Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Life is a Body: Sculpture of Alina Szapocznikow

No, I'd never heard of her either, Alina Szapocznikow (zha PAHsh ni koff), this Polish artist whose work is introduced in the retrospective, Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone. The Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art New York have collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw and the WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels to bring together a huge exhibit of Szapocznikow's work in several media. It's stopping now at the Wexner Center for the Arts until August 5, between its runs in Los Angeles and New York. Szapocnikow's sculpture bears visual and spiritual relationship to work we have seen at Wexner this year by Louise Bourgeois and Hans Bellmer

Alina Szapocznikow, Fragments of lip casts, c. 1966
Courtesy Sabine Stanislawski and Galerie Gisela
Capitain GmbH, Cologne. ©The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/
 Piotr Stanislawski/ 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/
 ADAGP, ParisPhoto: Fabrice Gousset, Paris
But there is no mistaking this as other than the work of an individual, independently exploring the body as her subject, object, and means all at once. Szapocznikow's sculptures have a flat-footed immediacy that makes them feel like the product of deeply digested personal history. There is no cant or theory about them. Even when she abstracts the body into pieces, she rarely disfigures those. I feel that there is no dissonance between her work and a deeply entrenched perception of reality. However it appears to the eye, her work is not at all abstract.

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.

Alina Szapocznikow
Madonna of Krużlowa (Motherhood)
Assemblage: colored polyester resin, photographs,
 gauze,16 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 7 1/8 inches
Société de l'Apostolat Catholique (Pères Pallotins), Paris.
 © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow /
 Piotr Stanislawski/ 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York/ ADAGP, Paris
Only four years after liberation from the camps, Szapocznikow contracted tuberculosis, which almost killed her. She fought a protracted struggle for her life against the disease but again survived, though it was blamed for her infertility (she and her husband adopted). In 1972, she died of breast cancer and the bone cancer consequent upon it. She had contracted breast cancer several years earlier and worked throughout her illness in consciousness of death's proximity.

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. 

Tumors Personified (detail), 1971, Alina Szapocznikow,
1 of 15 pieces, 5 15/16–13 inches high,Polyester resin, fiberglass, paper, gauze, Courtesy Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow /
 Piotr Stanislawski / 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Photo: Manuel Versaen, courtesy WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, 2011

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.

Many of the sculptures feature a lozenge of skin in the center of which are lips closed or barely parted. Szapocznikow rarely presents a whole face until, in her work of the seventies, she memorializes herself in full-body castings that she flattens and mounts, naming each a Herbarium, for they are permanently preserved, like dried flowers, long after life.

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.

Alina Szapocznikow, Small Dessert I, 1970–1971
Assemblage: Colored polyester, glass salad bowl
3 1/8 x 4 5/16 x 5 1/8 inches, 

© The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski

 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/
ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Roland Schmid

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. 
Illuminated Lips and Marching Lips, c. 1966
Colored polyester resin, electrical wiring, metal,
11–20 1/2 inches high. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/
Piotr Stanislawski and Private collection, courtesy Galerie
Isabella Czarnowska  respectively. © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/
 Piotr Stanislawski / 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
 New York / ADAGP, Paris

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. 


  1. As an encouraging mum, if I can say so myself, I had a nice time recently with my two kids to decorate their room in our new house that we just moved into. There were lots of the children's art work, made at home and school, that we happily put on the wall.
    Then we spent time together sitting in front of the iMac and looked through the big collection of digital images that had for their customers to select from and have printed as canvas prints. The kids together chose this painting for their room, Ivan Horse by Edmund Dulac,, that we ordered online to have delivered to our new house.

  2. Thought you might be interested :