Artists of Kalisz

Szapocznikow Alina

Artist - sculptress


One of the most outstanding female sculptors originating from Poland. From the early days Alina Szapocznikow was both accompanied by death whilst being an advocate of life at its every turn. Mieczysław Porębski called her a “frightfully vivacious girl”. Extremely personal and honest. Anda Rotenberg wrote: “she filled sculptures with herself, incorporated herself, she multiplied her existence through the imprints of her breasts, lips, legs and belly, feet and hands”. The artist was interested in the physiology of the human body. By exceeding the limits of privacy and intimacy she placed her works in advance of the feminist discourse. Szapocznikow introduced new materials into the atelier of sculptor, namely polyester and polyutherane with which she actively experimented. The artist was born on May 16, 1926 in Kalisz. She died on March 2, 1973, in Praz-Coutant in France.

Szapocznikow spent her childhood in Pabianice. She was the first child in a Jewish family of doctors. Her father – Jakub – died of tuberculosis in 1938. After the outbreak of war, the young girl landed with her mother in a ghetto, first in Pabianice, later Łódź, then they were transported via Auschwitz to camps in Bergen-Belsen and the Czech Terezin. When the war ended, she went to Prague. There, she reached the decision to become a sculptor. In 1946 and 1947 she studied at the State Higher School of Arts and Industry, in the studio of Josef Wágner. She received a distinction for the design of the monument commemorating the tragedy of the Czech town of Lidiče during the war. She joined the Student Union at UMPRUM and was a member of the Czech communist party. From there Szapocznikow went to Paris in 1947 to continue her education at the École des Beaux-Arts (1947-1951). For two years she attended classes as an auditor at the studio of Paul Niclausse. Having received the information on the coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia in February of 1948 she tore up her communist party membership card. Never again did she join the ranks of any party. Her work on her diploma piece was interrupted by a serious illness.

Prague and Paris shaped the foundations of Szapocznikow’s oeuvre. She achieved her creative autonomy far from her homeland. With the tightening up of Polish-French relations, the artist came back to Poland in 1951. She settled in Warsaw, with Ryszard Stanisławski, her future husband. They got married on July 12, 1952. Due to her history of tuberculosis that she had suffered from in France, Szapocznikow could not bear a child. After a few months the couple adopted a boy – Piotr. The first sculptures of Alina from that period were executed in the aesthetics of socialist realism; she designed the busts of Bierut and Stalin as well as the monument to Polish-Soviet Friendship that until 1992 was exhibited in the hall of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. She made contact with the Polish artistic circle that resulted in mutual projects and exhibitions. Together with Oskar Hansen she participated in a contest for the design of the monument of Fryderyk Chopin. Her first individual exposition in 1957 in Zachęta was accompanied by a presentation of paintings by Jerzy Tchórzewski.

In the mid 1950s Szapocznikow created works that gained the recognition of the critics. The motifs of rise and fall, the beginning and the end, are reflected in the images of First Love (1955) and Difficult Age (1956) representing the vital strength of youth, juxtaposed with the Monument to a Burnt-Down City (1954), Exhumed (1955) or Mary Magdalene (1957-8) that refer to finality. Two of the works, the Monument to a Burnt-Down City and Exhumed indicate the problem of memories and her attempts to settle issues from the war. Within these themes the sculptures In a Camp (1945-6), design for the Monument of the Heroes of Warsaw (1957), the Monument in Auschwitz (1958) or the series from the turn of 1960s and 1970s: Grand Tumors (1969) and Souvenirs (1971). Szapocznikow touched the subject of dramatic wartime experience without exploiting the trauma. Monument to a Burnt-Down City, originally titled Warsaw 44, was created at the tenth anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. The female figure presented carried the idea of destruction brought by the war. The Woman-Warsaw was also interpreted at a more universal level as the allegory of Polonia. Most interesting in this group of work is the history of the interpretation of the Exhumed. It was intended to be a monument of László Rajek, a victim of Stalinism, killed in 1949 and rehabilitated during the Khrushchev Thaw. With time, however, this sculpture ceased to refer to actual events but was seized by a wider interpretation placing the work in the context of war.

In 1956 Szapocznikow was invited to participate in an exhibition of Polish Art presented in Berlin, Vienna and India. She took part in the International Exhibition of Modern Sculpture in Musée Rodin in Paris. Following a favorable review of her oeuvre, one of the versions of First Love was purchased by Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 1957 she privately separated from Ryszard Stanisławski and started a relationship with Roman Cieślewicz and she presented her works more frequently. In 1960 her sculptures were displayed in the BWA “Arsenał” in Poznań and her drawings in the Falsetti Gallery in Prato. She exhibited as well in the Krzywe Koło Gallery in Warsaw as part of  “Confrontations ’60”. In 1962 Aleksander Wojciechowski chose Szapocznikow to represent Polish art at the Biennalein Venice. At that time, the artist worked in traditional materials: bronze, plaster, and artistic cement. Often, she executed the casts of the works on her own. Created in the period: Woman-Rose (1958-59), Bellissima (1959), Rose (1959), Flowerbird (1959-60). These works symbolized the artist’s inclination towards biological forms.

In the autumn of 1963 the sculptor settled with her family in Paris. In 1965 Roman Cieślewicz  took the position of the art director of “Elle” magazine. Alina Szapocznikow moved within a circle of critics and artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) and including such as Pierre Restany, Arman, César, Niki de Saint-Phalle, and Daniel Spoeri. Her works were shown, among others, at the Biennale of sculpture in Carrara (1962, 1965), at the exhibition of Polish art Profiles IV in Bochum-Kassel (1964) and at the Salon de la Jeune Sculpture in Paris (1964, 1966, 1967). In the same time Szapocznikow initiated a dialogue with pop culture. In her studio in Malakoff near Paris, she created the assemblage, Goldfinger, referring to the movie with James Bond of the same title. After its presentation at the 21 Salon de Mai in 1965 she was awarded with a prize from the Copley Foundation. The jury of the foundation included: Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, among others.

At the same time she started working on the Multiplied Portrait. The most famous version, executed in bronze and multicoloured poliutherane, comes from 1967. It is a portrait whose most significant component is not the face, but its fragment, the multiplied chin, “a beautiful, winged fan out of half-faces and shoulders,” as Krystyna Czerni said. In the works Illuminated (1966), the series Bellies (1968) and Desserts (1971) via association with new materials, illumination and the use of character, the artist adored and fetishized the beautiful female body, not without self-irony. Shortly before her death, she wrote in her artistic credo:  “I direct my gesture towards the human body, towards “this totally erogenous sphere” (…) through the imprints of the human body, I try to preserve fleeting moments of life in transparent polyester, I try to preserve its paradoxes and its entire absurdity. (…) the human body is the most sensitive and in fact the only source of the kinds of joy, pain, and truth”.

In 1969 Szapocznikow was diagnosed with cancer. The following years of artistic activity were characterized by a registering of the dismembered female body. In the series Souvenirs (1970-71), Tumors (1970-71), Fetishes (1970-71) or Alina’s Funeral the artist exposed subsequent stages of the decay of the body reflecting the eternal drama of passing. Mirroring one’s own body was an attempt at it’s remembering, at being poised in time. Executed at the turn of 1971 and 1972 Herbarium stands out; the model for the work was her son Piotr; Szapocznikow, acting as a botanist placed the casts of his body, cut, twisted, flattened on the pages of the herbarium as if she was writing her last biography.

The mythology of the figure and the biography of the artist limited the interpretation of her oeuvre. Reading of the works of Szapocznikow through the lens of the ghetto, concentration camps or her tumors resulted in her functioning in culture as an icon of death. Her work, however, is denser in content, with a clear existential character.                                         

Magdalena Dworak- Mróz


Archiwum Aliny Szapocznikow w Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie (w:)

Jola Gola, Katalog rzeźb | Aliny Szapocznikow, Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, Muzeum Narodowe w Łodzi, 2001

Agata Jakubowska, Portret wielokrotny dzieła Aliny Szapocznikow, Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, Poznań 2007

Elena Filipovic, Joanna Mytkowska, Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972, MOMA New York 2011

Zofia Gołubiew (red. nauk. ), Jolanta Chrzanowska-Pieńkos (red.), Alina Szapocznikow, 1926-1973, Warszawa, Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej Zachęta, 1998.

Józef Grabski (red.), Alina Szapocznikow : zatrzymać życie : rysunki i rzeźby : katalog, Kraków ; Warszawa, IRSA, 2004.

Agata Jakubowska (red.), Katarzyna Szotkowska-Beylin, Kroją mi się piękne sprawy : listy Aliny Szapocznikow i Ryszarda Stanisławskiego - 1948-1971, Kraków : Wydawnictwo Karakter ; Warszawa : Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, 2012.

U. Czartoryska, Grafika antyprofesjonalna [w:] Grafika wczoraj i dziś, Warszawa 1973.

Filmy o artystce

Ślad (reż. Helena Włodarczyk), Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych i Programów Edukacyjnych 1976.

This Is What I Leave You after Myself (reż. Krzysztof Tchórzewski), 1973.           


Personified tumors
Poliester, glass wool, newspapers
Bust without head
Poliester, poliutylen
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