This summer, Malmö’s Moderna Museet, along with its partner, the Sztuki museum in Łódź, Poland is staging a must-see show about Modernism. It brings to life two little-known Polish artists whose ideas and life were shaped by revolution and its aftermath.

New Art in Turbulent Times is an exquisite presentation of the achievements of Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzemiński.

The duo, under the impact of the 1917 Russian revolution, made their own contribution to Modernist experiments in the revolutionary and early Soviet period. Art historian Yves-Alain Bois has even suggested that they were “perhaps the only modernist artists”.

Kobro and Strzemiński: New Art in Turbulent Times at Moderna Museet, Malmö

Kobro and Strzemiński: New Art in Turbulent Times at Moderna Museet, Malmö – installation view

Entering Moderna Museet’s beautiful space, it’s clear that you have reached a special zone. There’s no shouting rhetoric here, no depictions or “images”. There’s a fresh, uncluttered, classical, almost timeless feeling. Although it revolves around two individuals, you can soon appreciate that this is a movement in which people shared and explored new ideas and aims.

Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzemiński

Wladyslaw Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro ca 1930

Haunting photographs of Kobro as a young woman are unexpectedly projected on a curtain. The couple’s life stories make it clear what an intense kind of hope prevailed, even amidst harsh times of invasion and, later, political repression.

Wall panels feature the early Unist period. Unism was an artistic philosophy developed by Strzemiński in response to Malevich and Tatlin’s Suprematism and Constructivism. It was based on the idea that new art can evoke a new world.

Unism removed the hierarchies of traditional painting-centred composition and figure-ground opposition, thus hinting at a vision of a utopian society in which everyone is equal, as the exhibition booklet explains.

Focusing on the internal dynamics of a picture plane, formal visual and spatial elements are stripped of historical associations with the past. There is a lack of hierarchy as these interact and play with themselves – and the viewer – in new configurations of space and form.

Unism abandoned not only the notion of painting as an image of something but the very idea that some parts of a work are more important than others.  In this way they prefigured by decades post-war Abstract Expressionism and the Minimalism of the 1960s, in particular the work of Dutch-British artist Jules de Goede. Strzemiński conceived paintings as an undivided wholes without the illusion of depth.

A challenge, then to make this into sculpture, which by its nature is three dimensional! Kobro’s sculptures subversively interact with space, rather than “occupy” it.  She progressed from Abstract Compositions on flat planes, but which clearly have a 3-D potential, to make abstract sculptures. These have a playful, dynamic quality, in which curves meet blobs and glass meets steel.

Kobro’s early Hanging Constructions were clearly inspired by Rodchenko, whom she had met in Moscow in 1917-18.  But she is anything but derivative with a feeling for space and an organic twist that is truly her own, with a complex balancing of asymmetrical curves and loops. Kobro made her abstract sculptures from 1921 through to the early 1930s, perhaps the only woman to do so at that time.

Katarzyna Kobro: Spatial Compositions

Katarzyna Kobro: Spatial Compositions

Her Spatial Compositions, pristine in white, grey, black and sometimes primary colours, are displayed at waist to shoulder height on white plinths. There is no intervening glass or ropes to create a barrier between the sculpture and the viewer. Everything here, even the floor, contributes to a feeling of weightlessness. The light grey plinths are calibrated to provide an individual base for the delicate, human-sized planes and shapes that unfold before your eyes.

There is a lovely transition from an uncluttered simplicity of colour and form into structures  with an inherent potential for architecture and a built environment.

But the Avantgarde movement of the revolutionary period was far more complex and rich than just the big hitters like Malevich and Tatlin – though even their work suffered decades of being hidden from sight under the Stalinist regimes.

The 1917 Revolution drew creative minds of all kinds into the project to change society in a positive way. It was this and its democratic openness that so attracted a huge range of artists and writers from around the former Tsarist empire, western Europe, America and other parts of the world.

Its multi-national, diverse nature comes brilliantly to life at Malmö. As demonstrated at London’s Grad gallery last year, what became known as the  ‘Russian’ avant-garde in fact was made up of artists from nations in the Tsarist empire, soon to become part of the Soviet Union. Malevich and Tatlin were born in Ukraine, Eisenstein was from Latvia and El Lissitsky was from Lithuania.

Kobro, who was born in Moscow, was of German-Russian descent. Her family moved from Riga in Latvia to Moscow during World War I, where she studied art, becoming acquainted with protagonists of the Avantgarde, Kazimir Malevich, Olga Rozanova, Vladimir Tatkin and Alexander Rodchenko.

Strzemiński was born in Minsk to a family of Polish descent. Kobro met him at a hospital in Moscow where he was convalescing from severe war injuries. Their chance encounter proved life-changing. During the 1917 revolution and most probably under Kobro’s influence, he began to study art.

The relationship between culture, politics and society was hotly debated at many levels all around Russia from Petrograd, Moscow, Smolensk, Belarus, Ukraine and in what are now the Baltic states.

A young US art historian Alfred Barr wrote in his diary: “Nowhere else is literary and artistic talent so carefully nourished as in Moscow. I would rather be here than any place on earth.”  Barr was on a long visit to the Soviet Union during 1927-8. He went on to become the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York a few years later. The rest, you could say, is history.

What impressed Barr was that in the revolutionary new state, art was considered truly important and could play a role in changing people’s lives for the better. This approach gave artists a status greater than anywhere else. The new Bolshevik regime never set out to dictate any style to artists or writers. Indeed revolutionary leaders, Lenin and Leon Trotsky in particular, strongly opposed any whiff of “proletarian culture”.

Trotsky argued against the notion that art was or should be in a monolithic relationship with politics.  Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Education (Narkompros) until dismissed by Stalin in 1929, campaigned for the preservation of historic buildings and at the same time supported Constructivist Modernists, as well as dancer Isadora Duncan.

It was under Lunacharsky’s auspices that Narkompros approved the creation of a Museum of Artistic Culture in February 1919.  This initiative resulted in new collections being created in Petrograd (today’s St Petersburg), Moscow and other towns and provided Modernist prototypes.

Wladyslaw Strzemiński book cover to Julian Przybos poems

Wladyslaw Strzemiński book cover to Julian Przybos poems

It was projects like this that inspired Kobro, Strzemiński and the a.r. group to form their own first-ever collection of modern art in Poland. It included works by the main revolutionary strands of 20th century modernism. It was held with the support of the municipal authorities (!) in the town of Łódź.

After initiating the a.r. collection and exhibiting in Poland during the 1930s,  Kobro and Strzeminski’s lives and relationship became increasingly traumatic. They fled to eastern Poland after the German invasion and many of their works disappeared.

In 1948 the Museum of Modern Art in Łódź re-opened in a new building but without inviting Kobro. She was suffering from poor health but still producing outstanding sculptures, this time of female nudes.  By 1950 the repressive dogmas of socialist realism were imposed and both artists lost their livelihoods.

Today’s Muzeum Sztuki’s origins lie in the collection put together by the a.r. group, led by Strzemiński, Kobro and three others, including two poets.

Writing in the exhibition book, Szutki director Jaroslaw Suchan examines the couple’s work in relation to Foucault’s biopolitics. He salutes their courage “in going beyond the horizon of what is possible at a given time and their willingness to invent new social dispositifs, that would change life for the better”, at a time, he notes, when the world is suffering from the There Is No Alternative syndrome.

Indeed. This exhibition re-ignites the debate about Modernism and its ambition to provide prototypes that can stimulate a better life for all human beings. At its best, it aimed to do this, not by imposing stylistic dogmas but by seeing life and art as a dialectical whole.

Kobro and Strzemiński: New Art in Turbulent Times is at Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden until 2 September 2018. Free admission.

Also at Moderna Museet: Akram Zaatari’s acclaimed film installation Letter to a Refusing Pilot in the New Gallery which tells the story of an Israeli air force pilot who refuses to follow orders.

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