Alina Szapocznikow: Documents. Works. Interpretations.

  • Alina Szapocznikow: Documents. Works. Interpretations.

Abstracts from the conference dedicated to work and life of Alina Szapocznikow.

1. Tomáš Pospiszyl Alena Šapocniková: Prague years of an aspiring sculptress

How did Alina Szapocznikow become a sculptress? This is a question that will probably remain unanswered. All we can do is analyze the few existing archival documents and personal recollections from 1943 to 1947. The paper, based on newly conducted research, will try to trace Szapocznikow’s anabasis though different ghettos and concentration camps and reconstruct her early years in Prague. The presentation will include memories of Szapocznikow’s schoolmates and friends at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, selections from previously unpublished correspondence from Szapocznikow’s archive and newly discovered documents from various archives in the Czech Republic. The juxtaposition of this material may help to explain historical, cultural and political contexts that shaped Szapocznikow’s formative years.

2. Ewa Toniak “Unique on the world scale.” Polish sculptresses and the media around 1960.

In my presentation, I would like to examine the media image of Alina Szapocznikow at the turn of the 1960s, taking as her counter-figure Alina Ślesińska, whom the media construed as her primary rival. I will analyze statements made in the press, interviews and texts, also about other artists (such as Magdalena Więcek, Barbara Zbrożyna and Anna Dębska) the number of which was said by the critics of the day to “represent Polish specificity of the 1950’s and 1960s” and to be a phenomenon which was “unique on the world scale.”

The political „thaw,” with its compulsive voyeuristic interest in the West, brought the cult of celebrities, so common behind the iron curtain, for which the Polish artists will have to find their own idiom. In this context, I am interested in posing the question of the status of the artist, her visual representation, the means and mechanisms for self-presentation. I am interested in both “canonical” and secondary images; in the role of modernist (e.g. Bauhaus) tradition; in the visuality of women; in power; in tradition and emancipation.

3. Anna Markowska Narratives proving the greatness of the artist – during and after Communist times

I am not trying to rethink the greatness of the artist but rather to reflect on how the greatness of Alina Szapocznikow’s art was constructed during Communist times and after the shift of 1989. Modernism in Polish art became the dominant discourse after the 1955 political “thaw” and it was in existence until the end of the 1980s as a symbol of resistance and pride, demonstrating that Polish art was “the same” as art in the West, behind the iron curtain. Therefore a paradox occurred: official narratives proving greatness during Communist times required a transgression and metaphysical climbing. My paper addresses the following questions: did the need for transcendence reveal the real power structures in the country and the dominant discourse in visual arts or was it just a conservative/anachronistic trait of methodology? How are the Western (P. Restany) narratives on Szapocznikow different and how have they changed after the decline of Communism?

4. Anda Rottenberg "Personalization"

In Alina Szapocznikow’s oeuvre, only one series refers in its title to the process which in fact has been present in her works for years. Tumeurs personifiees has been translated into Polish as Tumory uosobnione and into English as Tumours Personified. Sixteen polyester heads of various sizes made in 1971 are deformed self-portraits, shown for the first time (in Galerie Aurora in Geneva) as Desintegration de personalite. Szapocznikow changed the title of the work only when it was shown again (in Salon de la Jeune Sculpture in Paris), shortly before her second oncological surgery, in June 1972. A double shift in meaning and accents occurs here; to begin with, the artist’s focus shifts from personality understood in psychological terms to the physical person or persona; secondly, the concept of dissemination (disintegration) is replaced by the concept of the concentration of matter (tumors). One may also argue that it is not so much a matter of focus, as a decision of the artist to reveal what she perceives as a parallel between the biological and the creative orders. In other words, the parallel between life and creativity, earlier read in terms of disintegration, only in the last phase becomes concentrated and absorbed. A process of personalization of art begins, in which the creative subject, the “I” undergoes a transformation in the object, a “self.” It may be valuable to rethink again the narrative of the life and work of Alina Szapocznikow in this context, posing the question when did this “self,” as yet unarticulated in a title, let itself be known in her art.

5. Francoise Collin "Ceci (n')est (pas) mon corps"

La création artistique des femmes a été séculairement paralysée par les conditions socio-historique s qui la marginalisaient et/ou qui la privaient des moyens de sa diffusion et de sa reconnaissance. Certaines artistes ont émergé, mais le plus souvent a une place mineure, ou dans le cadre d’une école majoritairement masculine et sous son contrĂ´le. Leur création s’est cependant manifestée la ou elle est anonyme, dans les arts qualifiés d’artisanat.

L’évolution voire la révolution de leur condition au cours du XXe siecle a favorisé l’émergence de leur création. On peut constater que, dans un premier temps, et sans s’etre concertées, de nombreuses femmes artistes ont pris leur propre corps comme objet ou comme motif de leur création: on pense a Gina Pane, a Carolee Schneeman, a Cindy Sherman, a Orlan, a Jana Sterback, a Kiki Smith, a Ana Mendieta. Alina Szapocznikov prend place dans ce courant international. Au moment ou de nombreux artistes polonais-ses amis- résistent a l’impératif de l’art réaliste socialiste par l’abstraction ou le surréalisme (Tchorzewski, Stern, Fangor ) Szapocznikow affirme ainsi une autre rapport au réel, dans une autre affirmation du cogito fondateur: j’ai -je suis mon corps.

6. Sarah Wilson "Alina, Ruth, Jacqueline: the context for Szapocznikow in 1970s"

After the barricades of May 1968, the “Red Fromanger” and the virile militancy of the French Maoists, came what Guy Hocquenghem called l’apres-mai des faunesŹ€”a feminising of the French male in the softer and more melancholic 1970s. French feminism was born both in the the worlds of writing with écriture feminine and in the worlds of art and performance with artists such as Alina Szapocznikow or Gina Pane. For a significant period, when the young Suzanne Page took over the direction of the Musée de la Ville de Paris from the hard-line Communinst turned Althusserian Pierre Gaudibert, a series of splendid retrospectives of women artists were held – including the German photomontage artist Hannah Hoch. Alina Szapocznikow’s show took place alongside those of contemporary artists, such as Ruth Francken and Jacqueline Dauriac. These women were subsequently shamefully neglected by French art institutions: Alina’s rediscovery has taken place completely outside her adopted country. Will elles@centrepompidou,com opening May 25th make a difference?

7. Connie Butler "Soft Bodies, Soft Sculpture"

A discussion of Szapocznikow's work in the context of other artists working in Europe and America whose work also might be seen in a proto-feminist context around such issues as self-representation, soft-sculpture and the relationship of the gendered body to the materiality of sculpture. Specifically this discussion will propose various groupings with the work of American artists Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, Hannah Wilke. The discussion will also address the grouping of works recently acquired by MOMA and considerations of exhibition and collection of the work outside Poland.

8. Martina Pachmanova "Eva Kmentová and the 'Tradition' of Feminist Art: In the Mirror of Alina Szapocznikow"

Eva Kmentova (1928 – 1980) and Alina Szapocznikow (1926 – 1973) – two women artists who met in Josef Wagner’s studio of sculpture at the Academy of Decorative Arts in Prague in the second half of the 1940s; two sculpturesses who were among the most interesting protagonists of the Central European New Figuration of the 1960s, and whose importance was ignored for many decades before they were rediscovered in the 1990s; and, last but not least, two women who had similar destiny – they died of aggressive illness in early age, letting art historians wonder in what direction their oeuvre would have developed if it was not prematurely terminated.

In my paper, I want to primarily focus on the work of Eva Kmentova who not only belonged to the first post-war generation of Czech women artists whose situation strongly differed from their pre-war predecessors, but who also, at least in the Czech context, opened a new path for women artists: a path where femininity was not an obstacle but the very core of their artistic imagination. This aspect of Kmentova’s work that was most strongly manifested in her sculptural imprints of various parts of her own body (torso, belly, fingers, hands, feet, lips€Ś), paper and sculptural reliefs of “slits” (abstracted vaginal images), and strongly symbolic encounters and conflicts of female and male principles, brought about not only new aesthetics but also a new art historical paradigm – that of gender. And it is just this gender(ed) perspective I will use in my paper to analyze Kmentova’s work and to incorporate it in the tradition of feminist art of the 1960s and 70s.

Although feminist art was not a commonly used term in Eastern Europe in this period (and is still, together with its protagonists, often ostracized), there were a number of significant women artists in this region, including Kmentova and Szapocznikow, who broke many taboos and whose work has similar gender dynamics to the work of feminist artists working in the same period in the West. Although the main focus of my paper will be the unique work of Eva Kmentova, I want to show its formal, expressive and semantic proximity to other women artists of that period; Szapocznikow will be one of them. To compare the artistic relationship between Kmentova and Szapocznikow (or, to use the subtitle of my paper, to demonstrate how some aspects of their work mirrored in each other), I will use images from the exhibition 3 Women Sculptors: Věra Janoušková – Eva Kmentová – Alina Szapocznikow that took place in the Royal Summer Palace, Prague Castle, in the fall of 2008, and that, without precedent (and, unfortunately, without adequate critical reflection) confronted the work of three women ex-students from Wagner studio.

9. Iwona Szmelter "Immortality/Mortality: Preservation of the Legacy of Alina Szapocznikow"

I am going to present the latest report on the conservation and restoration of her inheritance which is unique in the 20th century both in regard to form and the range of artistic substance. To preserve Alina Szapocznikow's legacy, we undertook the challenge of exhibiting her works in the form most representative of her intentions. In addition to the considerable material damage, her works have been often misinterpreted. For the 25th anniversary of her death, in 1998, a great retrospective was organized which included all the creative phases in the sculptor’s lifetime. The catalogue mentions over 500 objects, 129 of which I have restored myself with the help of a small interdisciplinary team. Subsequently another 12 of her artworks were conserved with the help of innovative technologies of preservation, conservation and restoration. Alina Szapocznikow’s work demonstrates a wide range of techniques and technologies: from plaster, bronze, and marble to deep-dyed polyesters, polyurethanes, inserts – ready-made, non-permanent organic ones, such as grass and newspaper. Many of the artist’s works were in pieces, like jigsaw puzzles. They were covered with grey residue, which provoked a metaphorical mis-interpretation as “cancerous growth.”

Preliminary research was based on an investigation of the documentation of the artist's work, her public speeches, interviews. Mr Piotr Stanisławski, Szapocznikow’s son, heir and partner in last realizations was consulted on some essential and technical issues. Consultations with chemists confirmed what type of material was used. These findings created a basis for the verification of a description of the technique and technology used in Alina Szapocznikow's work. The methodology of conservation allowed to arrest the damaging processes, to clean the objects, to remove the later layers and falsifications, to consolidate the original layers of work, to reinforce the constructions, to fill and retouch. Moreover, we were able to eventually restore the function (for example kinetic or utilitarian) of the works, protecting their surface from further degradation, with the use, among others, of photo-stabilization coating which shielded works from UV rays.

Concluding, the main goal of the preservation of the legacy of Alina Szapocznikow is to save and transmit not merely the de-contextualized fragments but their essence. Case studies show the difficulty in sustaining the complexity of the ideas and meaning of her artworks, while simultaneously preserving their authentic matter, including impermanent particles of polyesters, polyurethanes, plants, green grass, etc. The ethical considerations related to reconstruction, such as authenticity versus emulation, duplication problems and replacement of "ready-mades" in art has brought us back to the very circle of Aristotelian classification of art, with an evident precedence of an idea over its reflection in the object, i.e. in matter. Much attention has been paid to the legal consequences, the so-called “right to integrity” and Alina Szapocznikow’s copyright.

10. Piotr Juszkiewicz "Alina Szapocznikow. Hermeneutics of biography"

The main problem of the paper is defined by the question how to talk productively about the relation between artwork and biography after we had been made aware of the losses and gains which result from acknowledging the death of the author, this given, accepted unconditionally by the methodologically conscious researcher. Having been pre-warned about the dangers of ideology, discouraged by the reductionism of biographical interpretation and reductionist claims of psychoanalysis, perhaps we can find a way to make the subject and the problem of the subject’s identity present by changing the question about history (biography) into the question about the source experience of the having been of being and the world, in which the subject has been, as a being. What is even more important, we need to formulate the question about the relation between the artwork and its history (the biography of the artist) as a question about the possibility of projecting source thinking about history€”that is, the having been of being and its world, to which the artwork belonged, the co-presence of being in historical community€”onto the history of the artwork, including its slippage out of the world to which it once belonged.

11. Jola Gola „L'oeil du bouf” – an attempt to find the key to Alina Szapocznikow’s work

One of the most adequate keys to the interpretation of Alina Szapocznikow’s work was offered by Urszula Czartoryska in her last text devoted to the artist “Transgression,” where she talks about breaking taboo, transgressing what is usually conveyed and shown in art. Such a key to the artist’s work may be supplemented by looking at her life and discerning ways in which her position as an artist is integral with her psychological identity. If we take the tragic experiences of the artist as ultimately positive experience, as an added value, which allows her to preserve the joy of life and which motivates her to create and to leave a mark of her existence in the world, such energy seems to be one of the numerous taboos the artist breaks, more and more often. For how can one be happy, active and energetic after such trauma? Such an interpretation, consistently performed, allows one to reinterpret the successive stages in the artist’s development and her work as a whole. It allows us to touch upon her work’s energy, which is its defining feature.

12. Griselda Pollock "Too Early and Too Late: Melting Solids and Traumatic Memory in the Sculptural Dissolutions of Alina Szapocznikow"  

My question is: what would it mean to become a sculptor, working on the human figure €˜after Auschwitz’? Is it, was it possible? In what ways might we trace the traumatic encryption of the agonisingly bodily event and physical assault involved in the attempted genocides of Jewish and Roma/Sinti peoples of Europe, that personally affected Alina Szapocznikow as a child and teenager, in the trajectory of her turn to carving and restoration of sculpture and then the emergence of diverse strategies which increasingly problematized the integrity of the sculptural body and eventually produced a form of sculptural object in which mnemic traces of suffering and the past were embedded in the detached resin-skins of works made during another, gendering and psycho-sexually traumatic encounter with the assault on the body of mortal illness and premature dying? This question will be framed by a larger exploration of the representation of the body as site and signifier of both pathos and abjection through the emergence of new sculptural materialities, notably explored by artists who were women ca 1965-75. The aim is to identify a historical and personal traumatic specificity in Alina Szapocznikow’s artworking (Ettinger) as unconscious working-through that exhibits the structure of trauma (event, latency, return of the repressed) which, none the less, resonates with a larger, internationally visible cultural registration of a post-traumatic aesthetic disruption to the western figuration of the body (idealized projection and identification), engaging with the bodily (semiotically creative and abjected) and the corpo-real (archaic and pre-imaginary psycho-sexual registers of subjectivity). I aim to articulate current psychoanalytically-informed explorations of the aesthetic and the traumatic with emerging art historical re-definitions of the sculptural events created by women in the 1960s and early 1970s. Is there any significance in this configuration of the material innovation, the post-traumatic and the feminine in aesthetic practice at this moment when Alina Szapocznikow was both too early and too late?

13. Anna Żakiewicz "Drawing as a personal experience"

Drawing is a very special medium. It exposes the artist’s workshop and skills: it reveals the movement of her hand and her ability to record the seen or imagined shapes with the use of line. Drawing can be very personal; it should, indeed, because it is as unique as fingerprints. Drawings by sculptors are particularly interesting as they often reveal the artist’s painful struggle with the one-dimensionality of the page on which she attempts to reproduce the spatial forms that, obviously, seem more natural to her.

In her drawings, Alina Szapocznikow soon€”as early as in the 1950’s€”abandoned academic chiaroscuro. She started focusing on lines and smudges achieving the best effect by surprise. Perhaps she was aided in this effort by observing Roentgen x-rays, on which the three-dimensionality of the human body is reduced to light shadows against a dark background. A number of other artists were also fascinated by this phenomenon since the end of the 19’th century when Roentgen discovered the X rays (cf. Man Ray’s rayograms or the Roentgen image replacing the portrait of the beloved in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain). From the beginning of the 1960s, Szapocznikow used Roentgen pictures as matrices for monotypes, which are basically a graphic technique, as their effect is that of a print of a smooth surface, only, unlike typical graphic art, they are not reproducible. Those monotypes, even if they correspond to some of the artist’s sculptures, are really independent works of art. Szapocznikow drew additional elements on the prints, thus enriching and individualizing them.

Cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 1969 has made that procedure painfully personal. The forms of numerous drawings from the last few years in the artist’s life imitate the shapes she saw on Roentgen pictures, often with added additional growths. These visualizations of the tumorous growths were accompanied by simultaneously produced sculpture series titled directly with the name of the illness. It is only natural that individuals suffering from cancer have an overwhelming desire to express their experience, their fears and their thoughts on the subject. Artists have the advantage of doing that through their art, if only they know how. Szapocznikow did. Perhaps the beautiful series of drawings Pejzaż Ludzki, awarded at the III International Exhibition of Drawings in 1972 in Rijeca, may be read as a type of closing: a reconciliation, an affirmation of both life and death, of the painful awareness of dissolution, with the hope, however, that we can leave a trace of ourselves in the world€Ś

14. Ernst van Alphen "The Sculptural Skin as Psychic Envelope"

I will discuss Alina Szapocznikow's work after 1962 in dialogue with the psychoanalytic notion of the "Skin ego" developed by the French psychoanalist Didier Anzieu.

15. Manuela Amber „My American Dream“ Alina Szapocznikow’s take on Concept Art  

In 1970, Alina Szapocznikow was invited to participate in the exhibition „Art Concepts from Europe“ organized by Pierre Restany at Bonino Gallery, New York. Her contribution was a text titled “My American Dream,” in which she presents the idea of making a marble Rolls-Royce in 2:1 scale. The project only made it to a miniature model stage but reappears in a commentary the artist wrote on her “Photosculptures“ (1971) – small sculptural forms made of chewing gum, which were presented as a series of black-and-white photographs.

The paper will explore the status of text and photography in Szapocznikow’s ouvre as well as the role of the tactile and the “bodily” seen through the conceptual lens at work in “Photosculptures.” Furthermore, comparisons will be drawn to feminist art practices in the 1960s and 1970s, which were directed at interfering with the reductive tendencies of Minimalism and Concept Art by means of the poetic and personal.

16. Anke Kempkes "Black Drips and Dark Matter - The Luxury Gap - Concept individuel - Quarry Desert . The incommensurable contemporaneity of Alina Szapocznikow"  

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a new dimension of artistic practice is subtly entering Alina Szapocznikow’s body of work. We see her experimenting with certain specific aspects of art-making fashioned at the time. Surrounded in Paris by a climate of neo-avant-garde and counter-cultural activities, Szapocznikow expands her perspective on sculpture in directions of conceptual experimenting. Yet she re-orients her work in nuances, finds directions which are articulated often only in semi-private accounts, never as part of a loud movement, but in highly individual forms of approach. At the same time she never betrays her core thinking-in-sculpture and her legacy of poetic existentialism and morbid-entropic surrealism. While she was therefore regarded by her contemporaries as potentially too individual and her vision of the body too traumatically inflicted and too provocatively sexual for getting fully absorbed into the new movements, we can see today that the radicalism of her artistic experiments lies in her unique proto-feminist vision as well as precisely in her independence (having been at the center and coevally on the margin of recognition) which allowed her to explore astonishing sites of her practice, presided over by the visions of pioneers such as Robert Smithson and others. That the cutting-edge-status of her work could not be fully read at the time has numerous reasons and constitutes an art historical cluster with blanks, which can be reconstructed partially. As the discourse-based paradigms of art taste and fashion move on and are in constant modification, we can today appreciate and evaluate in Szapocznikow’s work exactly the interplay of aspects and articulations that made her work to a degree incommensurable at her times

17. Paweł Leszkowicz Szapocznikow’s „Piotr”, or, „my son’s body.” Figuration of male eroticism in the work of the artist.  

I will address Alina Szapocznikow’s sculpture Piotr, 1972, in the context of the male act in the history of art and in the work of the artist. Piotr, as a full male act, and at the same time the imprint of the body of the artist’s son, has a unique place in Polish modern art. My paper will be an attempt to speak about the phenomenon of that work by, on the one hand, placing it in the context of the tradition and modern instances of representation of the male body by women and, on the other, in the context of the psychoanalytic relation of the mother to the body and sexuality of her son.

18. Dagmara Budzbon "Alina Szapocznikow’s 'Herbarium' – the Living Testament"  

Herbarium, a 1972 cycle of 14 imprints of the artist son’s, Piotr’s, body is Alina Szapocznikow’s last work. My paper will aim at demonstrating the importance and showing the multiple interpretations of the cycle which has not yet been fully analyzed by researchers of Szapocznikow’s work. The problems I will address are: 1. the place of Herbarium in Szapocznikow’s oeuvre; 2. analysis of the theme (a body imprint); 3. historical references (Veraikon) and an attempt to account for the dialogue Szapocznikow engages in with contemporary artists (César, Rodin, Duchamp, Christo, Nicola L, Niki de Saint Phalle); 4. the biomorphism of the cycle: its historical roots, possible allusions to the tradition of pre-Slavonic herbaria and the custom of pouring shapes out of wax (on St. Andrew’s day); 5. the qualities of the technique chosen by the artist (with reference to her contemporaries) and an attempt at situating the Herbarium in the context of the Catholic tradition (ex-vota); 6. the discussion of the place the work has in the studies of Szapocznikow’s work.

15 May 2009 (Friday)

10.00 – opening of the conference
Joanna Mytkowska (Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw)
Piotr Stanisławski (Alina Szapocznikow’s son)
Agata Jakubowska (the conference’s organizer)

10.30 – 11.30 [moderator: Joanna Mytkowska]
1. Tomáš Pospiszyl Alena Šapočniková: Prague years of an aspiring sculptress
2. Ewa Toniak ”World-unique Phenomenon”. Polish Women Sculptors and the Media around 1960.

11.30-12.00 coffee break

1. Anna Markowska Narratives Proving the Greatness of the Artist – During and After Communist Times
2. Anda Rottenberg Personalisation

13.30 – 15.00 lunch break

15.00 – 16.00 [moderator: Agata Jakubowska]
1. Françoise Collin Ceci (n')est (pas) mon corps
2. Sarah Wilson Alina, Ruth, Jacqueline: the context for Szapocznikow in 1970s

16.00- 16.30 coffee break

1. Connie Butler Soft Bodies, Soft Sculpture
2. Martina Pachmanova Eva Kmentová and the “Tradition” of Feminist Art: In the Mirror of Alina Szapocznikow

Iwona Szmelter Immortality/Mortality: Preservation of the Legacy of Alina Szapocznikow

16 May 2009 (Saturday)

10.00-11.30 [moderator: Luiza Nader]
1. Piotr Juszkiewicz Alina Szapocznikow. Hermeneutics of a Biography.
2. Jola Gola “L'oeil du bouf” – An Attempt at Finding the Key to Interpret the Art of Alina Szapocznikow.
3. Griselda Pollock Too Early and Too Late: Melting Solids and Traumatic Memory in the Sculptural Dissolutions of Alina Szapocznikow

11.30-12.00 coffee break

1. Anna Żakiewicz The Drawing as a Personal Experience
2. Ernst van Alphen The Sculptural Skin as Psychic Envelope

13.30 – 15.00 lunch break

15.00 – 16.00 [moderator: Dorota Monkiewicz]
1. Manuela Ammer „My American Dream” Alina Szapocznikow’s take on Concept Art
2. Anke Kempkes Black Drips and Dark Matter - The Luxury Gap - Concept individuel - Quarry Desert. The Incommensurable Contemporaneity of Alina Szapocznikow

16.00-16.30 coffee break

16.30 – 17.30
1. Paweł Leszkowicz Szapocznikow’ s ”Piotr” or ”The Body of My Son”. Figuration of Male Eroticism in the Art of the Sculptor.
2. Dagmara Budzbon Alina Szapocznikow’s Herbarium – the Living Testament.

17.30 Conference closing discussion

See also: