Katarzyna Kobro, a Polish artist whose sculptures polarized critics in her home country during the mid-20th century, is the latest under-recognized artist to get a Google Doodle. Today, a portrait of Kobro appears on the front page of the search engine to mark her birthday.
Kobro is hardly a household name in the U.S., where she has never had a major retrospective. Part of the reason for this is that much of her work was lost or destroyed during World War II; another is that, as with other female artists, she has rarely been given the same weight as other male artists in the history of European abstraction. Her reputation is changing, however, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, there is currently a gallery dedicated to Kobro that features a work on loan from the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland.
Commonly associated with the Constructivist movement in Poland, Kobro, along with her husband, Władysław Strzemiński, was a member of many avant-garde groups. Her biography remains filled with gaps, although it’s likely that she came into contact with major modernists like Kazimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Kobro and Strzemiński advocated for functionalism, believing that, in paring abstraction down to its most basic forms, movements like Cubism and Constructivism would help artists realize a utopian society.
“The era of building—created by the proper use of contemporary industry’s production capabilities, by art and by psycho-technology, all harnessed to meet mankind’s needs according to a plan—will be the self-evident justification of functionalism,” Kobro once wrote. She was not alone in feeling that way, as many Eastern European artists, Rodchenko included, put forward a similar set of politics.
Kobro’s surviving works are elegant, minimal, and striking. Some hang like mobiles and feature splashes of color in the form of blue or yellow rectangular forms; others look more like twists of metal. During Kobro’s lifetime, critics reviled these works, with one even calling her art “aimless.”
Her reputation was also impacted by her heritage, which, at the time, was controversial. Born in Moscow in 1898 to a German father and a Russian mother, Kobro spent much of her career in Poland. She refused to shed her Polish identity once Russia invaded Poland, however, and this strained her marriage and put her in danger. She was at one point even sentenced to six months in prison, only to narrowly avoid having to serve time following an appeal. In 1950, she was diagnosed with cancer; she died the following year.
Kobro is the latest under-recognized artist to get a Google Doodle, following similar illustrations for Pacita Abad and We:wa. In a statement, Google called Kobro an “intellect who shaped the art world.”