The Sculptural Dissolutions of Alina Szapocznikow
by Professor Griselda Pollock
The choice facing the artist, Alina Szapocznikow (1926–1973) a Polish Jewish sculptor who, as a teenager, had remarkably survived the horrors of the Holocaust, was to produce objects that lack the formal beauty and technological order of the machine age, itself emblematic of an inhuman modernity, and instead exhibit their own deformation as testimony to the ontological misery of human corporality and an acute, historical sense of mutability and mortality. Postwar, Alina Szapocznikow trained as a sculptor in Czechoslovakia and Paris, moving to Warsaw in the late 1940s to be part of a new avant-garde in Communist Poland during the 1950s. She achieved international recognition before moving to Paris in the 1960s, where she participated in the circle of French Pop Art, known as Nouveau Réalisme, beside Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, and Niki de St Phalle. She died prematurely from cancer in 1973. Szapocznikow and Louise Bourgeois were well known to each other, having also worked side by side direct marble carving in Carrara. Szapocznikow’s work, however, fell into disregard until a major retrospective was mounted in Warsaw in 1998. A series of international exhibitions in Britain and USA have recently made her challenging and powerful work widely known again, leaving, however, considerable debate about how to interpret and position her work. Is her work about sexuality or its abjection? Life or death? Like no one else in post-war European art, Alina Szapocznikow trod the finest line between sensual delight and excruciating suffering. Her works offer playful engagements with French Pop Art, with Duchamp’s readymade wit, and the ever-present legacies of pre-war surrealism and the surreal object, while succumbing to the historical weight of the history she herself endured, defied and to which she sought to give a powerful aesthetic, sculptural form. I suggest that trauma resurfaced in her sculptural forms producing a descent from verticality to the horizontal, accompanied by the dissolution of formal coherence that is as brilliant as it is troubling and historic.
Griselda Pollock is Professor emerita of Social & Critical Histories of Art, former Director of Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory & History at the University of Leeds and the 2020 Laureate of the Holberg Prize. Born in South Africa, educated in Canada and Britain, she has a BA in Modern History (Oxford University, 1970), MA (1972) and PhD (Art History, 1980, Courtauld Institute of Art, London). Lecturing at Reading, Manchester and Leeds Universities. She retired in 2021. Key publications include: Old Mistresses: Women, Art & Ideology (co-author Rozsika Parker, 1981, 1996, 2013, 2020), Vision and Difference : Feminism, Femininity and the Histories of Art (1988), Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings (1995), Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories (1999), Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and Archive (2007), and After-Image/After-Affect: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum (2013), Charlotte Salomon in the Theatre of Memory (2018), Killing Men & Dying Women: Imagining Difference in 1950s New York Painting (2022), and revised edition of her 1995 monograph, Mary Cassatt (2022).