Alina Szapocznikow, born in 1926 in Kalisz, held a unique position in the post-war European avant-garde. In the 1960s and early 1970s, she was one of the first artists to experiment with polyester, which she used to cast parts of her face and body to montage them into grotesque and sexually charged assemblages. Szapocznikow's oeuvre spans a continuously productive period from the 1950s to her untimely death in 1973. Her drawings and sculptures represent an previously unseen fusion of a late dark Surrealism with the bright and sexually provocative side of Pop-Art.
Szapocznikow is still one of the most original contemporary sculptors. The human body was for her the source of all joy, pain, and truth. She made it the main subject of her art, showing man in an unprudish and courageous way. In her work, there is the pulsating vitality, beauty, and sensuality of youth, a fascination with sex, but also with illness, transcience, and death. Based on her personal experience of war and then many years battling cancer, she created a visual language of her own to reflect the changes going on in a human body. In order to do it, she introduced new materials to the sculptor's repertoire with which she courageously and effectively experimented to create moving works of a rarely seen power of expression.
She was only 12 when her father died of tuberculosis, and she lost her brother just after the outbreak of WWII. During the German occupation she lived in Pabianice, spending the years 1940-42 with her mother in the Pabianice ghetto, from which she was transferred to the Lodz ghetto, and then - via Auschwitz - to the camps in Bergen-Belsen and Teresienstadt. Having survived, she decided after the war to study sculpture in Prague and then at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She kept forever the traumatic memory of war and a consciousness of the fragility of life.
In 1951 she returned to Poland, taking part in competitions to create public monuments to Chopin (with Oskar Hansen), Juliusz Slowacki, Polish-Soviet Friendship, Warsaw Heroes, and the victims of Auschwitz. In her more personal early work she strove to preserve the transient beauty in the shape, look, and gesture of the human figure, in works like Self-portrait (gypsum, ca. 1949) and First Love (cement, iron filings, 1954) creating an apotheosis of youth and femininity, lyrical and bursting with the joy of life. The varied, easily destructible materials were to remind us that youth and beauty are marked with the stamp of transience.
However, almost simultaneously (1955), she made two works in cast iron and concrete, charting a new path in her art: Monument to a Burnt City and Exhumed. Dramatic figures are enclosed in hard, solid material; a tension however, has already been introduced into the very substance, and the two "layers" of form and content - fused into one organism, gradually deforming and transforming at the same time. The human figure in Szapocznikow's art began to loose its explicitness.
Around that time she began making the inevitable decay more visible and graphic, while maintaining a visible tension between essentially biological forms and a sometimes jarring deconstruction of them in forms that approach the abstract, leading to the epitaph-like tone of her art - all of it with roots in her confrontations with the sufferings of war and then deadly illness. The sculpture of Szapocznikow was then almost entirely focused on memorizing the body and "recording" the impermanent.
In 1963 Szapocznikow moved for good to France. In Paris she joined the milieu of the Nouveau Réalisme movement (Arman, César, Niki de Saint-Phalle, the critic Pierre Restany, etc.), but remained an original in her own right.
In Szapocznikow's art - bearing a strong existential dimension - the consciousness of pain that a man cannot avoid is fused with a strong belief in the power of the senses. Her early sculptures are images of teenage girls, not certain yet who they are; later autobiographical works - Torsos, Tumors (1968), Fetishes (1970) - often present a fascinating, attractive woman. Their dramatic character is mostly due to a fragmentation of body parts and changes in their function: the cast of body parts replaces the whole sculpture, making it an artistic object or even design. Many works are multiplications of one and the same motif - "tautological" assemblages: Multiplied Portrait (1965) - four casts of the artist's lower part of the face and breast, cast in bronze and multicolor polyurethane, mounted on a pedestal of black granite, Bouquet II (1966) - imprints of a mouth changing into flowers, Torsos (1966) - casts in vinyl or polyurethane mass that can be randomly arranged.
At the same time the artist developed works with a strong undertone of auto-irony. These "utilitarian" objects, or design prototypes, as if decorative, downplayed both the individual and the popular, mass-produced, as in her 1966 piece Illuminated (1966), a vertically over-extended female nude with a well-lit crown of mouth and breast casts mounted on her neck instead of a head. The same strategy was employed in Lamp (1968), where Szapocznikow used one element only: the cast of a female breast in polyurethane mass. In this way the female breast served as a prototype for a lighting device. In Szapocznikow's art the body has the character of "exhumed" matter.
One sees bodily remains as souvenirs, in particular souvenirs of the artist herself, who had the courage to break through many borders (even those of good taste at the time, as in Lamps or the series Desserts).She also broke a tabu by talking openly about her own death, and till the end never shrinking back from that.
From the first casts of her own body (Leg, 1962) she constantly cruised around the drama of passing: individual and at the same time universal in nature. But even when she used only selected parts of the human figure, as in Multiplied Portrait or Torsos, they were an apotheosis of femininity and maintained an inner glow - an invitation to an intimate caress.
The ostentatious auto-vivisection which the artist - almost literally - practiced on her own body, makes us trust not only her works but also her words. In her artistic credo - in effect her testament - written less than a year before her death, we read:
"My gesture is aimed at the human body, this 'entirely erogenic sphere', with its undefined and ephemeral feelings - celebrating its impermanence in the recesses of our body, in the traces of our steps taken on his earth. Through casts of a 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 of the manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most fragile, the only source of all joy, of all pain and of all truth, and this is thanks to its ontological poverty, which is as inevitable as it is - at the level of consciousness - absolutely unacceptable".
In her sculptures from the years 1968-1973, she subdued the body to virtual tortures: not only a fragmentation or a massacre, but annihilation. Especially Alina's Funeral (1970) makes such an impression: in this complex composition of polyester plasmatic matter, the artist's personal objects are immersed: photographs, underwear, shreds of gauze. Synthetic material is used here only as a binder of elements that do not belong to the art world. Next came Souvenir I (1971) with a photograph of a smiling girl, the little Alina, immersed deep in polyester. Also in Tumors, close to abstraction, Szapocznikow used casts of her ill body. She also immersed in them photographs cloaked in bloodied bandages.
The last chapter in the art of Szapocznikow was Herbarium (1971-1972). In this series, only the first chart - Self-portrait - is a reflection of the artist's face. The rest are casts not of hers but of her son's young male body. She resigned from casts characterized by verism and cut, crushed, and flattened them on the ground - as if on the pages of a herbarium. She acted like an anatomist, entomologist or a botanist, creating one of the most moving and passionate bodies of work on the essence of life.
Szapocznikow's work is still widely discussed. Her awards included the Copley Foundation Award, which she received for a startling piece called Goldfinger at the XXI May Salon in Paris in 1965 (the jury included Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst). At the Second International Drawing Exhibition in Rijeka, Yugoslavia, in 1972 she was honored for a series of drawings, The Human Path by a jury that included Alexander Calder and Joan Miró. The most complete source of information abort her art is the catalogue of retrospective exhibitions in Poland, 1998-99 (Warsaw - Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Krakow - National Museum, Lodz - Museum of Art, Wroclaw - National Museum).
Alina Szapocznikow, 1966. Photo: Photographic Studio of the National Museum Krakow, ©The Estate
of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr StanisBawski/ADAGP, Paris