Awkward Objects: The Work of Alina Szapocznikow

This weekend, I travelled to Wakefield to see Human Landscapes the first UK retrospective of the work of the much-overlooked Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow (1926–1973). Powerful, innovative, disturbing, these pieces have dark undertones, which isn’t surprising when you discover that Szapocznikow survived several of the Nazi camps as a teenager, and bouts of severe illness. Her sculptures were born out of trauma, expressing it obliquely for those who could not, while at the same time being an extraordinary affirmation and expression of life and female experience.

Image result for alina szapocznikow        Image result for Alina Szapocznikow in 1968, photo Roger Gain

She emerged as an artist from the Soviet sanctioning in 1950s Prague, educated originally as a classical sculptor in Paris, rapidly moving into semi-abstract, amorphous forms: huge, organic sculptures,  such as ‘Bird’ and ‘Maria Magdalena’. Later, she began using her own body, and that of friends to make casts of body parts, including a particularly poignant full body cast of Pietr, her son. Long haired and naked he lies at a diagonal, suspended in space, recalling the dead Christ in Mary’s arms.

Semi-abstract sculptures from bronze, concrete and iron.

Through casts of the human body, I attempt to preserve in translucent polystyrene the ephemeral moments of life, its paradoxes and its absurdity. (…) I am convinced that among all manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most fragile. It is the sole source of all joy, all pain and all truth, and this thanks to its ontological poverty, which is as inevitable as it is (at the conscious level) absolutely unacceptable.

 

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Photographs set in polyester resin

Her work centres around the fragmented body; like many post-war artists, she has an acute awareness of the fragility of the body. Bowls of breasts recall Lee Miller’s critique of female objectification in Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy, the 1930 photograph she composed after observing a friend’s mastectomy. I was also reminded of the work of Eva Hesse, known for her pioneering work in materials such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics. Dynamic but mysterious erotic themes are an element shared with Louise Bourgeois for example in her Unconscious Landscape, 1967-68.

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“Dessert III”, 1971, dyed polyester, porcelain vase.

 

 

Drawings and monotypes.

Sculptures using polyester resin and polyurethane.

The essence of Szapoczikow’s work seemed to lie in the search for completeness that she could only express through fragmentation and abstract juxtapositions. Her feeling that: “The fleeting moment, the trivial moment – these are the only symbols of our earthly existence”.

In the final room of the show, we see at close quarters Szapocznikow’s sculptural manifestations of her body’s invasion by cancerous tumours. Even in her final months, she continued to find innovative ways to express the reality of her experiences. “Recalling the broken statuary of fallen civilisations, Tumours Personified (1971) is the artist’s attempt to own the illness, with a scattering of head-size lumps, bearing her own face.” – Skye Sherwin

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I produce awkward objects. This absurd and compulsive mania proves the existence of an unknown, secret gland, necessary for life. Yes, this mania can be reduced to a single gesture within reach of us all. But this gesture is sufficient unto itself , it is the confirmation of our human presence.

My work is difficult as sensation that is felt in a very immediate and diffuse way is often resistant to identification. Often everything is all mixed up, the situation is ambiguous, and sensory limits are erased.

Nothing is definitive in my work. If not the immediate pleasure of feeling the material, of touching and palpating the distinct material of the mud as children do on a riverbank.

_ Alina Szapocnikow, 1972

 

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’20 Years into the Apocolypse’ and Other Children’s Drawings

Some wonderful interpretations of Welsh and Chinese folk tales on our latest course looking at stories and art from around the world.

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The Lady of the Lake with a piece of cheese by Paddy, 9

 

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Apocalypse by Fletcher, 10

 

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Milk Fish by Jim, 9

 

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2000 Yers Laiter??? by Fletcher, 10

 

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When the Nian Monster came by Flo, 9

Waiting For the Light

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January; short, dark days dragging on. Hard to go out – outwards – when the instinct is to curl up like an ammonite and wait for the light. One smoky morning in the park, it’s as if the sky has descended. Black-headed gulls, disturbed by dogs, rise from the grass and drift away, spectres of the mist.

There is a Welsh folktale called The Daughters of the Sea set in Cardigan Bay in which Dylan, the sea god calls up a fierce storm to steal three sisters away to his kingdom under the sea. When he comes to regret his action, he is unable to return the sisters as they were. So he turns them into seagulls, able to move between land and sea. When their old father walks along the beach and calls their names, three white gulls fly to him from over the waves.

 

Christmas, Old Town Square

In one of the decorated wooden huts in Old Town Square, I watch a woman roll out a sheet of dough and wrap it expertly around a metal stick rotating over a fire. The trdelnik, sprinkled with cinnamon and caramelized sugar as they grill, smell divine. Tourists linger near huge vats of halušky, children watch an animation of the nativity on a loop. Tomorrow I will go to the Lennon wall, and watch a couple dance to a street musician’s guitar.

Outside of the baroque church, an old man in a dusty suit restores, for a few moments, one’s faith in heaven. To pause, drawn by the plaintive wail of his saxophone, the rawness of his voice, is to forget the cold and the fact that you are in Prague alone at Christmas. You must live in your lantern, the old man seems to say.  And you see, from the twinkle in his eye that he knows.

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