Written by Melissa Budasz & Moira Jarvis for ArtSabre, January 2018
Alina Szapocznikow’s retrospective Human Landscapes (Oct 2017-Jan 2018), recently held at The Hepworth Wakefield, is a long overdue survey of one of the most important post-war artists of the 20th century. Through this re-examination, it is clear that her work has a strong resonance today and retains its influence within contemporary visual art. A Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz, Szapocznikow’s radical, brave and pioneering approach to her sculpture is restlessly explored through her own body and it is the intersection of her life and art, that acknowledges the transience and impermanence of the physical body that is all at once playful, sensual and political.
After studying in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts and suffering from TB in 1951, Szapocznikow returned to Warsaw where interest in her work grew quickly. In the late 1950s she began to break free from her early more formal, classical training. She made a series of sculptures about heroic female figures that had elongated and exaggerated limbs – these human distortions echo perhaps her own harrowed experiences during the war (1939-1945), Exhumed (1957) evokes an excavated corpse from a mass grave.
In her (1957) sculpture Maria Magdalena, Szapocznikow’s visual language engaged a new energy and life force by interrogating form and materiality, elevating Mary Magdalene from an unobtainable and longed-for icon to becoming part of the physicality of our lives as well as the materiality of the earth. Szapocznikow takes on the biblical tradition after Donatello The Penitent Magdalene (c 1455) and Caravaggio Penitent Magdalene (1595) that many women artists have followed including Marlene Dumas – The Magdalena portraits (1995-96) and Kiki Smith, Mary Magdalene (1994). Szapocznikow’s Magdalene is an important turning point not only in her own work, but in the artistic and historical portrayal of Magdalene.
Szapocznikow’s move to Paris in the 1963 saw a shift in her practice when she began using casts of her own body in her sculpture. She described them as ‘awkward objects’ which were imbued with a lush sexiness, menacing physicality and delightful wit. She began to use plants (Ceramic I, II and III) that grew out of fragmented broken casts of heads and limbs. A torn away head, The Bachelor’s Ashtray I which displays both satire and tragedy. In Bouquet II is a cast of her head, lips and breasts that are playfully and narcissistically constructed as a woman with a headpiece. She said:
“As for me, I produce awkward objects. This absurd and convulsive mania proves the existence of an unknown, secret gland, necessary for life. Yes this mania can be reduced to a single gesture, within reach of us all. But this gesture is sufficient unto itself. It is the confirmation of our human presence”.
An artist of her time, Szapocznikow began making functional lamps with lights concealed inside from resin casts of her lips and breasts. These objects are both erotic and repellent with a fetishist edge as the gaze on modern femininity is explored – pink and red lips and a sliced breast served in an ice-cream dish. It is clear at this time she is engaged with the Surrealist and pop-art legacies.
She subsequently began casting bellies, breasts and heads that are presented as cushions sprawled on the floor, plinths and walls. Increasingly abstract, it is displaying the part not the whole that draws the viewer into the work, encouraging the focus of the object and the space beyond. These slightly strange and mysterious, uncanny sculptures both challenged and revolutionised the way sculpture could be presented as installations at that time; they look like they are falling down, defying gravity.
The materiality of her sculptures that record memory through photographs are covered in thin layers of latex, amplifying the traces of memory so that experiences are never lost. Like her contemporary Eva Hesse, a Jewish artist who also lived through the tragedy of World War II, both artists use thin layers of latex that resembled damaged skin and draw on memories of the body. Szapocznikow never portrays herself as a victim in her work; she is recording her experiences in a very physical way, as Picasso did with his sexuality.
In the late 1960s, Szapocznikow was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her work becomes more fragmented, broken. She meditated increasingly on the nature of mortality – using latex casts of her own body and that of Piotr, her son, resembling human skin and pushing the boundaries between 2D and 3D work, referencing sculptural reliefs from the renaissance period and the Western tradition of art.
“Despite everything, I persist in attempting to fix in resin the imprints of our body: I am convinced that among all the manifestations of perishability, the human body is the most sensitive, the only source of all joy, all pain, all truth…On the level of consciousness because of its ontological misery which is as inevitable as it is unacceptable.”
Alina Szapocznikow, April 1972
The sense of urgency and Szapocznikow’s desperation to re-create her body through photographs and casts highlights the psychological effect of her disease as she confronted her own physical decline. They are both literal and vulnerable statements, their inherent power communicating directly to the viewer. She also radically connects and re-imagines the erotics of the sculptural body, breaking down formal aesthetics.
Like the American artist Hannah Wilke (1940-1993), both artists used their own bodies as a starting point in their work. Both died from cancer at a relatively young age. Wilke explored her ideas around femininity and sexuality and documented her diseased body from Lymphoma in her work Intra Venus (1992-3). One of Szapocznikow’s final works Invasion of Tumours (1970) which she assembled from rubbish, newspapers, imprinted photographs and scraps of cloth bunched into clumps and encased in polyester resin, echo the tumours that were in her body and the impact of the physical and mental transformation that she went through.
Until the end, Szapocznikow had a way of objectifying her experiences in an acutely visceral and open way. These dominant narratives, in continual transformation, still feel and look pioneering over 40 years since her death.
The Hepworth Wakefield, for their kind permission to use images from the exhibition, Alina Szapocznikow, Human Landscapes
21 October 2017 – 28 January 2018
The Hepworth Wakefield – Alina Szapocznikow, Human Landscapes
21 October 2017 – 28 January 2018
After-affects | After-images
Trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum
by Griselda Pollock
Alina Szapocznikow – Sculpture Undone 1955-1972
The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Mercatorfonds, Brussels