40 x 40 cm, photo: Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź/© Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź & Ewa Sapka-Pawliczak
DK: I'm wondering if the Russian revolutionary context changed the way the roles of men and women were perceived. Strzemiński really left space for Kobro next to him. There was enough room for her to consider herself as an artist. If you look at artistic couples, they really are on the same level.
HJ: That's true, but I think when the shit hit the fan, because of the war and their relationship, it was Kobro who suffered.
Interview conducted in The Hague by Piotr Policht, June 2019