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Death Masks at MoMA

The museum’s striking exhibit revives the work of Polish sculptor and Holocaust survivor Alina Szapocznikow

Frances Brent
November 29, 2012

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.”

At MoMA’s exhibit of Szapocznikow’s splendid work, that defiant silence, easily understood by an intimate circle of Poles from her generation—who shared her shame, anger, exhaustion, and distrust, and underwent, as she put it, “that baptism of despair”—remains hard to understand (or maybe hard to take) for a young generation across the ocean and out of touch with such long-ago events. The exhibit at MoMA was put together by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and the WIELS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels before traveling to the Hammer Gallery in Los Angeles and on to New York. It includes drawings, sculpture, documents, and videos, concentrating on the shift from classical figurative forms she produced in the aftermath of World War II toward more abstract shapes, and a pioneering idiom associated with Nouveau Réalisme before the final “de-materialized” sculpture she produced at the end of her life. I wish the New York curator had included more wall captioning. With inadequate biographical contextualization, the early figurative work has been short shrifted and the layers of meaning in the later works are harder to access.

For example, when you look at her two large early figurative pieces, First Love, 1954 (encrusted plastic cement) and Difficult Age, 1956 (bronze)—unashamed, nubile, slender female bodies with gracefully simplified lines, proud and compact heads lifted above elongated necks—it’s useful to consider Łódź in all of its contradictions: its “cabbage, cabbage, cabbage,” pleurisy, pneumonia, typhus, colitis, beatings, shootings, raids, poisonings, suicides, its 7,000 to 10,000 survivors from the 204,800 who once lived there. In Łódź, Szapocznikow, surrounded by death and working in a ghetto hospital, wrote about adolescent feelings in a little yellow book. She had boyfriends there. Those early bigger-than-life-sized commemorations of self-confident young womanhood—with faces composed, breasts taut, unapologetic hand at the hip—allowed the artist to retrieve dignity from the degradation of her girlhood.

Hand, Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto (patinated plaster and iron filings), was made in 1957 and intended to memorialize Jewish fighters (rather than portray them as victims of the Holocaust, as the wall caption erroneously indicates). Executed in the vocabulary of modern 20th-century French or English sculpture (Germaine Richier comes to mind) the hand is raggedly cut off from a wrist and held above its base on a wire armature. Fragmented, fierce, tormented, deformed—a deep cavity is ripped out of the pocked surface of the palm. The hand exists like the remnant of an ancient statue, a scrap of something heroic from violent struggle.

But the centerpiece of the exhibit is Goldfinger (1965, gold-painted cement and car part), an audacious pop sculpture. The James Bond reference balances vertically, like the body of a woman with her legs in the air, except the torso is a machine part that clamps to a woman’s crotch, and the legs are only partial casts of her upper thighs. If the piece seems, in the spirit of its age, to be jokingly drawing attention to the exploitation and commercialization of sex as well as a de-materialization of the human form, there’s also a cruelty in the artistic violence done to the female figure and an unmistakable undercurrent of horror in the image of death and open legs.

Similarly, the hand-sized sculpture Small Dessert I (1970-71)—enticing, silent but candy-like lips cast in colored polyester resin and set on a dessert plate—suggests the ultra-modern, with a Pop Art-like reference to eroticism turned into commodity. But Szapocznikow’s artistic confection also has a darker side: eroticism twinned with silence, lips that don’t speak, a silence that issues from obscene knowledge, a fundamental and far more specific manifestation of the artist’s personal history.

In 1969 Szapocznikow was diagnosed with breast cancer, and for the next three years she worked inventively and at a furious pace at her studio on the Rue Victor Hugo in the Parisian suburb of Malakoff. The objects she produced during her last years are darkly magical and remain painful to look at. Her Tumors Personified, 1971 (Polyester resin fiberglass, paper, gauze, ranging in size), are stumps of beautiful, luminous heads, cast from her own face, encased in translucent material. They resemble Degas’ wax figures and the work of his friend Medardo Rosso, who also used solid material to capture fragility and transient light. The sculptures have many layers, each piece representing a cancer tumor and also a death mask. Several of them contain papers, cords, and pieces of cloth so they exist as containers for relics, little eggs of remembrance the artist left behind, replenishing the world with figures. In this way, the work reminds us of the continuous race between mutilation and repair that the deepest art of the postwar period had to nod to.


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Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.