As part of its policy to expand its artistic canon to encompass territories or artists that have been marginalised for geographical or political reasons, the Centre Pompidou is honouring the Polish Constructivist avant-garde of the 1920s.
The exhibition, which is centred around two major Constructivist figures, Katarzyna Kobro and Wadysaw Strzemiski, takes you on a complete historic journey through their work in myriad domains – art, typography and industrial design. Organised together with the Polish city of Lodz’s Museum of Art, which was founded by Kobro and Strzemiski and to which they bequeathed the majority of their works, the exhibition reveals their rich and original worlds, which have remained largely unknown to the wider public as a result of the twists and turns of history that have affected their lives and their country.
These two artists, both of them radical in their artistic stance, developed their ideas in everyday life through teaching, publishing and involvement in artistic life. A couple in life as well as in work, they created side by side; while Kobro developed the modern language of sculpture, Strzemiski forged ahead in painting. While the latter is known for his theory of unism, which pushes to the limit the idea of the organic autonomy of painting, Kobro is remembered for her theory of sculpture as a form of spatial composition. Both of them were also behind one of the leading public collections of contemporary art in Europe, which was unveiled in 1931.
Born in Russia – she of Russian origin, he of Polish – they began their artistic career just as the October Revolution was breaking out. Associates of El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich, whom they met in Moscow and by whom they were tasked with setting up a branch of the Unovis school in Smolensk, they were part of that group of revolutionary artists of the radical left who were attempting to reform art teaching and put art at the service of the socialist society. Owing to the increasing restraints on cultural policy in the early 1920s, the couple left Soviet Russia to settle in Poland, which had recently been recreated as a nation. They quickly allied themselves with art reformists – Cubists, Supremacists and Constructivists – including poets and architects. They became members of several Polish avant-garde art groups, such as Blok and Praesens, and ultimately created their own group, a.r. (art revolutionaries or real avant-garde), with the painter Henryk Staewski and the poets Julian Przybo and Jan Brzkowski. Strzemiski became a fervent supporter of modern art, organising group exhibitions or one-man shows featuring the likes of Malevich. The artistic couple was also heavily involved in international avant-garde movements and participated in the Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création groups. They also had dealings with De Stijl, even though they never actually left Poland. They published in these movements’ revues and, in turn, publicised them in Poland. Helped by their international contacts, notably Hans Arp and Fernand Léger, and thanks to donations, the members of a.r. started putting together an international collection of contemporary art in the late 1920s, their aim from the outset being to open it up to the public. Strzemiski took care of coordination in Poland. The collection included works by Hans Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp, by Léger, Sonia Delaunay, Jean Hélion, Vilmos Huszar, Enrico Prampolini, Kurt Schwitters, Georges Vantongerloo, Theo van Doesburg and others. It opened to the public in 1931 as part of the collections of the Muzeum Sztuki, in Lodz, which had opened the previous year. When the museum reopened after the Second World War, Strzemiski set up a neo-visual room, where, in the style of El Lissitzky’s “Cabinet of Abstraction”, he organised the hanging of part of the collection, comprising almost 120 works, himself.
Missing for a long time from the history of international avant-gardism, Kobro and Strzemiski are two of the pillars of Polish modern art. Together, they helped develop the abstraction project from the outset. Kobro’s suspended sculptures from 1920 are some of the most beautiful examples of Constructivist sculpture. The radical nature of her geometric constructions – made from strips of metal – ensure Kobro’s place among the most important female sculptors of the first half of the 20th century. Strzemiski’s abstract paintings – the reliefs, the “architectural compositions” or “unistic compositions” – are unique in this field. During the 1930s, the artists’ style changed. Kobro turned to a more stylised form of representation. Strzemiski introduced the concept of the line that runs its own course, which also featured in the seascapes and many drawings he produced during the Occupation. He also applied this style of drawing to a unique series of collages entitled “To my Jewish friends”, produced just after the end of the Second World War and dealing with the extermination of Polish Jews. In fact, he became more and more preoccupied with the physiology of perception, which he developed further in the “Residual Images” series. His final theoretical work, A Theory of Vision, which outlined his version of art history as analysed from the point of view of the evolution of visual awareness, was a key factor in the development of the Polish avant-garde in the second half of the 20th century.
Kobro and Strzemiski are now part of the history of the international avant-garde but they remain exemplary figures. For them, art played an essential role in societal reform. Based on their profound belief in that role, they devoted their whole lives to making the most modern and radical art applicable to society. As such, they are among the true utopians, who believe that the most effective way of achieving change is not through major revolution but smaller-scale, more accessible actions. By multiplying those actions, change will slowly occur. Owing to their relatively early deaths, in 1951 and 1952, at the height of Stalinism, they did not live to see their ideas come to fruition.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)