Alina Szapocznikow, Iluminowana (Illuminated Woman) [detail], 1966-1967 © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy the Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris / Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Fabrice Gousset
HWP_ Szapocznikow[2]
Related publication: To Exalt the Ephemeral:
Alina Szapocznikow, 1962-1972
24 Oct 2019
Essay first published in ‘L'OFFICIEL ART International’, Issue 28 (December 2018 – January – February 2019)

Alina Szapocznikow: The Force That Drives the Flower

by Ben Eastham

The work of Alina Szapocznikow (1926, Kalisz, Poland – 1973, Passy, France) is simultaneously horrific and seductive, morbid and flirtatious. Having gained proper recognition as an artist only recently outside her native Poland, over the course of her short life Szapocznikow produced sculptures and Surrealist-inspired objects that take the body as an essential point of departure. In the run-up to the artist's solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth New York in autumn 2019, Ben Eastham delves into her complex practice, driven by an urgent, desperate compulsion towards life.

‘The human body,’ wrote Szapocznikow, ‘is the most sensitive and in fact the only source of all kinds of joy, pain and truth.’ The Polish artist’s recent retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield was crowded by bodies and parts of bodies: stripling women with resin breasts backlit by light bulbs; the soft rolls of a stomach cast in polyurethane foam and monumentalized in Italian marble; a table lamp with a kissable pair of disembodied red lips for a shade; hands clasped in friendship and legs contorted in the throes of sex or death. All of these anatomies gave the impression of having been wired through with a restless energy. Created in the course of a career cut short by cancer in 1973, when the artist was just 46 years old, they are like the bundles of nerves through which we experience the world: sites of intermingled pleasure and suffering.

The artist has only recently gained proper recognition outside her native Poland, with a string of rapturously received exhibitions (notably at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2013 and at the Hepworth Wakefield), confirming her place in the canon of twentieth-century sculpture now being redrafted to accommodate more women and non-Western artists. Her practice fits the intellectual structures shaping those revised histories, not least by seeming to pre-empt certain strains in feminist art and theory from the late 1970s, while also tracing a neat narrative arc of postwar art: the tortured existentialist forms of ‘Monster I’ (1957) or ‘Mary Magdalene’ (1958) succeeded by the more playful, Pop-inflected erogenous zones of the 1960s and ultimately by a focus on the artist’s own flesh-and-blood that anticipates contemporary debates around the body and identity, the personal and the political.

SZAPO91913 Mary Magdalene

Studio view of Alina Szapocznikow's ‘Mary Magdalene’ (1957-1958) © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocnikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Loevenbruck, Paris / Hauser & Wirth

SZAPO87937 Cendrier de Célibataire I (The Bachelor's Ashtray I)

Alina Szapocznikow, Cendrier de Célibataire I (The Bachelor’s Ashtray I), 1972 © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocnikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Loevenbruck, Paris / Hauser & Wirth. Photo Fabrice Gousset.

Yet reducing Szapocznikow‘s work to a rung on the ladder of art history risks downplaying the exuberance—the sheer charisma—that animates her sculptures. The same applies to a biographical reading of her practice, though it would be perverse to ignore the circumstances of a life riddled with personal and political trauma. So let’s examine her story without undue speculation on the specific ways it is manifested in individual works, as context rather than cause: Szapocznikow was fourteen years old, and had already lost her father, when she was interned in a ghetto following the Nazi invasion of Poland. She worked with her mother at the Jewish hospital in the ghettoes of Pabianice and later Lódz until they were split up and she was transported via Auschwitz to Bergen-Bergen and Theresienstadt, where her brother died in January 1945 and she ended the war believing herself to be the only surviving member of the family. With the country’s liberation (a temporary reprieve from dictatorship, given its abandonment after the war to the Soviet sphere of influence). the aspiring artist moved to Prague and then Paris to pursue her studies, marrying before contracting the tuberculosis that left her infertile (she and her first husband adopted a son, Piotr, in 1952). At risk of breaking that pledge not to speculate, it seems reasonable to assume that the human body and spirit were revealed by these events to be vulnerable. But also, perhaps, capable of adapting to and ultimately assimilating the most extreme physical and emotional trauma.

Szapocznikow’s sculptures contradict themselves, they contain multitudes.

Which might help us understand Szapocznikow‘s genius for bringing together in her sculptures qualities that we usually assume cannot coexist in a single work of art, Figures like those depicted in ‘The Bachelor’s Ashtray I’ (1972)—a disfigured female head repurposed as an ashtray—are at once horrific and seductive, angry and flirtatious, morbid and blasé. Or we might take for example the life-sized cast in polyester resin of her son, ‘Piotr’ (1972), displayed so that his slim pale figure seems caught in the act of falling backwards (into the arms, I can‘t help but think, of his absent mother). The heartbreaking tenderness of this work does not diminish or necessarily invalidate its palpable erotic charge, calling to mind the heightened emotional pitch and sublimated desire of both Michelangelo’s ‘Pietá’ (1498-1499) and Paul Thek’s ‘Tomb (Death of a Hippie)’ (1967). Yet where those beautiful young corpses are supported and redeemed from death by their status as symbols, this boy on the verge of collapse is painfully vulnerable because he is mortal, and complex because he is human. Szapocznikow‘s sculptures contradict themselves, they contain multitudes.

Artist Portrait

Alina Szapocnikow with ‘Envahissement de tumeurs’ at her Malakoff studio, 1970 © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocnikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Loevenbruck, Paris / Hauser & Wirth

Which makes it surprising to learn that she began her artistic career depicting humans as fixed cogs in stable machines. As an artist in Soviet-controlled Poland, she was commissioned by the state to produce Socialist Realist public sculptures, such as ‘Monument to Polish-Russian Friendship’ (1953-1954), embodying mechanistic theories of historical progress and industrialized society. The monumental bronze is defined by its literal and figurative stability: the allegory of two male workers standing arm-in-arm and clasping a shared flag is not designed to reward imaginative speculation on its meaning, while the hulking composition and long base provide it with the low center of gravity that also lends Stalinist architecture its implacable and brutish presence. It is useful less as an example of what Szapocnikow was working towards than as one of what she was trying to escape.

That breakaway was facilitated by the Polish ‘thaw’ that followed the death of Stalin and saw the restrictions on cultural expression relaxed. Freed from the expectation that she must represent the body as perfectly honed part of a machine, Szapocznikow produced an astonishing portrait of mental and physical suffering dedicated to a Hungarian politician executed after his conviction on trumped-up charges in a show trial. The amputated arms and truncated legs of this startled bronze figure—not to mention the title ‘Exhumed’ (1955)—allude to damaged Hellenic ideals of the body (sculptures like the Venus de Milo) even as the brutalized and emaciated figure conjures up the realities of life under an authoritarian regime. But most striking is the way the sculpture reclaims Lészlé Rajk from allegory—the personification of heroism or treachery, depending on your politics—and returns him to the world of feeling. This is the truth, located in subjective experience, that the sculptor would pursue for the remainder of her career.

SZAPO87930 Noga (Leg)

Alina Szapocznikow, Noga (Leg), 1962 © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocnikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Loevenbruck, Paris / Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt

SZAPO95717 Lampe-Bouche (Illuminated Lips)

Alina Szapocznikow, Lampe-bouche (Illuminated Lips), 1966 © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocnikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Loevenbruck, Paris / Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt

In her opposition to abstract systems and universalizing principles, as well as her taste for unexpected combinations and disruptive juxtapositions, there is the influence of the Surrealists. This is most obvious in the objects she produced from the early 1960s, when she started casting body parts—her own, and those of her social circle—in resin and incorporating them into sculptures and domestic fixtures. These include the deeply uncanny ‘Lampe-Bouche’ series of illuminated lips as retro-futuristic, cannibalistic light fittings, and ‘Illuminated Woman’ (1966-67), a standing female figure in polyester resin with illuminated breasts and a billowing biomorphic cloud tor a head.

These are fetishes in the sense of seeming imbued with their own agency rather than as having been transformed by male desire…There is desire here, but also tenderness and something like a frank delight in the flesh.

Recalling the enchanted objects of Meret Oppenheim, these are fetishes in the sense of seeming imbued with their own agency rather than as having been transformed by male desire. The ‘Striding Lips’ sculptures are actively seductive of the viewer, functioning not merely as titillation (as in the furniture design of Allen Jones) but as desiring subjects that—if you’ll accept the visual pun on these female mouths at the summit of thin mental stems—speak for themselves. ‘Big Bellies’ (1968), meanwhile, is a monumental sculpture carved from marble and deriving its form from the rolls of flesh that bunch on a woman’s stomach as she bends forward. There is desire here, but also tenderness and something like a frank delight in the flesh. These works are sexy, to put it bluntly, in the self—assured way of early movie stars and any person who is entirely at ease in their own body.

After her diagnosis with breast cancer in 1969, Szapocznikow produced a body of work that infused the artist’s preparations for death with the same playful, animating energy. For ‘Herbarium’ (1972) she made a new cast of Piotr’s body and cut it up so that its dismembered parts could be flattened onto the pages of a book like the cuttings of plants in an index of specimens. This deeply moving work reads not only as a memorial but also as an expression of the artist’s continued faith in what Dylan Thomas called ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,’ the compulsion towards life that suffuses the world and her work. The absurdity of life—its inherent injustice and meaninglessness—is here figured as liberating. In these final years Szapocznikow created a series of drawings, sculptures and installations populated by tumors, and there is a wonderful press photograph of her reclining on the floor of her studio, peering out from under a black fringe with an arm wrapped around a football-sized polyester growth. When these harbingers of her death were huddled together to create the wall-hanging sculpture ‘Alina’s Funeral’ (1970), the bulbous shapes suggested not only the cancerous cells that would, through their own mad desire to proliferate, eventually kill her, but also the many-breasted sculpture of Artemis at Ephesus that inspired Louise Bourgeois’ representations of fertility and new life. All wrapped up and reconciled in a single, fragile body.

The gallery’s first solo exhibition devoted to Szapocznikow, ‘To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962-1972’, will be on view at Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street, 29 October – 21 December 2019.

Ben Eastham is a London-based writer and editor. He is co-founder of The White Review and editor of Art Review.

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