In 1970, Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow placed casts of women’s breasts in pretty glass bowls made for holding ice cream. On a dish used to serve sweets, she set a pair of molded lips. The sculptural body parts glistened; their peach surfaces and half-opened orifices practically screamed “come hither.” Provocatively, she dubbed the series “Dessert.”
Szapocznikow didn’t describe herself as a feminist artist—in fact, the term didn’t emerge until the end of her career, in the late 1960s. But as any contemporary scholar of her work will acknowledge, she boldly embedded issues of gender into her bulbous, sensual, and scarred sculptures. By fragmenting and reconstituting the female form countless times over the course of her career, the artist built a visceral portrait of the commodification and trauma that women’s bodies endured during the 20th century. In the process, she helped recast the modern, male-centric sculptural tradition.
It’s only in the past 10 years, however, that the impact of Szapocznikow’s work has been recognized on an international level. While she was a star of the Warsaw art scene as early as the 1950s, her sculptures were rarely exhibited beyond Poland’s borders until 2007, over 30 years after her death, when she was featured in Documenta 12.
Alina Szapocznikow, Ceramika II (Ceramic II), Ceramika I (Ceramic I), and Ceramika III (Ceramic III), 1965. Courtesy of The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.
Since then, a posthumous retrospective of her work has traveled between WIELS in Brussels, the Hammer Museum in L.A., and the Wexner Center in Columbus, culminating at MoMA in New York in 2013. (In a catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, her practice was compared to that of Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Paul Thek.)
This fall, in another step towards acknowledging Szapocznikow’s influence, the artist’s work is on view in her first U.K. retrospective, “Human Landscapes,” at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire. The exhibition traces the arc of her career through various phases of her shapeshifting, corporeal sculptures that capture human experiences and emotions: most notably, suffering, sexuality, and resilience.
“My gesture is addressed to the human body,” she wrote in 1972. “I want to exalt the ephemeral in the folds of our body, in the traces of our passage.”
Szapocznikow was born to a Jewish family in Kalisz, Poland, in 1926. Her early years were punctuated by a string of traumatic events and intermittent art education. After World War II broke out, in 1940, she and her family were sent to the Pabianice ghetto, and moved between a string of additional internment camps until the war’s end. During this period, she often helped her mother, a pediatrician, in the ghettos’ infirmeries.
By 1944, with a group of released prisoners, Szapocznikow made her way to Prague and soon became ensconced in the city’s creative community, taking classes at the Higher School of Arts and Industry. She continued her schooling at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, in 1948, but a bout of tuberculosis forced the young artist to abandon her studies and return to Poland.
Alina Szapocznikow, Herbier Bleu I, 1971. Courtesy of The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.
Alina Szapocznikow, Bust-Length Figure of a Woman, Headless 2, ca. 1971. © ADAGP, Paris 2017. Photo by Fabrice Gousset. Courtesy of The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.
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.
The artist posing amidst her work in her Malakoff studio, 1967, with Çacouleenrouge (Leaking Red). © ADAGP, Paris 2017. The Alina Szapocznikow Archive / Piotr Stanislawski / National Museum in Krakow. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw. Photo by Antoni Miralda. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VEGAP, Madrid.
Alina Szapocznikow, Lamp, c. 1967. © ADAGP, Paris 2017. Photo by Fabrice Gousset. Courtesy of The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.
It wasn’t until three years later in 1965 that the French artist César, a contemporary of Szapocznikow’s, created his famed Thumb (1965), a 16-inch sculpture that stood very erect and—not unintentionally—resembled a phallus more than it did a finger. The similarity between his sculptural “limb” and her own wasn’t lost on Szapocznikow, as Butler has pointed out; she mentioned Thumb in the same letter.
By this point, she had relocated back to Paris and fallen in with César’s circle of artists, known as the Nouveau Réalistes. While the movement’s champion, critic Pierre Restany, was a friend and supporter of Szapocznikow, she was never formally accepted as a member of the group (which only included one female artist, Niki de Saint Phalle).
It was around this time that Szapocznikow began to cast body parts in resin and wire them to lightbulbs, in effect transforming them into household objects like desk lamps. Take Sein illuminée (Illuminated Breast) (1966), in which a sculptural breast teeters on top of a long, spindly base. Perhaps her most famous sculpture, Iluminowana [L’illuminée] [Illuminated Woman] (1966–67) depicts a headless, armless female body whose swollen chest is topped with a cloud where her face should be. The form illuminates when switched on.
Szapocznikow’s decision to isolate elements of the female body and present them as utilitarian goods was at once subversive and darkly humorous. On one hand, these sculptures reclaim the objectification of women’s bodies from men. On the other, they undermine the traditionally heroic approach to sculpture: “By turning these sculptures into functional objects, she questioned the heroism of sculpture in a particularly male-dominated field,” explains the Hepworth Wakefield’s chief curator Andrew Bonacina.
Alina Szapocznikow, Cendrier de Célibatair I (The Bachelor’s Ashtray I), 1972. © ADAGP, Paris 2017. Photo by Fabrice Gousset. Courtesy of The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.
Alina Szapocznikow, Autoportrait I, 1966. © ADAGP, Paris 2017. Photo by Fabrice Gousset. Courtesy of The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.
Her “Ventre-coussins (Belly cushions),” made in 1968, emphasize her interest in the connection between mass consumption of the 1960s and commodification of the female form. “I hope to be able to explore deeply the problem of the repeated module, in direct contact with the module’s industrial production,” she wrote in 1968. The text accompanies numerous soft, easy-reproducible casts she made of a friend’s voluptuous belly.
With the “Desserts” series, she took these concepts a step further, injecting her sculptures with even more sarcasm. By placing female body parts on dessert trays, she acknowledged the discrepancy between her male peers’ desire for women’s bodies, and their simultaneous rejection of her work. As Bonacina notes, these pieces pose some very charged questions. “If you don’t want me in your shows, what about if I put my body in my work? Do you want my work now?” he says, suggesting Szapocznikow’s position. “She played with an interventionist use of her own gender and sexuality, and how that might infiltrate the male-dominated art world.”
Some of Szapocznikow’s sculptures took a less playful, darker turn after she was confronted with yet another physical trauma: a breast cancer diagnosis in 1969. In response, she began a group of works called “Tumeurs personnifiés (Tumours Personified),” small, awkwardly shaped masses imprinted with women’s facial features resembling her own. These give way to a haunting 1972 series, “Herbiers (Herbarium),” in which she cast various surfaces (legs, faces) of her son’s and her own body, then flattened them, as one might a pressed, dried flower.
Alina Szapocznikow, Tumours Personified, 1971. Courtesy of Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw.
Even in the last year of her life—she fell to the disease in early 1973, at the age of 47—Szapocznikow’s sense of humor, tenacity, and expansive imagination didn’t wane. Despite her interest in the ephemeral nature of life and the human body, she also believed in her work’s staying power: the ability of her sculptures to solidify her own legacy as an artist, and sear an honest portrayal of women’s corporeal experiences into the history of art.
“Despite everything, I persist in trying to fix in resin the traces of our body,” she wrote in 1972. “I am convinced that of all the manifestations of the ephemeral, the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering, and all truth.”