At Large  February 21, 2023  Effie Jackson

Katarzyna Kobro Reimagined Russian Constructivism

WikiArt.

Katarzyna Kobro, Spatial Composition 9, 1933.

Born out of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Constructivism challenged notions of creation versus construction in the art world. The modern art movement, penned as an “uncompromising war on art” by Marxist avant-garde artist Aleksei Gan (1887-1942) in his manifesto, reflected the social issues of Russia at the time: liberating itself from the exclusiveness of a wealthy ruling elite. With its creation after the Russian Revolution, and its ascent as a vehicle for spreading Soviet communist ideology after the Russian Civil War ended in 1921, Constructivism sought to push past an extensive history of Russian grandeur and introduce itself to the art world anew: an abstract construction of a modern, industrialized, utopian society.

Much like the Socialist Realism movement of the same period, Constructivism sought to spread Soviet Communist ideologies across Europe and farther West; unlike Socialist Realism, however, it sought to do that strictly in the art world while commenting on wealth inequality and imperialism. In addition, Constructivism didn’t necessarily serve leaders like Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) or Joseph Stalin (1858-1973). Instead, the movement focused on spreading Marxist ideas on wealth inequality and the exploitation of the proletariat.

Lajos Kassak, Folk Motives (variation), 1921. Wikiart.
Wikiart. ​

Lajos Kassak, Folk Motives (variation), 1921. ​​​​​​

Joaquin Torres Garcia, Constructivo en Triángulo, 1929. WikiArt.
WikiArt.

Joaquin Torres Garcia, Constructivo en Triángulo, 1929.

Lyubov Popova, Composition (Blue-Yellow-Black), 1920. Wikimedia.
Wikimedia.

Lyubov Popova, Composition (Blue-Yellow-Black), 1920.

Founded by Aleksei Gan, Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), and other Bolshevik artists, the movement aimed to create a scientific base that would guide industrial creation, specifically those regarding building construction, labor practices, and even education, that would positively serve Russia’s new Communist society.

Going a step beyond the aspirations of Socialist Realism, Constructivism eventually developed into a form of agitational propaganda to influence art audiences worldwide to join the Bolshevik cause. The movement evolved with a focus on the basics of furniture design, graphic design, advertising, and theater design, something that aligned with its original purpose of using and aestheticizing materials relevant to their purpose, one that serves the proletariat and abandons ideas of bourgeois materialism and ornamentation. Despite this, the movement’s manipulation of shape, color, and line arguably revolutionized Modern art.

Intending to place art and architecture in service of society, the basic characteristics of Constructivism include the use of large geometric shapes as the primary form of a composition and spatial harmony of this placement within. Although most Constructivist artists rejected the use of primary colors and high contrast, Polish sculptor Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951) embraced these attributes in her sculpture Spatial Composition Nr. 6 (1931), setting her apart from other artists in the movement.

WikiArt.

Katarzyna Kobro, Spatial Composition Nr. 6, 1931.

Katarzyna Kobro, arguably one of the greatest representatives of Constructivist ideals, was a pioneer in abstract sculpture, using metals to create multidimensional compositions that challenge the ideals of Aestheticism

As a compatriot of the Constructivist founders, Kobro was a member of the Moscow Union of Artists alongside Tatlin and Rodchenko. In 1922, Kobro fled Russia for Poland, where she lived with her husband Władysław Strzemiński (1893-1952), a fellow avant-garde artist, until her death. 

Kobro’s greatest contribution to the movement, as well as her arguably greatest achievement, was the conceptualization of infinite space, something ordinarily without a focal point, by organizing it in such a way that her sculptures coexist harmoniously with it, and space weaves within and throughout her works. This radical reworking of how objects interact with the space around them will forever be her legacy, as well as the abstract shapes that she created.

WikiArt.

Katarzyna Kobro, Sculpture Spatiale, 1928.

Kobro’s reimagining of composition aligns with the movement’s objective for artists to serve as engineers. Her works, although provocative and revolutionary, serve a greater purpose: creating usefulness in design to better serve a Communist future. In serving this future, the ideals of Constructivism eventually spread outside of Russia’s borders to Germany, where it served as an inspiration for the Bauhaus movement. Both the Constructivist and Bauhaus movements ended in the 1930s when avant-garde ideals became a threat to most Communist regimes. The movement saw a resurgence in the 1950s when Brazilian artists such as Lygia Clark (1920-1988) reimagined the movement into a literal interaction between artist and audience, with some of her works even being wearable, serving the movement’s original purpose of functionality and innovation.

Like Clark, Constructivism itself sought to reimagine Russian art as something accessible to all, of the people and for the people, as opposed to being limited to the elite, with the resources for formal training in exclusive academies. By shifting the narrative of who can be an artist, the narrative of what art is, how it should be constructed, who it should be made for, and its greater context in the world could finally be addressed. 

Artists such as Katarzyna Kobro answer these questions with a radical reimagining of how art interacts with the space around it, drawing greater questions on how art interacts with its environment. Although the movement dissolved in the 1930s as the Soviet Union became more oppressive, Constructivism arguably served as a precursor for other movements that address how art interacts with its environments such as land art and environmental art, therefore establishing its legacy beyond Russian history.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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