A grotesque exhibition

Alina Szapocznikow’s surreal sculptures show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Alina Szapocznikow’s surreal sculptures (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alina Szapocznikow’s surreal sculptures
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow led a life that could be considered nightmarish by any standards: She survived two concentration camps and tuberculosis, and died of breast cancer at 46. And although she was one of the best-known postwar Polish sculptors, she received little recognition in international art circles until recently.
Approximately two years ago, the WIELS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels hosted the first major survey of her works outside her native country. That exhibition traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, among other museums, bringing new attention to the artist. Now, an exhibit featuring a selection of her sculptures, drawings and photographs has opened at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, under the title “Body Traces.”
Her work has, in the main, been interpreted through the prism of her personal hardships and ordeals.
While that reading is present in this exhibition – which was curated by Ahuva Israel, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art – the viewer is also aware of the artist’s experimentation and use of unusual materials. Over the course of her life, Szapocznikow’s sculptures diversified from the use of traditional to industrial materials, an artistic practice informed and driven by her concern with the body and it’s anatomy.
“My gesture is addressed to the human body, ‘that complete erogenous zone,’ to its most vague and ephemeral sensations. I want to exalt the ephemeral in the folds of our body, in the traces of our passage,” she wrote in her artist’s statement.
Szapocznikow was born into a non-practicing, middle-class Jewish family in 1926. Her teenage years were marked by internment in two Nazi ghettos, followed by a short period in Auschwitz and what is thought to have been almost a year in Bergen- Belsen, where she assisted her mother in nursing prisoners. After the war she studied sculpture in Prague and Paris, also gaining experience with some of the medium's traditional materials by working as a stonemason in Prague and Paris, gaining experience with some of the medium’s traditional materials by working as a stonemason as well. She returned to Poland in 1951 after a severe bout of tuberculosis.
Szapocznikow achieved some success as an artist in Warsaw and became part of the city’s cultural milieu, in a country then dominated by the Soviet Union. She received commissions to create several war monuments and represented Poland in the 1962 Venice Biennale.
Initially, her classical training influenced her sculptural practice; most of her early works were figurative and created with traditional materials, such as bronze and clay.
Toward the mid-1950s, however, her work underwent a change; the body was rendered no longer as “whole,” but often as abstracted and fragmented.
Two works on display in the exhibition, both from 1957, are good examples of this tendency. Hand: Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto II shows a figure of a severed hand placed atop a thin, metal stand. The other work, Exhumed, is a fragmented torso. Both works could have been pulled from the bowels of the earth itself – the hand might be clawing its way to freedom, while the torso appears as some half-human creature.
Szapocznikow refused to talk about her time during the Holocaust in her public life. While she was living in Warsaw, human remains from the war were still being discovered in the rubble of the city. Such external reminders may or may not have fed into her art.
But consciously or unconsciously, her wartime experience would manifest itself in her works, as evidenced by some of the strange forms and assemblages she created.
In 1963, she moved with her second husband, Roman Cieslewicz, to Paris, where they lived until her death in 1973. The majority of works in the exhibition are from this 10-year period – a decade in which she was to experiment increasingly with her sculptural practice and the materials she used to create her works.
Her use of industrial materials such as polyurethane foam and polyester resin resulted in the amorphous and rough-hewn shapes that defined her later work. A piece titled Janus and another titled Drips, Embedded Legs show ominous, jet-black forms that appear to ooze and mutate on the museum walls.
Szapocznikow also used her own face and body to make casts for her sculptures, as in the funereal Souvenirs, which consists of photographs superimposed on a couple of sculpted heads, and in Headless Torso – a work in which the body seems to be swallowed up by a glutinous black mass.
It is hard to reconcile such works when confronted with photographs of the artist, a beautiful woman who is often seen smiling. The impression is of a vibrant individual, not one disposed to creating such dark and unsettling works.
Yet although much of her oeuvre is bleak in subject and theme, there is a dark humor at play in sculptures such as Illuminated Woman and in the series of lamps she constructed, each one bearing the imprint of a set of lips – either hers or those of acquaintances.
Illuminated Woman is a grotesquerie; there is a mischievous glee at work in the composition of the upper torso, enhanced by the luminous red glow of the breasts, which are lit from within by means of electrical wiring. Each of the lamps, fashioned in polyester resin and metal, emits the same red glow, the lips radiating a sensuousness and erotic undercurrent reminiscent of the Surrealist fetish objects created earlier in the 20th century.
“I produce awkward objects,” she wrote of her works. Her “objects” were variously associated with Nouveau Realism, Pop Art and Surrealism, but don’t sit comfortably in any of those movements. More recently her work, in its depiction of the female body, has been associated with other artists who explored feminist themes, such as Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke.
In 1969, Szapocznikow was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the remaining two years of her life, she continued to be a productive artist, using the body as her central point of reference. The mummified figure of Mad Married Fiancée, the isolated heads in Tumors Personified and the series titled “Herbarium” were some of the most visceral works she created.
During this time, she also improvised some remarkable-looking pieces from masticated bubble gum.
The resulting “creations” – a group of spindly, creature-like and outlandish forms – were then affixed to cement and wood surfaces in a variety of ways, photographed in black and white and grouped under the title “Photosculptures.” All 20 of the prints are on display.
The artist acknowledged her work as difficult, and this is not an easy exhibition. Despite all her tribulations, her work is not emotive, although it likely served a cathartic role in her life.
In the year preceding her death, she wrote, “Despite everything, I persist in attempting to fix in resin the imprints of our body: I am convinced that among all the manifestations of perishability, the human body is the most sensitive, the only source of all joy, all pain, all truth.”
The exhibition runs until May 31.