International Modernism: Poland

Galeria lokal_30, Warszawa

Performativity of the Avant-Garde

Modernism’s battle for a new, better world was from the outset a global one, an internationalist project. Born of the social and ideological upheavals that were brought about by industrialisation, the collapse of Europe’s political elites at the end of the First World War helped to reach a final breakthrough. Hardly any other country was more affected by the spirit of optimism in this extraordinarily innovative time than Poland.


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Divided among the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian Empires until the year 1918, the once proud and influential nation finally regained its independence. The result was a liberation of creative forces that led to outstanding achievements at all levels of the arts. Examples from this powerful time are currently being shown at the Polish Institute in Berlin. In the exhibition “Proximity of the Straight Line. Performativity of the Avant-Garde” curators Katarzyna Słoboda and Małgorzata Jędrzejczyk trace the experimental approaches of sculptor Katarzyna Kobro – an icon of the Polish avant-garde of the Interwar period – in her search for the relationship between man, space, time and movement.

Photo: Ryszard Waśko | Prosto – Krzywa, 1973

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Kobro, a Polish sculptor with German-Latvian-Russian roots, is regarded as the pioneer of a completely new conception of sculpture that would have great consequences for the art of the interwar and post-war years – far beyond the borders of Poland. “In her work, Kobro was dedicated to the fundamental importance of artistic experimentation with space and time.” Małgorzata Jędrzejczyk, co-curator of the exhibition “The Proximity of the Straight Line”, adds: “Space and time became the central concepts of Kobro’s theory of sculpture.” No longer is the block, the massive object as a single entity, is no longer at the centre of this concept – which focuses instead on the opening of the sculpture to its surroundings – in relation to both the space and the viewer. “In her art, Kobro also embraced human activity in space, relating it not only to an abstract notion of space, but to a spatial concept that expresses the relationship between the viewer and a sculptural, spatial-temporal composition”, explains Jędrzejczyk.

Together with her husband Władysław Strzemiński, Kobro was a member of three influential artists’ groups – the Blok group (until 1924), Praesens (until 1929), and the group a.r. (also known variously as the “revolutionary artists” or the “real avant-garde”; until 1936). These groups were the nucleus of the Polish vanguard and, in addition to relevant art magazines, the most important organs of exchange among its protagonists. The goal was to contribute to the formation of a new humanity. To this end, Kobro and Strzemiński, who also worked as art educators, discussed new didactic approaches like those also used at the Bauhaus.

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Contacts between the Polish and the German avant-garde were not limited to an exchange of ideas, however. Close connections existed from the outset with the legendary Berlin gallery “Der Sturm”, which exhibited works of Blok member Henryk Berlewi as early as 1924. From 1922 to 1924 Szymon Syrkus, architect and member of the Blok group, lived not only in Berlin and Paris but also at the Bauhaus in Weimar. His close contacts with important representatives of the modern movement (from Le Corbusier to Ernst May and Walter Gropius) enabled him to establish the Praesens group as the Polish point of contact for the CIAM congresses.

Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, Photo: Ewa Partum
Legalność przestrzeni, 1979

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In an essay from 1936, Katarzyna Kobro summed up that a “straight line is the shortest distance to a productive outcome. Hence the path from one action to another is formed by a straight line and its corresponding geometric shape. The exhibition “Proximity of the Straight Line. On the basis of Kobro’s innovative concepts of space and the body, as well as her thoughts on the “reorganisation of human life” – which so lastingly influenced the art of the Interwar period – “Performativity of the Avant-Garde” shows that even the neo-avant-garde artists of the post-war era seized on and questioned the avant-garde’s utopian ideas tied to the functionality of collective spaces.

Just like before the war, people should act rationally and purposefully to meet the demands of modernity. A functionalized environment – designed according to a rhythm behind human thought and activity – should help them in doing so. “The plastic experiments with perception and space that Kobro conducted led to the development of new formal solutions that served as a starting point for the reorganisation of the human environment and a new rhythm of life,” says Jędrzejczyk. “For Kobro, artistic activity represented a field of inquiry in which the artist works on new solutions, but which should also find its way into reality beyond the artistic realm.”

The Bauhaus was not alone in realising that every artwork and every building of this extraordinary time ranked as part of a performative sphere. It was also an effective leitmotif for pan-European modernism.

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