Most of Szapocznikow's sculpture refers to the female body. Still, it struck me that these works seem quite unconcerned with anything we might identify today as feminism or its agenda. Women in the twentieth century—artists and intellectuals especially—certainly didn't have to await the influence of the American feminist movement to challenge patriarchal and culturally assigned ideas about the the ways their bodies may determine their roles in society.
The works in this retrospective were made between 1954 (when Szapocznikow was 28) and 1972, when she foresaw her own imminent death from breast and bone cancer (she died in 1973 at age 47). The sculptures never treat the body as a locus for feminist philosophy or as a phenomenon so simple that sexuality is its dominant issue. The body is life and death, simply, and in all their infinite ambiguity and complexity. This work is not about sexuality because sexuality, like pain or pleasure, is but one aspect of the body, which, like every other, can't be compartmentalized. Her work considers the integrated nature of corporeality, even when she examines it piece by piece.
Szapocznikow, a Polish Jew, spent her teen years from fourteen to nineteen interned in ghettos and a succession of three Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Afterwards, she refused to speak about this experience. Sculpture Undone includes her filmed interview with a badgering Frenchman, relentless in his determination to make her talk about concentration camp horrors and their effects on her work. She—a bright-eyed, curly-haired, winsome girl—bluntly refuses and returns the camera-interviewer's gaze as unblinkingly as a bronze.
My favorite work in Sculpture Undone is Szapocznikow's Tumors Personified, which consists of fifteen variously-sized irregular "tumors" laid out singly, as if for specimen study, on a bed of gray gravel. It is stunning, nauseating, and funny in the way only the grotesque can be. Szapocznikow loves polyester resin as a material and uses it liberally here to wrap and bind the lumps. Its translucency permits the viewer to see the tumors' components, particularly the photo transfers of her face, which personalize them indeed. She claims the tumors as her very own, as body parts, however lately acquired, and however painfully. Each is as personal as the breasts and lips by which she has identified herself in sculpture through most of her career.
A few of her sculptures are beautiful, but all are arresting, and all are fraught with meaning. We rarely have to grope for Szapocznikow's core intent, yet her work is sufficient in invention and is aesthetically compelling enough to win our repeated attention. Again, she manages to give us humanity without focusing on sex appeal. She doesn't hold back, yet we don't develop contempt; we always want more.
Lips occur independently as often as they do, placed directly above a torso in Szapocznikow's sculptures. In her Self-Portrait I, a sensual work of marble and polyester resin, she represents herself as a bust—beautiful breasts carved and polished from virginal, cool stone. Atop the shoulders sit lips are cast in colorful, soft "gel" on a blank disk of yellowish "face." Is the message, though, that the lush lips invite the viewer? Do they serve as soft foil to the hard marble bust?
Despite the visual contrast, the lips—so full and red—are set. The proportion of lips to the "head" is large, the better to make the point that the mouth they guard is firmly shut. It's a singularly silent self-portrait, defiantly closed. The self-portrait is a self-consciously formal, public work that gives up nothing personal. It demonstrates how little we learn from the revelation of nakedness. Exteriors, even "intimate" ones, tell us nothing. Our bodies are only our own.
In other contexts, though, like Illuminated Lips and Small Dessert I, lips are completely dissociated from the face. In the lamps the lips are at the top, in the paramount positions. There are other pieces in which bouquets of lips on stems burst from the tops of heads. Aren't the brains supposed to be at the top?
Lips are not, for Szapocznikow, merely flesh that bears rouging. They are the portals to the voice, and hence to the intelligence, to the soul that is damned to live in the body, never to surpass its boundaries no matter its radiance (lamps), its bloom (flowers from a gray, decaying vessel), or seductiveness. With the death of the corporeal comes the death of wit, speech, and idea. In life, the mouth protects privacy, allows and disallows access to the soul.
It's a common trope in criticism to say that this or that artist's work "celebrates" its topic; to attribute love to consistent acts of attention. Generally in life, this seems to be true: We grow emotionally close to what we spend time with, whatever we may initially believe or feel at the outset, however difficult or disturbing it may seem. Szapocznikow's sculptures don't celebrate the body, though. They anatomize and study it in a way more scientific, as if from first principles by an anatomist of experience. Flesh is the repository of an individual's every experience.
How is the body to be celebrated by a person who, before age 30, has survived the prospect of death in concentration camps and barely escaped death by tuberculosis? What knowledge is behind the closed lips that will not yield to bullying about what her eyes (never represented as seeing) have seen of other tormented, tortured, and dying bodies? How will we ever know what it is like to be in the mind that inhabits a body pulled alive from stinking acres of death?
Both medicine and psychiatry acknowledge that people who suffer unspeakable events, especially as youth, have less chance of flourishing than those whose lives have taken normal courses, free of extraordinary torment, guilt, or suffering. Horror begets vulnerability to disease; every experience in life registers permanently in the body, continually reshaping it and altering its resilience. Szapocznikow's physical descent—despite her brilliance, determination, and astonishing, daring output—was perhaps doomed by her experience.
But art is experience too, and it seems just as likely to me that, for a person to whom life handed such a crushing and bitter lot, to choose the experience of art-making was to choose the most powerful of all antidotes to devastating experience. She chose the bravest way to extend her survival and most intense way to live.