Sculptor and artist. Born on May 19, 1926, in Kalisz and died on March 2nd, 1973, in Praz-Coutant, France.
Sculptor and artist. Born on May 19, 1926, in Kalisz and died on March 2nd, 1973, in Praz-Coutant, France. Szapocznikow was one of the most original woman sculptors in contemporary art. Inspired by the personal experience of her long battle with a fatal illness, she created a visual language of her own to reflect the changes going on in the human body...
Szapocznikow was one of the most original woman sculptors in contemporary art. Inspired by the personal experience of her long battle with a fatal illness, she created a visual language of her own to reflect the changes going on in the human body, introducing new materials to the sculptor's repertoire with which she courageously and effectively experimented to create moving works with an uncommon power of expression.
From Ghetto to Paris
During the German occupation, she spent the years 1940–1942 with her mother in the Pabianice ghetto (her father died in 1938). From there she was transferred to the Łódź ghetto, and then – via Auschwitz – to the camps of Bergen-Belsen and Teresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. After the war she decided to study sculpture.
From 1945 to 1946 she trained in Otokar Velimski's studio, later moving on to study at the Academy of Art and Industry in Prague (supervised by Josef Wagner). From 1948 to 1950 she studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, working in Paul Niclausse's studio as a student. She came back to Poland in 1951 and began to participate in artistic life, taking part in competitions to create public monuments to Chopin (with Oskar Hansen), to Polish-Soviet Friendship, to the Warsaw Heroes, the victims of Auschwitz and Juliusz Słowacki. In 1963 she moved to France for good. In Paris she became involved with the Nouveau Réalisme movement (along with Arman, César and Niki de Saint-Phalle), led by the critic Pierre Restany. However, Szapocznikow retained her originality, remaining a sensitive artist focused mostly on issues of intimacy.
Early Works: Content and Form
Urszula Czartoryska wrote that Szapocznikow's work evolved considerably from Exhumed / Ekshumowany in 1955 to her pre-mortal Herbarium / Zielnik in 1972. Indeed, the idea of preserving the shape, look and gesture of the human figure appealed to the sculptor only at the beginning of her career. Self-portrait / Autoportret (in plaster) from about 1949, Difficult Age / Trudny wiek (in patinated plaster) and First Love / Pierwsza miłość (in cement and iron filings) from 1954 are works that praise youth and beauty; lyrical and full of the joy of life, they create an apotheosis of both youth and femininity. This makes metaphorical sense if one takes into consideration the various materials used by the artist - it could be claimed that Szapocznikow was intentionally juxtaposing "content" and "form", and the easily-destroyed material would therefore be a statement on the transience of youth and beauty.
Almost simultaneously, however, she made two works in cast iron and concrete in 1955, charting a new path in her career with Monument to a Burnt-Down City / Pomnik dla spalonego miasta and the above-mentioned Exhumed. As before, juxtaposition played a crucial role in the creation of the expression of each work, since the dramatic, frantic figure is enclosed in a hard, solid material. In First Love and Difficult Age, it was as though the sculpture consisted of two "layers": its internal tension and its material shell. In Monument to a Burnt-Down City and Exhumed, the tension is linked to matter and both "layers" are fused into a single organism, gradually deforming and transforming at the same time. Thus, the human figure began to become less explicit. Andrzej Osęka wrote in 1959:
Something happened to Alina Szapocznikow's sculptures; they ceased to be uniform masses forming a lyrical and perverse shape of a nude girl. Form – already closed and definitive in 'First Love' – was subjected to a shock, and underwent the processes of a disturbing self-destruction. Matters and masses that once were simple and naturally noble now contradicted themselves; the essence of things was no longer obvious as it used to be, and only one thing was certain: there was no way back.
Memorizing the Body: Tumours, Fetishes
Lovely, Human, True, Heartfelt: The Letters of Szapocznikow and Stanisławski 1948-1971
Works such as Bed / Łóżko, Monster / Monstrum and Body / Ciało had already vanished from Szapocznikow 's studio. From then on, the essence of her artistic search lay in the contradiction between complete, definite form and incomplete, understated, almost abstract form. Osęka remarked aptly that in Szapocznikow's art, "she constantly returns to the experience she gained through her work on the nude, as she discovers the endless possibilities and expressions of the human body".
Since for a long time she was interested mostly in her own body, one could assume that there was something narcissistic in her work. Even while radically transforming the masses of her new sculptures, she still observed biological forms. Her shapes may not have been concrete, but they remained legible enough for the viewer to realize that the sculptor was striving to find forms of expression for her fascination with the "impact force of the biology of life", as Janusz Zagrodzki wrote. Szapocznikow herself said at the time that she was interested in "searching for form, searching for the greatest expression of sensuality or dramatic quality". This was in keeping with her fascination with what happens to a human being in liminal moments. "The fleeting moment, the trivial moment – these are the only symbols of our earthly existence", she wrote. This conviction was spawned by her personal experiences with war, death and illness. Szapocznikow's sculptures were almost entirely focused on memorizing the body and "recording" the impermanent. Her designs for monuments referred more to the collective experience; later, her art would become primarily the record of one female body subject to the pressure of suffering.
Both express the epitaph-like tone of her art, thus re-asserting its existential dimension. In Szapocznikow's work an awareness of unavoidable pain is fused with a strong belief in the power of the senses. Her early sculptures are images of teenage girls of uncertain identity, while her later autobiographical works – such as Bellies / Brzuchy, Tumours / Nowotwory (1968) and Fetishes / Fetysze (1970) – often feature a fascinating, attractive woman. Their dramatic character lies mostly in the fragmentation of body parts and the changes in their function; casts of body parts replace the whole sculpture, transforming it into an artistic object or even, seemingly, a design. Examples of the former include the works which were created by reproducing a single motif. Such "tautological" assemblages include: Multiplied Portrait / Portret zwielokrotniony (1965), four casts of the lower part of the artist's face and breast cast in bronze and multicolour polyurethane and mounted on a pedestal of black granite; Bouquet II / Bukiet II (1966), imprints of a mouth changing into flowers; and Bellies (1968), casts in vinyl or polyurethane that can be randomly re-arranged. Headless Bust / Popiersie bez głowy (1968), a polyurethane cast of a naked upper body with handless arms stretched out alongside it, radiates an exceptional aura. This Bust, along with Stalla (the lower part of a woman's face and naked knees emerging from a magma-like asphalt mass), confirm Szapocznikow's tendency toward self-identification.
Art as An Erotic-Thanatological Treatise
At the same time the artist's works developed an undertone of self-irony. These "utilitarian" design-like objects downplay both individuality and popularity, as can be seen in her Illuminated / Iluminowana (1966) – a vertically over-extended female nude with a crown made of mouth and breast casts mounted on her neck instead of a head, the upper part of which was illuminated. The same strategy was also employed in Lamp / Lampa (1968), in which Szapocznikow used only the cast of a female breast in polyurethane but strengthened its expression by introducing light. Thus the female breast was pressed into service as a model for a lighting device (all other Lamps are of a similar character).
Generally in Szapocznikow's art, the body assumes the character of "exhumed" or "re-appropriated" matter. Bodily remains are seen as memories, particularly memories of the artist herself, who was brave enough transcend many borders (including those of good taste at the time in Lamps and the series Desserts / Desery) and break taboos by talking openly about her own death. This is even more significant considering that, until the very end, she never shrunk from the subject. Starting with the first casts of her own body (Leg / Noga, 1962), she constantly returned to the drama of both individual and universal passing. Yet even when she used only selected parts of the human figure (as in Multiplied Portrait and Bellies), these parts remained an apotheoses of femininity and had an inner glow, an invitation to an intimate caress.
The ostentatious auto-vivisection that the artist almost literally performed on her own body inspires trust in both her works and her words. Her artistic credo – effectively her will – written less than a year before her death, reads as follows:
My artistic gesture is aimed at the human body, this 'entirely erogenous area' with its undefined and ephemeral feelings, celebrating its impermanence in the recesses of our body and in the traces of the steps we take on this earth. Through casts of the human body, I attempt to preserve in translucent polystyrene the ephemeral moments of life, its paradoxes and its absurdity. [...] I am convinced that among all manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most fragile. It is the sole source of all joy, all pain and all truth, and this thanks to its ontological poverty, which is as inevitable as it is (at the conscious level) absolutely unacceptable.
This confession takes on exceptional meaning when related to her sculptures from the years 1968–1973. In the gloomy Tumours and Fetishists the body is almost tortured, subjected not only to fragmentation or massacre, but to actual annihilation. Alina's Funeral / Pogrzeb Aliny (1970) in particular gives this impression; it is a complex composition of polyester and plasmatic matter in which the artist's personal items – photographs, underwear and shreds of gauze – are immersed. The synthetic material is indispensable here, if solely to bind together elements that do not originate in the realm of art. Soon after that came Souvenir I / Pamiątka I (1971), a photograph of a smiling girl, the little Alina, buried deep in polyester. Next came Tear / Łza (1971), in which a drop in the shape of a female breast is "dripping" from a shapeless scrap of crumpled gauze. Szapocznikow also used casts of her own sick body in the nearly-abstract Tumours, in which understated forms seem to hide that which is the most crucial. She also used polyester to immerse photographs cloaked in bloodied bandages. Unable to reserve her praise only for beauty, she was forced to focus her work largely on memorising an "alien" body ravaged by illness and time. It was through this process that Szapocznikow's art became an Erotic-Thanatological treatise.
Part I – Alina Szapocznikow – Life in the Studio – A Film by Krzysztof Tchórzewski
Part II – Alina Szapocznikow – Life in the Studio – A Film by Krzysztof Tchórzewski
The final chapter of her work was Herbarium (1971–1972), a series in which only the first piece, Self-portrait, bears the image of the artist's face. The rest are casts not of herself but of her young son's body. Turning away from verism, she created casts that were cut, crushed and flattened on the ground, as if between the sheets of a herbarium. She took on the role of an anatomist, entomologist or botanist. Yet despite this, Herbarium remains the artist's last attempt to express her own story, the story of a woman and mother; it is an attempt to express the history of her body and its suffering.
Szapocznikow at the MoMA
In late 2011 the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels hosted a broad retrospective of works by Alina Szapocznikow as part of the cultural programme of the Polish EU Presidency. The show presented a range of pieces created by the artist between 1955–1972, which later traveled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the MoMA in New York in 2012. Sculpture Undone is one of the first major solo presentations of the artist’s work outside of Poland, concentrating on her most experimental period in the 1960s and 1970s which left behind a legacy of provocative objects, at once sexualized, visceral and humorous, that sit somewhere between Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme and Pop Art. Her tinted polyester resin casts of her lips and breasts transformed into quotidian objects, her spongy polyurethane forms often embedded with casts of bellies, and her construction of resin sculptures that incorporate found photographs remain as remarkably biting, visionary, and original today as when they were first made. With roughly 100 pieces on view, the exhibition puts Szapocznikow's sculpture centre stage alongside all other media she worked in, including photography and drawings. In 2013 the Centre Pompidou in Paris hosted a show of 100 drawings that trailed the evolution of her work through sketches and studies, while remembering the time she spent working in Paris and the city's impact on her work – she lived in Paris as a young woman, studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, later returning in the 1960s and remaining till her death in 1973.
Awards and Reviews
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Szapocznikow's oeuvre is still the subject of lively discussion, and her work has won several awards. She startled everyone with her sculpture Goldfinger in 1965 at the XXI May Salon in Paris, a work for which she received the Copley Foundation Award (from a jury that included Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst). In 1972, at the Second International Drawing Exhibition in Rijeka, Yugoslavia, she was honoured for a series of drawings, The Human Path / Ludzka droga, by a jury that included Alexander Calder and Joan Miró. The most complete source of information on Szapocznikow's art is the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition in Poland in 1998–1999 (in Warsaw at Zachęta National Gallery of Art; in Cracow at the National Museum; in Łódź at the Art Museum; and in Wrocław at the National Museum).
The online edition of French daily Le Monde published a review of the show and Szapocznikow's work, writing:
Suddenly, without hesitation , she grabbed all the resources that are now available. She aggregates engine parts to molded and cast members. She discovered plastics and put them together with rags, pieces of clothing and glass containers. Resin was used to create breasts, mouths or hands, tenderly colored, but easily torn, deformed , blooms planted like heads on pikes. With these pieces, she composed still lifes that were sarcastic, a game of massacre. From1967, she took photographs of faces and naked bodies, she drowned them in resin, obtaining mummified, twisted forms. It is impossible not to report in his obsession with physical destruction and her experiences in the camps which she refused to talk about.
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, February 2003. Updated by Agnieszka Le Nart, November 2011.
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