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The black box registers the course of a flight. In The Black Boxes Małgorzata Malwina Niespodziewana placed scenes from Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński's lives, which she managed to reconstruct on the basis of surviving photographs.
The artist developed her interest in Kobro (1898 - 1951) a long time ago. Now Kobro has become the heroine of her latest works. Niespodziewana has carried out almost a vivisection of Kobro's life, starting with an analysis of the breakdown of the sculptor's marriage. In black boxes (The Black Box K-S, 2008) spirits of the past appear: the artists; their friends, such as Julian Przyboś; but also the crowd who came to celebrate Strzemiński's being awarded with the Artistic Prize of the City of Łódź in 1932, etc. The structure of the majority of the ten compositions resembles stage design. On several planes, as if everything was happening inside a miniature theatre, with the use of copies of photographs she has found in publications dedicated to the sculptor, Malwina has distributed faces, figures or groups of figures. You can look inside some of the boxes through open work holes. The contours of one of them bring to mind a figure from Strzemiński's sketch "On the Trenches" from his cycle "Cheap as Mud" (1944).
On the basis of archival photographs the artist has also recreated a series of Kobro's portraits. One of them displays Kobro in 1:1 scale, wearing an outrageous - for the time - black and white dress and a cap, both designed by her husband. With the exception of this single work, all remaining portraits are small graphics, tucked into black frames, which were made of various materials - wood painted in black, black lace, etc. (Katarzyna's Portrait, 2008).
The project also includes foldouts devised in the technique of linocut, which were modelled on three-dimensional books for children, so-called pop-up books (Katarzyna and Nika 1936-1951, 2008). They have a touch of cut-outs, and the ones which are technically more advanced are engineering gems, which coalesce paper filigree ornamentation with precise mathematical calculations. Text, although still present, remains in the background; the most important are mobile elements and spatial forms which flatten once you fold the cover. The paper foldouts by Niespodziewana, far more sparing in form and colour in comparison with their prototypes, refer to the tradition of comic books (characteristic comic-like speech bubbles). A field of experiments on movement and depth, they can be situated somewhere on the borderland of graphic art and sculpture and are concurrent with what is characteristic of Malwina's artistic creation, namely testing the capabilities of paper. Reference to a children's world and at the same time to a moment when a child is given a book by his parents to provide him with stories which help comprehend the surrounding reality, is here insomuch essential, as the artist refers to the childhood of Kobro's daughter - Nika Strzemińska.
Małgorzata Niespodziewana has pictured key episodes of Nika Strzemińska's book "Art, Love and Hate", devoted to her parents. What Malwina finds especially gripping is not Kobro's theories about sculpture, which were precursory in many respects, but the biography of the artist itself: threads of the body, illness (Kobro died of cancer of the genital organs) and identity - both the identity of a woman and her national identity. Going deep in the biography of the artist, Malwina reminds us of the havoc which was wrought on Kobro by historical events. Not only did she have to experience the personal drama of her illness, but also the effects of the national antagonisms which were present during World Wars I and II.
A Russian with a German surname and a Polish citizen by choice, Kobro still had to explain all the time that she had never belonged to any Fascist organisation and that she had not renounced Polish nationality for Russian when she had signed the Russian list during occupation. She spent her last years paralysed by fear of being imprisoned. Niespodziewana illustrates a certain dramatic moment, which lodged in the memory of Nika: on February 11, 1949 a policeman was interrogating Kobro in her presence and asked Kobro - which she found completely incomprehensible - if she wanted her Polish citizenship to be restored. The daughter recalls the very moment: "She replied she did not, because she had had it for a long time and she was not thinking of leaving the country, which had been her motherland for fifty years. She could not apprehend where this bizarre interest in her nationality derived from. Although she invariably felt Russian and a loyal Polish citizen and Polish artist at the same time, she did not think she should have clarified the matter earlier at the public prosecutor's office". Kobro's "otherness" is what Malwina seeks to draw the audience's attention to. Otherness, which evokes irrational emotions. Otherness, which is elevated above all, above art - art, which everyone paradoxically considers a common and their own heritage. Otherness, which is also the otherness of a woman.
One of the scenes presents Kobro in labour with her daughter Nika. When you open another book you can see a woman holding an axe - that is Kobro herself, who at the end of occupation chopped up her wooden sculptures, because coal supplies had run out and she could not cook meals for her family. In the biography of the sculptor Malwina traces back the moments in which the relationship between two women strengthens, such as the one when Kobro sculpted a nude of her daughter - one of her last works at the same time.
In the black and white foldouts colour appears twice. In the scene where little Nika finds her mother bleeding in the forest, Malwina placed a red thread. Threads in Niespodziewana's works indicate the body's secretions - mainly blood and tears (e.g. white threads in the linocut "Boys cry…, 2006"). It is not meaningless that for Malwina threads symbolize love and faithfulness. Cut and reeled around a spool, the artist's hair becomes the thread with which her husband, Bartek, embroiders the words of a wedding vow on white linen (Pledge, 2005). Another time red threads entwine, just like a web, two lovers (Lovers, 2003/4). Thread is a bond which unifies people who are close to each other. It is also the umbilical cord, which joins the baby and mother. Supposedly, it also suggests that the story of Kobro as told by Niespodziewana is a story on the distaff side; not written by scientific authorities, but a personal and intimate story of a woman told by a woman. Curiously enough, in Niespodziewana's books when a man appears, he does not have a face - e.g. in the depiction of the Strzemiński family on the beach or the abovementioned scene of Kobro's interrogation in the presence of little Nika.
Nika takes care of her mother, and when the symptoms of her illness worsen - pains and ever more frequent haemorrhages - a red thread slides out of the book and runs onto the floor. In Malwina's graphic works devoted to the Nepalese Living Goddess (Kumari Devi's Blood, 2005) or installations such as Red (2006), this colour was a symbol of pulsating, vibrant life and adolescence. In the series of works for Kobro, red becomes a symbol of sacrifice, suffering, but also some stigmata. Nika's dress is red in the scene from her mother's funeral. For this "inappropriate outfit" the girl gets a scolding from her neighbours who came to the ceremony. It seems that the red thread and the red dress also indicate a community of destiny, because later in life Nika too will be diagnosed with the same type of tumour her mother suffered from. Eventually, the red thread becomes a dashed line of the lives of the two women.
Only a few people attended Kobro's burial ceremony: "It seemed", says Nika Strzemińska, "that no one remembered her and her artistic creation was consigned to oblivion". But the sculptor had fallen into oblivion much earlier - during her lifetime, and it was not until the 1980s that there was a change in the assessment of her output. Nowadays, theoretical texts by Kobro, regarded as one of the most prominent representatives of avant-garde, which grew out of the tradition of Russian constructivism, are enthusiastically published. Art historians carry out research into the vicissitudes of her sculptures and the mysteries of her life story. Nevertheless, even her daughter admitted that she had only been able to unravel the mystery of Kobro's life to some extent. Małgorzata Niespodziewana lifts the veil of secrecy as well by opening her black box.
Patrycja Cembrzyńska
The 9th Baltic States Biennale of Graphic Art "Kaliningrad-Königsberg 2008", ed. I. Budaeva, E. Lukyanova, Kaliningrad State Art Gallery 2008, p. 130-133