Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951) & Władysław Strzemiński (1893-1952) met during the turbulent years that followed the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. Their paths crossed in Moscow. Kobro – a Russian with German roots – was studying at the School of Art and Architecture there. Strzemiński – born in Minsk, the son of a Polish aristocratic family – was studying at the first state-subsidised art academy. In Russia, and later in Poland too, these two artists played an active role in the avant-garde art scene that also included Kazimir Malevich and Antoine Pevsner. This spring the Gemeentemuseum will be introducing the Dutch public to this unconventional couple who operated at a geographical and artistic crossroads in Europe. The retrospective exhibition will also highlight the mutual influences between their work and that of the artists of De Stijl.
Katarzyna Kobro & Władysław Strzemiński married in 1920. Around a year later, when the situation in the Soviet Union grew worse for those with progressive inclinations, they fled to Poland. There they each developed their own characteristic style based on Strzemiński’s theory of ‘Unism’, in which colour, plane, line and space forged a ‘total, indestructible’ unity. She translated this idea into spatial objects of wood and metal, he into paintings that he called ‘architectural compositions’. Strzemiński rejected any emotional reference or allusion to anything beyond the surface of the painting.
Both Kobro and Strzemiński taught art at a number of establishments. Strzemiński was also a prolific writer of articles, and he corresponded with artists including Malevich, Van Doesburg and Georges Vantongerloo. In the 1930s he began developing a ‘Theory of Vision’ in which he explored and identified cultural, social and psychophysiological influences that affect how we see our natural surroundings. This put him at odds with the socialist realism being propagated by the authorities.
In 1929, a group of Polish artists formed the Grupa a.r. – the ‘revolutionary artists’ group’ or ‘true avant-garde’ – under the enthusiastic leadership of the couple. They defended abstract art in manifestoes and polemical articles. They also built a collection of work donated by like-minded artists from all over Europe, including Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky, Jean Arp, Theo van Doesburg and Vantongerloo. In 1931 the collection was given its own museum in Łodź, Muzeum Sztuki, which was co-founded by Strzemiński. Kobro and Strzemiński added their own works to the collection.
The exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum includes part of this collection and highlights from the work of the two artists. Alongside sculptures and paintings, it will also include drawings, collages, interior designs and font designs. The works bear witness to a boundless urge to experiment, and they form a bridge between the purely abstract art of De Stijl and the Suprematism of artists like Malevich.
Katarzyna Kobro & Władysław Strzemiński – A Polish Avant-garde has been created in collaboration with Muzeum Sztuki in Łodź, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw and Centre Pompidou in Paris, where part of the exhibition was on display from 17 October 2018 to 14 January 2019. The exhibition in The Hague will expand on the story of Kobro and Strzemiński in relation to De Stijl.
The bilingual catalogue (in English and French) will be available from the museum shop at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. The lavishly illustrated book, entitled Katarzyna Kobro & Władysław Strzemiński – A Polish Avant-garde is published by Centre Pompidou, Muzeum Sztuki and SKIRA with co-operation of Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Price: €35.
The project is co-organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of POLSKA 100, the international cultural programme marking the centenary of Poland’s regained independence, which is financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland as part of the multi-annual NIEPODLEGŁA programme 2017–2022.