Katarzyna Kobro 1898-1951
In the work of Katarzyna Kobro, the Unistic sculpture forms the most original and art-historically most important group of works. Its origin is the result of a - as the artist called it - "laboratory art", i.e. a consistent development of her early experiments with unusual materials in space.
The foundation for this was laid in Moscow, where the artist began her studies at the School for Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in 1917.2 In 1918, this school was opened to the avant-garde and therefore to the art, in which Kobro was interested, when after the Revolution all schools were reformed and put under the control of Commissar lunacharskii and his People's Commissariat of Enlightenment.3 His Politics made it possible for all movements of art to be taught in schools; every artist could be appointed teacher and the pupils could choose their teachers freely. This explains, why it is almost impossible to name the real teachers of Kobro, especially as studios of other artists were visited regularly.4
Her early works, however, which were the starting point of her idea for the Unistic sculpture, make it clear that she was mainly influenced by Tatlin and Malevich. Tatlin's early, pre-utilitarian works, his postulate of "real materials in real space",5 and his method of construction, with which he tried to overcome gravity, therefore characterize her sculptures around 1920. Due to her resettlement in Poland and the fragile materials, which she used at that time, only one photograph of one of these sculptures has been preserved, namely that of 'ToS 75.' of 1920 (ill.p.74).6
The reception of the ideas of Suprematism, represented by Malevich, becomes already obvious one year later, in 1921 . Meanwhile, she had contact with him through her membership of the groups 'UNOVIS' and 'OBMOKhU', but not 'VKhUTEMAS' any more.7 His theory and his Suprematistic painting served as a stimulus for her work on the 'Suspended Sculptures I and 2' of 1921 and 1922 (pl. 8,9).
While in 'ToS 75.' Kobro followed Tatlin's culture of material and repeated his experiments with pre-manufactured elements, she applied in 'Suspended Sculptures' Suprematistic signs, whose reception by a group of young artists, like Olga Rozanova, Ivan Kljun or Kazimir Medunetskij,s was also reflected in her works. The cross, the ring, the dynamic diagonal were the initial forms for her, which together with the knowledge of the materials necessary for the plastic mode of expression, their qualities, and spatial effects, became the basis of her own art. Kobro began to vary the signs and forms, just as she changed the effect of the used material by painting it monochrome white at the beginning of the Unistic work phase.
Her first sculpture of this phase, the 'Spatial Sculpture' 1, was made in 1925 (pl.14) .9 In this work, the artist concentrates on three geometric forms: triangle, semicircle, and a quadrilateral, which needs to be completed mentally, or rather a right-angled triangle, whose two sides form the inner contour of the middle element beneath the arch. The course of this element, which is directed outwards to the right, connects the otherwise complete construction wave-like with the outer space, as it is the only element to go beyond the triangle. Although the individual forms are made of different materials (the triangle of wood, the arch and the wavy part of metal), their white paint makes the outer differences of material unrecognizable. The parts, which have thus been treated to achieve pure form, extend horizontally and vertically. The triangle, onto which the other two elements are fastened, lies horizontally. It has mass and physical three-dimensionality. In contrast, the arch, which embraces all three forms, stands in space like a graphic line. Compared with that, the wavy line of the middle element, which is shaped like a step, merges the inner space with the outer space .
The motif of the wavy line shows the still existing close relationship of this sculpture with the 'Abstract Sculptures' of the year 1924 (pl. 10, 11 , 12). The irregular contour, which is frequently used in those sculptures, is taken up again with the wavy line of the 'Spatial Sculpture 1'. The parts of this sculpture, however, extend further into space, not just vertically, but now also horizontally. The staggering of one element behind the other in the 'Abstract Sculptures' and the resulting impression of flatness is now given up in favour of a more open and more easily comprehensible space through emphasis on the horizontal, namely the triangle with the arch above it, and the penetration of space by means of the forms.
In this work phase, too, Kobro tried to do justice to Tatlin's demand that the work of art should be introduced into the ªreal space', i.e. the space of the viewer. But with regard to the choice of material demanded by him, she made a different decision. Although she used modern, technical material, she painted it monochrome white, which made the differences of material unrecognizable and generally dematerialized the sculpture. By treating the material this way, Katarzyna Kobro departs once more essentially from the construction of the sculptures of the earlier work groups. Moreover, this form reflects the debate regarding artistic aims within the group 'Blok', to which Kobro belonged at that time. 10
In contrast to the Utilitarian group of the artists' organization 'Blok', which demanded that art should be of secondary importance to technique and the materials used, Kobro used the materials in her sculptures as a means of a certain creative technique, in which the character of the material had to come second to the artistic design of space. Similar to the 'Spatial Sculpture' 1, Kobro uses in the 'Spatial Sculpture 2' (pl.15) the arch motif again as a voluminous contrast to the flatness of the other sculptur'al parts. Except for the 'Spatial Composition 2', the arch- and wave motif remains from now on a firm element of the following sculptures.
In contrast to the 'Abstract Sculptures', which were separated from the surrounding space, the artist tries now to form a link between the projecting forms and this space. Thus the two 'Spatial Sculptures I and 2' anticipate the Unistic concept for sculpture, which was formulated in 1931 by the husband and wife artists Kobro-Strzeminski . 11
In their essay the artists start from the assumption that in contrast to the plane of a picture, which should be "cut off from the environment by the sides of the picture' (p.5), these "natural borders' (p.49) do not exist in sculpture. The lack of these borders calls for 'connection with the whole infinite space. A unity of what has arisen with what had been prior to the work of art' (ibid.), was the main postulate of the Unistic theory. Therefore the shape of the sculpture had to adjust to the infinite expanse of space and form a unity with it. It was especially important for the artist to give the sculpture an 'organic character' (ibid.), which did not define it as a complete body in space, but which showed it as a spatial phenomenon, which tried to meet the infinity of space with the "infinity' of its own shapes. The artist tried to contrast the visual unity of the sculpture with the "unity of a spatial phenomenon which is open to the space' (p.49); this unity was to make the "sculpture into an organic part of the space' (p.49/50). According to Kobro's concept, such a unity was formed by a spatio-temporal rhythm, which was based on an initial module.
It was not just the spatial expansion of the individual sculptural elements, which played a part in the thoughts of the artist, but above all a course of motion in the way of viewing . As a dynamic work which, being looked at from several sides, offers new views and configurations time after time, the sculpture contains in two ways, according to Kobro, the moment of motion, which takes place in a certain course. On the one hand, there is the movement of the viewer who walks around the sculpture, on the other hand, there is the motion of the sculpture itself in the respective side, which is being looked at.12 According to Kobro, the essence of the sculpture is determined by its appearance in space as well as the time, in which the viewing of the sculptural form takes place.13 The artist has to express both the spatial and temporal aspect in a rhythm of shapes, whose appearance he determines himself. At the same time, the amorphous space does not require definite, therefore not just geometric shapes. Their appearance must only be determined by the artist himself, whereas their size, their position and their connection with space is dictated by this rhythm of space and time.14 Kobro formulated her thoughts as follows: "By rhythm we mean a regular sequence of spatial shapes. . . . A regulation of their sequence consists in reducing the mutual relationships of the consecutive shapes to the common numerical formula . Reducing the problem to the numerical formula of the relationships of consecutive sizes, we make the rhythm an open one, capable of growth in both directions: towards the greater and towards the smaller shapes. . . . Thus, an open rhythm starting from the sculpture goes out to the space and relates it to the work". 15 Such a connection between the natural space and its manifestation, the sculpture, should, starting from a constant numerical ratio, e.g. the proportion 5:8, represent the natural division according to the 'Golden Section' (ill.p.80, 81 ).
The search for new artistic forms of expression, balanced proportions, and a restriction to essential features of a sculpture, belongs to the ideas of the group 'Praesens', which Kobro joined around 1925. Thus the 'Spatial Compositions', which followed the 'Spatial Sculptures', are characterized by a simplification of shape and a clear structuring of the sculptural appearance. Until 1928 Kobro's sculptures are predominantly monochrome white, which forces the viewer to concentrate on the structure without being distracted by the character of the material or a colour effect. In 1926, however, a coloured wooden sculpture was also made, 'Spatial Sculpture 3' (ill.p.75), 16 of which only two photographic reproductions are left, however.17 These show a sculptural body, which rises from a kind of base and which is made of a kind of ªashlars'. Its rising form is completed at the top by a softly curved sheet. The sculpture, which reminds us strongly of high-rise architecture, shows clearly Kobro's orientation towards the works of Malevich, but also those of Vantongerloo and van Doesburg.1s The close relationship with the 'Architectons' by Malevich and the realization of ttie described design show that this work was above all an architectural design. In 1929, this sculpture was chosen by Szymon Syrkus, one of the architects and initiators of the group 'Praesens', as a model for a pavilion for the national exhibition of architecture in Poznan (PWK)19 (ill.p.75). The looming disagreement between those architects and the group 'Praesens ' who were technically interested and orientated towards functionalism, and those who were leaning towards the sculptural character of a building, especially Kobro, may have been the cause that Kobro, after leaving the group 'Praesens', never made purely architectural designs of this kind again, except for a 'Project for a Functional Nursery School', which she developed for formal reasons (ill.p.84). Although there were arguments in the artists' organization with regard to common objectives, which eventually led to a division of the group, the artistic problem of an architectural structuring of space remained the most important content of Katarzyna Kobro's works until ca. 1933.
In their essay about the composition of space, which was published in 1931 ,2∫ Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski also speak about the colouring of the Unistic sculpture. With the Unistic Sculpture, which is arranged in certain proportions, a uniform colour range must not be used according to the concept of the artists. Because of such a colour range, the sculpture would optically appear as a complete body, which is isolated from the surrounding space. The composition of this space, however, requires colours, which do not simply differ from each other in nuances, or in other words, from the rejected colour range, but which would have to be of great colour intensity and colour energy. According to Kobro, such colours are red, blue, and yellow, but also black and white. The artist can add grey and silver, which are "neutral' with regard to colour energy, to these 'active´ colours. All the other shades, which radiate ªmedium´ colour energy, already belong to an optically uniform colour range, which goes against the open character of a Unistic sculpture, which strives for the natural connection with the open space . 21
Kobro's thoughts about the coloured form of a sculpture remind us of the compositions by Mondrian22. In 1917, Mondrian made paintings for the first time, in which black horizontal and vertical systems of lines separate rectangles in the primary colours red, blue, and yellow, and the non-colours black, grey and white from each other.23
This extreme concentration on the straight line and the right angle, as well as the pure primary colours and non-colours, left clear traces in the work of Katarzyna Kobro. She made this system, however, three-dimensional and added the curved line, which would have been unthinkable for Mondrian. Kobro's dynamic form points to a different attitude of mind, which has its roots in Suprematism. The same is true of the idea of colour energy, which goes back to the theory of Kazimir Malevich . As he described himself, Suprematism passed through three phases: the black, the coloured, and the white phase.24 Each of these phases was determined by the meaning of the respective colours. While black expresses absolute colourlessness, darkness, but also extreme economy, white is the manifestation of light, which potentially combines all other colours in itself.25 Kazimir Malevich used all the other colors, like red, blue, yellow etc., when he formed the elements, which were charged with energy through colour, in dynamic compositions. 26 In 'Spatial Composition 4', Katarzyna Kobro also uses the colours this way, concentrating on the colours demanded by Mondrian, while the compositions of Malevich contain colour ranges, which are meant to give more or less dynamism to the individual forms.
Katarzyna Kobro made only a few coloured sculptures. While the already mentioned 'Space Sculpture 3' - made before 1929 - followed the works of van Doesburg27 with regard to form and colours, the coloured sculptures of the years 1928-31 show very original forms and colours, The 'Spatial Composition 2' (pl.17) is still rather reserved with the 'neutral' colours white, grey, and black. 'Spatial Composition 4' is, however, as strongly coloured as 'Spatial Composition 6' (pl. 19,21 ). This sculpture is the clearest evidence of Kobro's developed independence concerning form and colour. With this sculpture, the artist went another step further towards reduction, because the forms are simpler and clearer than in 'Spatial Composition 4' and because the already mentioned colours and non-colours only appear once each, and the back of each area, and the edges of the sheets are kept in the same colours as the fronts. 2s
In each of the mentioned sculptures, colour has not been used decoratively by the artist, but as a clarification of relations in space. These relations develop through the planes, which are integrated into the system of coordinates of the individual 'ashlars'. These planes only indicate sections of border sides of such an imaginary ashlar. With this technique, the artist tries to achieve infinity of the sculpture and arbitrary expansion of the single elements. Thus the Unistic sculpture becomes an open form, whose inner space interweaves with the surrounding space, negating the physical sculpture.
A good example of how Kobro imagined the expansion and transfer of the harmonious divisions of space into the everyday life of the viewer, is her 'Project for a Functional Nursery School' of ca . 1932 (ill.p.84). It is very close to the monochrome white 'Spatial Composition 8' (pl.23) and was presumably made in the same year, although the artist slightly modified individual elements of the sculpture in the 'Project' .
The model, which we only know from a photograph, is a construction with a flat roof and a surrounding glass front. This glass front is divided by black bars into square fields. A wall, which adjoins the spatial body of glass, divides the whole building into two complexes, a large square part and an adjacent rectangular complex. This wall adjoins the glass front at a right angle exactly at the border between the two building parts, which are square and rectangular in the ground plan. Two planes, which project into space, contrast with the unity of the square building part. These are a square plane, which is rising vertically above the roof of the model, and the wall adjoining the glass front. Behind this wall, the building continues with the smaller section, whose roof rises in the form of an arch and then descends to a lower building complex. Around the base of the building model, there is a slightly protruding wall, which was meant to be the border for a flower bed .
There are a few differences between 'Spatial Composition 8', Kobro's smallest construction ( 10 x 24 x 15 cm), and the architectural model. While 'Spatial Composition 8', made from small bent and angled sheets of steel, is an open space frame one can look through with partly closed and partly open sides, the 'Project for a Functional Nursery School' had to be a closed building for practical reasons. In order to keep this body as transparent as possible, the artist, according to her latest remarks about the architectural model, surrounded it with a glass front without corner pillars, which would have resulted in an inner iron girder construction . The artist refers to this idea in an article from the year 1936, in which she writes: 'By 1918, the current task was to master artistically the technology of reinforced concrete. . . . In this purpose, the plastic arts had toe establish a mutual exchange of achievements with building and with the technology of building materials. As a result, houses of iron, glass and concrete have been built, full of light and sincerity of the revealed beauty of materials´.29Although the glass made the building transparent and removed the physical aspect to a large extent, the artist did not use walls to define boundaries, as she did in 'Spatial Composition 8', in order, to emphasize the openness of the building. In the project, the part of the building, where the wall adjoins the glazed spatial body, is followed by a lower part, which is also surrounded by a glass front. Compared with the sculpture, its vaulted roof is higher and steeper. By means of an angled steel sheet, this part of 'Spatial Composition 8' becomes a closed in area. The artist also changed the proportions, thus adapting to the functional inner space of the building. These changes compared to 'Spatial Composition 8', however, are the only concessions which the artist made to the functionalism of the building. The projecting areas above the roof and adjoining the glass front, which do not have any particular function, are very similar to elements of 'Spatial Composition 8'. Therefore the meaning of this model did not lie so much in its optimal usability and functionalism, but rather in the equal treatment of a work of art and an architectural model, in which it was necessary to solve formal problems. Kobro writes as follows, 'A work of art . . . can be simply a field of a plastic experiment, offering more or less useful solutions of form for a utilitarian realization of functionalism´ .3∫According to her own words, the artist understood the architectural model as a result of formal considerations, which did not have to be realized in a building. It was meant to be merely a suggestion for functional architecture, in which the building was not entirely separated from the surrounding space. Therefore she included the non-functional elements of protruding areas in the architectural model. In contrast to her first architectural sculpture, 'Spatial Sculpture 3 ', which was altered in 1929 by the architect Szymon Syrkus to pavilion-architecture after a design by Kobro, the artist intended with the 'Project for a Functional Nursery School' to try out her experiences with sculptural works on an architectural model. These efforts, not simply to make a sculpture, but to apply the experiences gained from the sculptural composition of space to the environment and thus architecture, go back directly to the objectives of the Constructivist groups 'Blok', 'Praesens', and 'a.r.'. The artist herself formulated this objective as follows: 'Sculpture should be approached like an architectural problem. It should involve laboratory studies in space management, traffic organization and functional urban planning; it should make use of up-to-date practical achievements of modern art, science and technology; it should be guided by a desire to achieve a supraindividual social organization'.31
Kobro's building model is at the same time an answer to the demands by the architects and Utilitarians of these groups. The difference of opinions between the artists and the practical men and women of the avant-garde movement about the realization of such a comprehensive concept resulted in the first disagreement. While e.g . the Utilitarians of the group 'Blok' represented by Miecyslaw Szczuka - demanded that formal aspects should be ot secondary importance compared to the technical and economic conditions of the production of an object, the artists - represented by Strzeminski - wanted to use the technical conditions, even then , merely as a means of examining formal problems.32 They also upheld this demand in the later arguments of the group 'Praesens' . The architects of that group again emphasized the technical and functional problems and gave preference to practicality and usefulness over any formal innovation. This led to the breaking up of this group. It was only in the group 'a.r.', to which belonged only writers and artists, that Kobro succeeded in realizing such an original architectural design. In an atmosphere, which was free from economic and technical considerations, the artist developed the 'Project for a Functional Nursery School', in which she tried to combine functionalism and sculptural necessity, namely the unity of the sculptural form with the surrounding space. For the artist, the most important condition for an equal treatment of sculpture and architecture was the idea of the architectonic sculpture and the proportional design of its forms.
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