Born in the Polish city of Kalisz in 1926, the late sculptor Alina Szapocznikow is renowned for an oeuvre that renders visible the human body's experiences of love, pleasure, pain, trauma, and inevitable decay.Read More
Alina Szapocznikow's youth and early adulthood were defined by the Second World War, which forced her and her mother and brother—with the artist's father lost to tuberculosis in 1938—into the Pabianice and Łódź Ghettos, where her mother worked as a doctor and she as a nurse. In the following years, the family was moved to Auschwitz, followed by Bergen-Belsen, and later Terezín, where they were separated. The artist's brother died in Terezín but she and her mother were later reunited.
At the end of the war, Alina Szapocznikow moved to Prague, where she studied sculpture in the studio of Otokar Velimsky between 1945 and 1946 before attending the Academy of Art and Industry. In November 1947, she relocated to Paris, where she studied at the École des Beaux Arts. Part of Paris' Polish artistic community, the artist met her first husband, Ryszard Stanisławski. In 1951, Szapocznikow was forced to relocate to Poland after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. Returning to Communist Poland shortly prior to Stalin's death, the following decade would be defining for the artist's career, with increased cultural liberty allowing her practice to flourish. Some of the artist's work of this time deals with the Second World War, including large-scale monuments that she was commissioned to create, such as Monument to Polish-Soviet Friendship and Ghetto-Fight. In 1955, a small sculpture titled Exhumed pointed towards the artist's growing interests in the fragmented body, with the hollowed-out and dismembered figure featuring a gaping hole in its face.
'Of course, Szapocznikow's personal history offers a natural frame to consider her dissected limbs,' writes Stephanie Bailey in Ocula Magazine; however, 'this reading only scratches the surface of what makes this artist's prolific body of work so captivating and historically important.' Though trauma would be a key aspect of her work, Szapocznikow's practice encompasses the breadth of human experience, departing from her own. In 1962, the artist cast her right leg in plaster to create Noga (Leg), which was a departure point to further sculptural fragmentation, its parts signalling shattering trauma but also regrowth. Further, the artist's sculptures point to notions of objectification, most pointedly in her series of lamps created from 1966, in which parts of the female body, such as lips and breasts, adorn the skeletal structures of lamps. In another work, titled The Bachelor's Ashtray (1972), a woman's head is cut to create an ashtray.
Above all, Alina Szapocznikow's works are testament to her extraordinary experimentations in materials ranging from resin, raw wool, and rubber, to polyurethane and paper. The artist's black-and-white 'Photosculptures' series from 1971 are evidence of this. In the 20 silver gelatin prints, pieces of masticated and stretched chewing gum are placed against varying backgrounds including stone, each one with its own distinct formal composition. Chewing a piece of gum absent-mindedly on one occasion, the artist suddenly realised that 'an extraordinary collection of sculptures' was moving between her teeth. Her use of abstraction in sculpture was visible throughout her works, including her series of 'Tumor' works from 1969 and 1970, in which small bundles of gauze are shrouded in resin, its opaque surface revealing forms such as a pair of lips in Tumeur (Tumor) (1970). The work was created a year after the artist discovered that she had breast cancer, from which led to her death in 1973 in Paris, where she had returned from Poland a decade earlier.
Alina Szapocznikow's first major solo exhibition took place in 1957 at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, followed by her representation of Poland at the Venice Biennale in 1962. In 1967, another major exhibition of the artist's work took place at Galerie Florence Houston Brown in Paris, which travelled to Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Warsaw. A friend to Louise Bourgeois, with whom she swapped works, the artist is frequently featured alongside her in exhibitions, along with Eva Hesse, Pauline Boty, and Maria Bartuszova, such as Awkward Objects at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (2009). Solo exhibitions of the last decade include her show at WIELS in Brussels in 2012, which later travelled to the Hammer Museum, Wexner Center for the Arts, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2017, the Hepworth Wakefield hosted a major exhibition of her work, which was followed by To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962–1972at Hauser & Wirth in London in 2020.
Biography by Tessa Moldan | Ocula | 2020
To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962–1972 at Hauser & Wirth in London (7 February–2 May 2020) is Alina Szapocznikow's first solo presentation in the U.K. since The Hepworth Wakefield's survey in 2017.