Katarzyna Kobro 1898-1951
Finiteness - I
The dualism of motion/immobility and finiteness/infinity seems to be one of the rules underlying the process of thinking. Though an awareness of the functioning of conceptual and formal oppositions of this kind may be observed in the development of 20th-century art and, for instance, Futurism employed them deliberately, generally speaking, they originate in the humanities and ethics, primarily in the ethical interpretation of historic phenomena. Dualism of this kind manifested itself in avant-garde trends practised by the next generation though on a smaller scale; for instance, in the programme of Neo-Plasticism, the system of opposites precluding each other was vindicated on the ground of the opposition between harmony in the new art and chaos in the surrounding reality.
Two avantgarde polish artists, Wladyslaw Strzeminski and Katarzyna Kobro, proposed quite a new approach to the dualism of the factor of motion and immobility. It is not a matter of Strzeminski's dialectic understanding of the development of art as a series of discarding new and newer discoveries in favour of a more and more radical reduction of references to reality. He employed the opposition principle in the area of his operation, which helped him define the basic difference between the essence of painting and the essence of spatial operations (architecture and sculpture).
The history of the fine arts has repeatedly said something different on the subject. Artists often blur the border between space and flat areas by the theatralisation of the former and the latter, illusion, and a suggestion of a three-dimensional quality in the flat, and a painterly quality in the spatial. Until recently, qualities pertaining to painting in sculptures were seen as an invitation to the integration of arts; and the "sculptural" quality in a painting as its title to pride. The idea of stretching the painting repertoire of "heavenly" fresco effects onto the , chiaroscuro of rich figurative and decorative stuccoes was inherited from the Baroque. Impressionist sculpture sought to do away with the different perception of the effects of the two techniques. Even in Cubism, the collage principle, carried out with bravado, resulted in Piccasso's reliefs - featuring guitars and glasses - with camouflage patches and speckles painted over them, being a hybrid of both disciplines, of two- and three-dimensionality, causing trouble in the classification of his oeuvre. All these remarkable attempts are camouflaging the difference harbingering what was to happen in the Post-Modernist period, namely, insecurity about the borders between the individual arts, upsetting the opposition between two- and three-dimensionality, and other qualities differentiating the disciplines. To evidence this, there are, for instance, Christian Boltanski's altars or Anselm Kiefer's quasi-archaeological objects that prompt one to defy the identity of a work of art in morphological classification. The problem is additionally brought to relief by works ennobling "poor" matter, and employing quotations from matter, memories and other artist's works on a part with each other, as was the case e.g . with Tadeusz Kantor's outstanding oeuvre.
In confrontation with these attitudes, the ascetic programme of separating the two 'wings' of modern experiment in art, put forward by Strzeminski and Kobro, was quite a challenge.
The collaboration of the artists, privately a married couple, practising two different disciplines (though they were not perceived as alien in popular opinion) was exceedingly close. Strzeminski naturally referred his theory to the composition of space, reserved in practice for Katarzyna Kobro. He did so in order to show how important it was in the dualism of the disciplines to mark out a different field of argument for painting and for operations in space.
He was the first to argue that the flatness of a canvas was not only the definitive quality of painting, but also determined its independence of the external context (it would be pointless to paint, e.g. a horse as it would always remain an imitation of its real self, and incapable of galloping). Though Kobro certainly was not the first artist anxious to open up three-dimensional works to the space penetrating parts of their masses; she contributed to the definition of this kind of works. The Strzeminskis' opposition between the closed and the open is the main justification of the contrast between painting and the composition of space, in which the artists proved to be the absolute pioneers and in which they remained isolated . Their isolation was overcome by the experiments carried out in sculpture as late as the 196Os that may be called, just like Kobro's work, an autonomous creation which, however, appeals for a link with other beings.
Their stipulation of a context-free canvas makes it possible to bring out in their theory - by opposition - the morphology and context of spatial composition (architecture and sculpture), and the accompanying mobility of perception resulting from the space-time quality. The openness of Katarzyna Kobro's works is revealed in confrontation with the discipline and visual neutrality of Strzeminski's paintings that accept their mode of existence, the subdued rhythm of textures, confined within the borders of canvas.
Strzeminski argued: "A painting is a tetragonal flat world, self-contained within its borders, and isolated from everything beyond it." And a little further: "Architecture and sculpture have no frames. Spatial art relies on space without natural limits: on unlimited space. A spatial sculpture consists in the spatial distribution of colours that are refracted to infinity." Thus we have touched upon more general issues of finiteness and infinity. I think that Strzeminski and Kobro suggested a much more general problem than the matter-of-fact tone of their writings, and the material qualities of their work indicate. Following their thought, we go beyond the categories of artistic references and embark on the problems of finiteness and infinity in philosophical terms. the human being is spanned between these extremes, between loneliness and limitation on the one hand, and potential challenges of the unknown in philosophical and ethical contexts on the other. The Strzeminskis created a prefiguration of this alternative.
(W. Strzeminski, s. Syrkus, The Present in Architecture and Painting), in. Przeglad artystyczny 1928, No. 4.)Translation Polish-English: Ewa Krasinsa
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