Death Masks at MoMA
The museum’s striking exhibit revives the work of Polish sculptor and Holocaust survivor Alina Szapocznikow
In 1986 when my husband and I published the literary magazine Formations, we used a photograph of a sculpture by a woman named Alina Szapocznikow for the cover of our journal. Formations, which existed during the decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall, specialized in writing and photography from Eastern and Central Europe. The artist’s monochromatic images cast from the body of her adopted son, his legs and groin, his genitals, the double silhouette of his face—molded, flattened, fragmented, ghost-like—set the tone for our Polish issue, which included names equally unpronounceable and unfamiliar: Kazimierz Brandys, Anna Kowalska, Tadeusz Różewicz, Miron Białoszewsi, Sławomir Mrożek, and Zbigniew Herbert. (Szapocznikow pronounced hers shuh-POTCH-ni-koff.) Before her death in 1973, Szapocznikow had been part of their community—Polish intellectuals, many of them Jewish, who survived the war, some still traversing the minefield of postwar Communism, while others had found their way to Paris or New York. One of our contributing editors, Jan Kott, had been part of her crowd in Paris after the war, when the Polish embassy provided daily free meals to expatriates. Eva Kuryluk, our corresponding editor, had known Szapocznikow from her Warsaw childhood in the mid-1950s when her father was the Polish Minister of Culture. We looked together at photographs of her beautifully damaged human shapes, wistfully imagined an unlikely U.S. retrospective, and talked about the artist’s uncanny gifts and tragic fate.
Alina Szapocznikow was born into an assimilated Polish Jewish family—“petit bourgeois,” as she later referred to it. Her father, who died from tuberculosis a year before the war, had been a dentist, and her mother was a pediatrician. Alina was 13 when the war began and 14 when she and her mother and her younger brother were trapped in the Pabianice Ghetto. In 1942 they were transported to the much bigger Łódź Ghetto. Little documentation exists about Szapocznikow’s life during the war after Łódź. Szapocznikow, her mother, and brother were transported to Auschwitz and from there to Bergen-Belsen. At some point they were separated, and her brother died at Litoměřice. In the spring of 1945, a 19-year-old Alina was liberated in Czechoslovakia. Thinking she was the only one in her family to survive World War II, she joined a group of other ex-prisoners who were going to Prague and at this point somehow got the idea that she would return to her childhood hobby and learn to sculpt. She would make human figures.
It’s hard to imagine the audacity it must have taken to formulate this plan; to forge identity papers; to find food, housing, and work in Otokar Velimski’s stonemasonry; to enroll in Joseph Wagner’s studio at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design; and finally to move to Paris to take classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. Whatever it was, Szapocznikow had it—and the evidence can be seen in a retrospective exhibit, “Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972,” at MoMA in New York.
Szapocznikow’s trials did not end with the war. In 1949 she developed peritoneal tuberculosis, which threatened her life and caused her to become infertile. In a letter from Hôpital Paul-Brousse, outside of Paris, she wrote about the merging of the two monsters in her life, war and illness, in a letter to her first husband, Ryszard Stanisławski: “I never knew that dying was so difficult. In the camp people dropped like flies. They didn’t have time to be dying for long. A woman at the other end of this ward was in agony all night before she kicked the bucket. Actually I don’t even think it was her anymore, because those terrible sounds and howls had already ceased to be human, and in the darkness they begat all of the most terrible (the ones it seemed I had forgotten) nightmares from the camps and of that miserable, inhuman, wartime life.”
Because of experimental antibiotics, she recovered, and for many years Szapocznikow’s vitality seemed to overflow—“For I want to live!” she wrote to Stanisławski from the hospital ward and 15 months later they moved to Warsaw. They soon were married and had adopted a child. She threw herself into her work, won competitions, and leveraged her sex appeal to become a superstar in the Polish art scene. As part of the post-1956 Polish Thaw generation, she maneuvered treacherous political conditions, working on public sculpture like the Monument to Polish Soviet Friendship, 1954, which was scrapped in 1992. But her most authentic work from that early period had an expressionistic authority that drew on the experiences of the war years. “Exhumed,” from 1957, was dedicated to László Rajk, who was executed in 1949 after Hungarian show trials, but rehabilitated and reburied seven years later. The figure, with gauges in its skull and mouth and deeply pitted surface texture, embodies a profound and privileged knowledge of death and decay. In 1968 during the anti-Jewish campaign, Szapocznikow lost her Warsaw studio.
In a TV interview filmed in 1966 but aired in France in 1969, Szapocznikow, alternately gamine and tearful, speaking in sweetly articulated French, says to the journalist Jean-Marie Drot: “People always talk about themselves too much.” When asked about the influences of war and disaster on her work, she bridles: “I don’t want to talk about my experiences in public. I’ve already told you everything.” Turning from the camera in her studio, she petulantly covers the face and torso of a terracotta figure with a rag, as if the object she invented could match her own refusal. Then she continues: “I feel embarrassed to belong to the same race that invented the camps and everything I went through. So I don’t talk about it.”
Living off of Jewish memory in old Chernowitz, once the Jerusalem of Ukraine