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Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972 at Wiels Contemporary Art Centre
Petit Dessert I (Small Dessert I), 1970-71. Colored polyester resin and glass, 8 x 11 x 13 cm. Kravis Collection.

BRUSSELS.- WIELS Contemporary Art Centre premiered an expansive solo exhibition of Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973). This major event, coinciding with the Polish presidency of the European Union, is one of the first large-scale surveys of the artist’s work outside of Poland and concentrates in particular on her late period from 1955 to her untimely death in the early ‘70s, at age forty-seven. Those years are best described as her experimental period, and it is precisely the artist’s shift to the use of new materials and forms that is the crux around which the exhibition is built.

As a sculptor who began working in the post-war period in a rather classical, figurative manner, Szapocznikow’s rapid development towards a conception of sculpture as an imprint not only of memory but of her own body left behind a legacy of provocative objects – at once sexualized, fragmented, vulnerable, humorous, and political – that still sit between Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme, and Pop Art. Her tinted polyester casts of her lips and breasts transformed into quotidian objects like lamps or ashtrays, her poured polyurethane forms, and her construction of sculptures that incorporate photographs remain as remarkably idiosyncratic and contemporary today as they were when they were first made.

Although she was already quite early in her career well-known in Poland where her work has been highly influential since, her oeuvre remains ripe for art historical re-examination. Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972 comes at an auspicious moment when international interest in her work has blossomed, major public collections have added her to their permanent collections (including The MoMA, NY; Tate, London; Castello di Rivolli, Turin; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles), and new publications in English on the artist are forthcoming.

The exhibition features roughly one hundred artworks, privileging all of the media Szapocznikow worked in, including photography and drawing alongside her primary practice of sculpture and object-making, but also giving place to archival documents and other preparatory and documentary material. Involving loans from private and public collections, from institutions in Poland but also abroad, this exhibition endeavors to introduce and contextualize the artist’s work to a broader international audience, all while revealing its resolute contemporanity and continuing relevance to discussions of sculpture-making today.

Born in 1926, in the small Polish town of Kalisz to a Jewish intellectual family, Alina Szapocznikow survived the Second World War in concentration camps with her mother, where the latter worked as a doctor and the artist as her assistant. No reliable accounts of this dramatic period remain today. The mother and daughter managed to survive most likely thanks to the mother’s professional usefulness. Likely Szapocznikow’s compulsive thirst for life and experience, and the great energy and cheer which characterized her life were a riposte to the traumatic events in her early youth. Szapocznikow looked back on her experiences during that period with exceptional reserve, and references to her recollections of those times only started to appear in her work towards the end of her life.

After the war she did not return to Poland but instead to Prague, where she studied sculpture in the studio of Otto Wagner, among others. Later, in 1949, she left for Paris to study at the Ecole de Beaux Arts. At the summons of the Polish government (and threatened with losing her right to be re-admitted to the country), she returned to Poland in 1951 and settled in Warsaw with her husband, the future director of the Łódz Museum of Art, Ryszard Stanisławski, whom she had met in France. It was the time of the escalation of the Cold War, when the borders between Eastern and Western Europe had begun to close. Szapocznikow thus remained in Poland during the period known as Stalinism, during which time the arts were dominated by social-realism, and artists were expected to proliferate official propaganda in their work.

In the post-war zeal and its faith in humanism, and aided by her pronounced leftist leanings, Szapocznikow quickly found her place in this setting, becoming a prized artistic commodity and reaping government commissions, including one for a monument celebrating Polish-Russian amity for the Palace of Arts and Culture in Warsaw. In 1955, as the communist regime weakened in Poland, artists enjoyed a greater degree of freedom. Szapocznikow almost immediately initited a more experimental approach in her practice, in line with the tendencies prevalent in the art world at that time. Interest in her work continued to rise in Poland and she was invited to take part in a number of exhibitions, including a solo show at Poland’s most prestigious art institution, the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw in 1957.

In spite of her successes, in 1963 she decided to emigrate to Paris with her second husband, the famous graphic designer, Roman Cieslewicz. There, she was forced to begin anew, and cultivated her artistic career with great difficulty. Through a friendship with Pierre Restany, who had already developed an interest in her work while she was still in Poland, she circulated on the peripheries of the Nouveau Réalisme movement. But, like many of the female artists of that time, she would not live to see her work find wide international recognition. She experimented intensively, searching for her own means of expression while also trying to exhibit her work and solidify her place in the art world.

Having traversed a world war, three concentration camps homelessness, a cold war, and recurring ill health, her life came to an early end in 1973 as a result of breast cancer. With it, she left behind an exceptionally pioneering body of work, carving a truly individual language of experimental forms and materials from her very personal story.

Since her death several solo exhibitions of her work have been held: Alina Szapocznikow, 1926-1973, Zacheta Gallery, Warsaw (1998); Alina Szapocznikow, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódz (1975), and Alina Szapocznikow, 1926-1973, Tumeurs, Herbiers, Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, France (1973). Her work has also been exhibited posthumously in a number of institutional group shows, including: Les Promesses du passé, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2010); Seductive subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, USA (2010); Women Artists Biennale, Incheon, South Korea (2009); elles@centrepompidou. Women Artists in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (2009); The Photographic Object, The Photographer’s Gallery, London, UK (2009); On Time, East Wing CollectionVIII, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, London, UK (2008); Art comes before gold, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, Poland (2008); Documenta XII, Kassel, Germany (2007); Flesh at War with Enigma, Kunsthalle, Basel, Switzerland (2004); Paris, Capital of the Arts, 1900-1968, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK (2002).

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