Alina Szapocznikow - Sculpture Undone, 1955 - 1972, review by Leela Clarke
Little known outside of Poland, Alina Szapocznikow was one of the country’s most prominent post-war artists. Her tumultuous biography is easily intertwined with the reading of her work: she was a Jew who grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland, spending much of her teenage life in concentration camps including Auschwitz; she contracted tuberculosis and then in 1973, at age 47, died from cancer. ‘Sculpture Undone, 1955 - 1972’, the first retrospective exhibition of Szapocznikow’s work outside of Poland, aims to detract from a straight-forward geo-biographical reading and instead re-situates her as a leading figure in the wider art historical context of the 1960s and ‘70s. Touring to a number of major museums in the US and Europe, including MoMA in New York, this is a timely reappraisal of an artist who uniquely fused Surrealism, Pop and Feminism.
Displayed chronologically, classically-inspired figurative sculpture quickly progresses to a looser approach following a move to Paris in the 1960s. Pen on paper drawings and watercolours depicting organic, warped forms show her first experimentations with abstraction and surrealism. ‘Noga (Leg)’ (1962) - a disembodied leg resting casually on a plinth - is the first cast made from the artist’s figure and paves the way for a number of surreal and erotic works using her own body as a starting point.
Favouring pioneering casting materials such as polyester and polyurethane, limbs and other body parts are detached and placed in new contexts that explore both trauma and joy. Plump mouths protrude on fungal stalks from a bed of grass in ‘La Couronne de la Mariée (Bride’s Wreath)’ (1968); half of a ghostly face and a pale pair of knees peep out from a tomb-like black polyurethane encasement in ‘Stèle (Stele)’ (1968); in ‘Petit Dessert I (Small Dessert I)’ (1970 - 71) a sensuous mouth is set in an oozing custard-like substance in a glass ashtray, while ‘Dessert III’ (1971) offers a bowl of multi-coloured breasts, with nipples appetising as jelly sweets. Parts of the body even become functional in a number of witty, pop-influenced domestic objects. Vividly coloured lips are illuminated in a series of bijou, mass-production-ready lamps, while in ‘Ventres-Coussins (Belly-cushions)’ (1968) the voluptuous forms of her and her friends’ mid-riffs are uncannily transformed in to decorative furnishings.
Inevitably Szapocznikow’s personal history and bodily experiences are an intrinsic part of her work, both physically and psychologically - the most poignant and visceral works in the exhibition are those directly inspired by her battle with cancer. In ‘Tumeurs Personnifiées (Tumours personified)’ (1971) the artist’s face morphs into bulbous growths on a bed of gravel and in other works she embeds personal photographs and clothes into fleshy resin lumps.
During her brief career Szapocznikow continually experimented with material and form, working in tandem with other ground-breaking artists of that period to break apart and reinvent the sculptural medium. Her darkly humorous work pushes the boundaries of art and the female form as a commodity, while instinctively articulating the body as a universal source of both pleasure and pain.