There, the Communist party had begun to take control of the country’s government—in step, the art being made was restricted to that which supported the regime. Even so, Szapocznikow began to experiment with figuration that didn’t fit neatly into the confines of state-sanctioned art. In the bronze sculpture Exhumed (1955), she depicted the Hungarian activist László Rajk, who was murdered while fighting for an anti-Stalinist group. The hunched, agonized form, as the late curator Urszula Czartoryska has pointed out, was both an homage to Rajk and “all the victims, including the insurgents, whose remains were often unearthed during the restoration of Warsaw.”
A work from the following year, Difficult Age (1956), shows a bronze, nude woman standing erect and resolute, as if commanding a place among the sculptures of male military heroes that were commissioned by the government. In her essay “Soft Body/Soft Sculpture: The Gendered Surrealism of Alina Szapocznikow,” curator Cornelia Butler describes the piece as a “challenge to Communist notions of privacy and the female body.”
As Communism’s grip on the Polish government weakened, Szapocznikow’s work became increasingly experimental—both in form and content. She began working with ceramics, then new materials like polyurethane and plaster resin. A breakthrough came in 1962 when she made her first casts from her own body. In early 1960s Poland, this was considered a radical act for an artist—especially a woman.
In a letter, she later acknowledged the audacity of her actions. “Haunted by the increasingly academic nature of abstract art, and at the same time, partly out of my spirit of contradiction and partly perhaps out of some artistic exhibitionism, I made a cast of my own leg and an assemblage of casts of my face,” she wrote.