Sunday, December 30, 2012

East of Eden: Rediscovering Alina Szapocznikow

On the Janson/Gardner telling of art history, the Edenic epicenter of art since the Second World War has been America, and occasionally Western Europe.  Eastern Europe, sealed off behind the iron curtain and working under the dictates of socialist realism, was not producing anything worthwhile.  That version of the story is wrong.  For example, any student of cinema knows that there were great films being produced in Soviet States.  In the 1960s, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland produced some of the finest directors in the history of film (e.g., Chytilová, Jancso, and Wajda).  There was also a thriving underground art scene.  I was enlightened on this topic two years ago, when the Pompidou had a show called Promises of the Past, which profiled talented artists from the East.  Among the most compelling was Alina Szapocznikow (pronounced Sha-poch-nyi-kof).  Shortly after that show, I was able to see some of Szapocznikow's work in Krakow, and then at the Hammer museum in Los Angeles.  The Hammer show is now at MoMA and closing at the end of January.  Go.

Szapocznikow was born in Poland and spent her teen years in concentration camps (Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz).  Shen later died, at 47, of breast cancer.  In between, working in both Poland and Paris, Szapocznikow produced a remarkable body of work.  The phrase "body of work" has rarely been more part, since the artist's entire output can be described and a an interrogation of the body. Bodies and body parts are cast, stretched, illuminated, engulfed, excised, and flayed.

We find piles of amputated breasts, evoking St. Agatha, a flattened casting of the artists face, evoking Michelangelo's flayed self-portaint his Last Judgment, and lips turned into lamps, which present as mod chic, while chillingly evoking Nazi lampshades made of human flesh.  These pieces are all irresistibly aesthetic, but also unsettling.  We rarely see a body intact here, and there is always a sense of violence behind the beauty.

One of the most moving pieces in the show is a group of human heads that have been transformed into round tumor-like forms and strewn across the floor.  By this time, Szapocznikow was aware of the tumors that were killing her, and her she regains power by turning her illness into art.

Szapocznikow is a master of multiple media.  She works in plaster, metal, stone, glass, and resin.  We also find exceptional works on paper--tangled, organic networks of lines, which, though casual, hold up to her best sculptures.  There are also mixed media works, that integrate photographic materials, including the image of a female holocaust victim, into resin encasings.

More inventively, we find a series of gum photos: chewed bits stuck to variously textured surfaces, or dripping off edges.  These, too, are about the body.  We see the artist's teeth marks in the gum, and each little wad looks like a body in its own right.  Impermanent, agonized, and teetering, they comment on the human condition, filtered (or masticated) through Szapocznikow's existential wit.  One wonders whether these gum photos influence Hannah Wilke's self portraits with gum.

The possible influence on Wilke, the use of tortured female forms, and the unflinching dedication to art-making in a male dominated world make Szapocznikow qualify as an important figure in feminist art.  But this classification distracts from her resolute humanism.  Szapocznikow experienced two brutal political regimes first-hand, and also bore witness to injustice in the West while living in France.  In addition, she learned the fragility of the body, through both tuberculosis and the cancer that took her life.  Thus, it was no just as a woman that she knew about vulnerability--it was a Jew, as a political subject, and as a living organism.  The work references that vulnerability again and again, but it embodies indomitable strength.


  1. Looks great. Will definitely visit the exhibition before it comes down.

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