Dissecting and Celebrating the Body
14 June 1998

In Paris, Alina Szapocznikow burst the bonds of Socialist Realism and forged a glowing sculpture all her own.

Alina Szapocznikow's short but eventful life left behind a rich legacy of sculpture. Lots of it is on display at Zachęta Gallery's retrospective this summer. Szapocznikow's most original and characteristic work came near the end and one can't help wondering where her next experiments would have led.

Szapocznikow was born in 1926 in Kalisz to a Jewish medical family. Most of her normal growing up, as long as it lasted, took place in Pabianice near Łódź. Early in the war, barely a teenager, Alina worked in a ghetto hospital as a nurse. The Pabianice ghetto was liquidated in May 1942, and the girl survived the war in concentration camps: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin.

For a couple of years after the war, Szapocznikow studied in Prague and belonged to the Czech Communist Party. She settled in Paris from 1947 to 1951 and returned to Poland for a dozen years. Her works from this period were accomplished but derivative at best: classical bronze torsos, some pieces influenced by Abstract Expressionism abroad at that time, and didactic political pieces (war memorials, a hulking seated sculpture of Comrade Stalin, and a bust of Poland's Soviet-puppet president, Bolesław Bierut).

It was after her permanent return to Paris in 1963 that Szapocznikow's art soared. She began to break the human body down-her own, mostly-into its constituent parts, to extract and highlight certain distinctive and erotic elements. Sensing that people are trapped in their bodies, she decided that they could celebrate this imprisonment with exuberance, irreverence, irony and a light-hearted feminism.

This thematic innovation went hand in hand with revolutionary sculpting materials, polyester and polyurethane, combining a waxy smoothness with translucence and possibilities for color and light. The results crown the Zachęta show: Lips flapping aloft on angel wings, ebony mounds sprouting greenery, a huge brain of yarn, breasts and lips formed into lamps atop graceful stalks, casts of men's legs and heads flattened into shroud-like forms.

There's a full-body nude cast of Szapocznikow's son, Piotr Stanisławski, from 1972. Photos of the casting sessions show that they had great fun making the work, but the sculpture is exposed in a draping, mournful attitude, like a contemporary Pietş. And wouldn't any mother feel the same as Mary to part with her son? The body Szapocznikow faithfully chronicled betrayed her, and after a long, painful struggle, she died of breast cancer in March 1973. She was 46.

The Zachęta show is well-planned, laid out chronologically from the Socialist Realism works through the Piotr-Pietş. The last room is decorated like a hospital ward, with numerous casts of body parts housed in glass and metal display cases like specimens.

Story and photos Christopher Smithi

Alina Szapocznikow Retrospective, Zachęta Gallery, 3 Małachowskiego Sq., open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (free on Fridays); through July 5.

Reproduced with
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