Alina Szapocznikow

The art and lie of Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (1926–73) were largely determined by World War II and the Cold War. A survivor of three concentration camps, the artist led a nomadic life after the war, moving from Prague to Paris, where she studied art, to Warsaw, then back to France, in 1963, where she would live an “unsettled” existence for ten years, until her slow death from breast cancer. Szapocznikow’s work conjures both the enduring and transient character of a life affected by a tragic historic moment and an equally tragic personal story.

Presented in more or less chronological fashion, this retrospective exhibition began with Szapocznikow’s sculptures from the late ’40s and early ’50s, which show the influences of Surrealism, Henry Moore, and the soft modeling and moderate expressiveness of Czech Baroque sculpture. An homage to Hungarian activist László Rajk, Ekshumowany (The exhumed), 1955, depicts a sitting figure—a motif probably borrowed from Moore’s sculptures, but without the pedestal—its eroded face and wide-open “carnivorous” mouth looking like they were taken from Francis Bacon’s visual lexicon of anguish.

Although Szapocznikow’s early works reveal a strong individuality, she did not find her voice until the mid-’60s, when, back in Paris, she made her first sexually connotative pieces, such as Goldfinger, 1965, titled after the James Bond movie. With its Surrealist combination of sculpted and gilded lower body parts attached to machinery resembling mousetraps, the work takes female anatomy as a locus of both traumatic introspection and erotic pleasure. Self-abuse is prominent in Szapocznikow’s works: She liked to wrap her figures in plastic or embed anatomical parts in dark synthetic materials that recall hardened lava or an oil spill. The suggestively titled Ça coule en rouge (It runs in red), 1967, consists of a pair of the artist’s underwear stuffed with cotton and stiffened with a coat of liquid polyester. These deeply private sculptures bring to mind the emotional intensity in the works of other female artists such as Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse, Hannah Wilke, and Louise Bourgeois.

Obsession with the female body and bodily fluids took on a new meaning when Szapocznikow learned she had cancer in 1969. The naked flesh became not only a site of eschatological introspection but also of exorcism, as if the artist believed in the healing possibilities of her art. She began to supplement her casts of female anatomy with portrait photographs. In Wielki nowotwór I/Grand tumeur I (Large tumor I), 1969, Szapocznikow enlarged photographs of herself and covered them with semitransparent polyester, arriving at a decaying yet ethereal sculpture-tombstone. A yellowish, mucuslike substance covers her photographs in Pogrzeb Aliny/L’Enterrement d’Alina (The burial of Alina), 1971. Her growing anxiety about approaching death found its apex in Zielnik XIII (Herbarium XIII), 1972, an amorphous updated pietà that consists of polyester casts of the face and body, arts of Szapocznikow’s adopted son, arranged like flattened, “melting” ancient imprints.

Unknown in the West, Szapocznikow has been greatly appreciated in Poland, but even there, largely for ideological reasons, her work had not been fully examined until now. Her early socialist realist public sculptures have largely gone ignored. The current retrospective included Szapocznikow’s project for a monument to Stalin, an argument for a change in attitude toward examining “politically incorrect” works in exhibitions by major Polish artists. Frequently perceived as a “cancer” in itself, the socialist realist phase common to many of the sculptor’s contemporaries helps illuminate the complexity of the artist’s survival strategy (or instinct) born, paradoxically, from the persistence of a belief in regeneration.

Marek Bartelik