The Pleasure of Torture

A new exhibition of the works of Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art shows an artist who was ahead of her time.

Galia Yahav
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Galia Yahav

“In her work, the body is both the cause and the effect,” writes curator Ahuva Israel about sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, a new exhibition of whose works opens Friday, February 7 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. “For Alina Szapocznikow, the basis of action is making the presence felt, not deciphering, imprinting not describing, with the body being the core of an uncompromising truth.”

Indeed, the erotic lamp sculptures (“Shining Chest,” “Illuminated Breast,” “Illuminated Lips” from 1966-67), a sculpture of a little woman leaning on a penis that is bigger than she (“Crazy White Bride,” 1971), breasts dripping whipped cream and dipped in creams in crystal vessels in the “Petit Dessert” series, in which the nipples are cherries that are tempting as a bleeding wound; her key work “Leg,” from 1962, cast from her own leg,” and “Belly Pillow” from the same year; and the photographs of chewed gum – all these and many more are emblematic of the artist’s remark, “My gesture is addressed to the human body, that complete erogenous zone.”

Born in Poland in 1926, Szapocznikow survived Auschwitz and died of cancer in France in 1973. Her artistic career – mainly in sculpture but also in drawing and photography – spanned less than 20 years. Known as a postwar sculptor, her work only gained notice outside of Europe in the past decade. Her works were exhibited at London’s Hauser & Wirth Gallery in 2009 and at New York’s Brooklyn Museum in 2010. A comprehensive solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972,” closed last week.

Szapocznikow’s posthumous career took off after her works were first shown in America, in 2007. For many years before that she was scarcely noticed outside Poland, where she has long been considered an important artist. Perhaps her relatively small body of work is to blame, or the misunderstanding that linked her work to Surrealism, Nouveau réalisme and pop art and failed to recognize their originality; or perhaps the artist’s biography overshadowed the force of the works.

Until recently, she was also largely absent from the key feminist anthologies. Only in retrospect were her castings of the female buttocks, belly, lips and breasts recognized as unique proto-feminist works that anticipated the depictions of the female body in the art of the 1970s, and were given new and fascinating interpretations. “Alina Szapocznikow: Body Traces” includes 70 of her works and is accompanied by an excellent catalog.

Pleasure vs. trauma

Both of Szapocznikow’s parents were physicians. In 1940, she was imprisoned for two years in the Pabianice ghetto, where she worked as a nurse with her mother. After its liquidation, in 1942, they were sent first to the Lodz ghetto and afterward to the Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen concentration camps. After the war, Szapocznikow studied sculpting in Prague and then at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she met her first husband, the Polish art historian Ryszard Stanislawski. In 1949, she contracted tuberculosis and as a result was unable to have children. Two years later, her illness and financial problems led her to abandon her studies. Szapocznikow adopted a son and returned to Poland, where the Communist regime controlled cultural life.

In 1962, she represented Poland at the Venice Biennale. A year later, she moved to Paris and met art critic and Nouveau Realisme founder Pierre Restany. She worked alongside artists such as Arman, Cesar and Niki de Saint Phalle, and began making casts of her own legs, belly and breasts. In 1957, she separated from Stanislawski, with whom she remained good friends. Around the same time, Roman Polanski made a documentary about her for French television.

In 1963, she returned to Paris with her new husband, graphic designer Roman Cieslewicz. She began to turn away from classical, monumental, figurative cast iron and cement, and toward polyester casting and assemblages. In 1968 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was then that she reached her creative peak. In addition to her “tumor” sculptures,” in the last years of her life she also created “My American Dream,” the “hammer” sculptures, the “dessert” sculptures, the “souvenir lamps” and the photographs of chewed gum. She had a mastectomy in 1972 and died the following year.

“Through casts of a human body, I attempt to preserve in translucent polystyrene the ephemeral moments of life, its paradoxes and its absurdity,” she wrote in 1972. “I was educated as a classical sculptor. I am convinced that among all of the manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most fragile, the only source of all joy, of all pain and of all truth, and this is thanks to its ontological poverty, which is as inevitable as it is – at the level of consciousness – absolutely unacceptable.” This physical vulnerability is embodied in the pleasure-trauma dichotomy evident in many of her works. Women who are rent apart, eyes blindfolded, burning lips, puddles that look like involuntary bodily secretions, erotic, wound-like blotches, decapitated and distorted heads, physical deformities, folded and wrinkled lumps with bite marks – these are just some of her artistic creations. They are characterized by self-humor and violence, by the interplay of sex and disease, both in the way they were produced and in their ultimate appearance.

Sexual grotesquerie

Szapocznikow’s refusal to traffic in artistic abstractions and conceptualizations without confronting the repulsive, prosaic and terminal aspects of the flesh is also unique today. She developed a unique language in which the very idea of sculpting is to leave a real mark, an actual physical index. She called the casts made from parts of her own tormented and tattooed body “Awkward Objects,” spoke of her desire to achieve a “quality of embarrassment” and an “absurd mania.” To her, these were all affirmations of life.

And this is the vital element in the radical sadomasochistic look of her pieces. They were made from polyester casts of her own body, as a kind of human experiment in which the artist plays all the roles, and then flattened or distorted to produce sexual grotesques. Not just the process itself, but the final product as well, has to do with the imagery of pain, which becomes almost a fetishistic theater of cruelty. The casts of the body parts were turned into everyday objects with a fetishistic dimension reminiscent of the set design in “A Clockwork Orange.” The 1971 work “Fetish,” a random-looking collection of black body parts or remnants of such protruding from a pile of rags, is made of “polyester, wood and the artist’s underwear,” in Szapocznikow’s description.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, and even later, such representation of the female body was perceived as shameless and provocative, even in the most progressive circles. Perhaps this is why Szap I am convinced that among all of the manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most fragile, the only source of all joy, of all pain and of all truth, ocznikow is often mentioned in the same breath with Frida Kahlo, Hannah Wilke and Eva Hesse. Thus was born the theme of women who are hurting, who convey their agony in their work. This also affects the political criticism in interpretations of the three. Not until 2009 was her work exhibited alongside that of Louise Bourgeois and Lynda Benglis, artists who mined a similar vein, in a show that situated her work in an accurate sculptural context of sexual and physical elements related to formlessness, a lack of boundaries and lack of control over the material.

In 1971, Szapocznikow also created a series of photo-sculptures of chewed gum. The rubbery pieces of gum were turned into body molds photographed like portraits. Through them, the question of dominance, about the issue of control in her work, returns – self-control, control through the act of creation, control over the consolidation of the material, the struggle to give shape to pleasure and trauma. These works put a special emphasis on the sensual mouth, the representative or symbolic messenger of female genitalia, so that the works with the chewed gum can also be understood as a metaphorical externalization of the womb, as a type of abortion, of deformed things that passed through the mouth.

She also did photo-sculptures of “The Bachelor’s Ashtray” – lumps of butter with cigarette butts scattered in them. The pleasure-trauma duality is evident in these pieces too. From this point on, her work would increasingly deal with the fading and deterioration of the body.

Although her work always contained an inherent element of death, trauma and physical frailty, it was only in 1968, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, that it became an overt part of it. That’s when she began to create her “Tumors” series, assemblages made from resin, gauze and crumpled photographs and newspaper clippings. In her later sculptures she created real images of trauma – hacked-up bodies, as if by torture or massacre. Yet together with their drama, her works also had an ironic, playful tone, a sense of anarchy and demystification. The latter is evident throughout – in the isolation of the body, its dismemberment, in the uprooting from context, the barbarity and eroticism that go hand in hand, in the dialectic of the violent caress, of constructive destruction.

Perhaps it was the start of the criticism of women’s representation in popular culture, perhaps it was the start of criticism of the loss of uniqueness in the age of mass production. In any event, Szapocznikow was unique in her series that depicted disembodied body parts as a type of souvenir, personal souvenirs that the artist gives to her viewers, which include her sexuality and her death. About a year before her death, she created the series “Herbarium.” In one scene, a figure of a child is about to fall, and deprived of a mother’s hand, it remains hanging in the air without support. “I never knew how hard it is to die,” the artist wrote. “In the camp, people dropped like flies. They didn’t have time to die for a long time.”

The works of Polish sculptor 
Alina Szapocznikow.Credit: Fabrice G
The works of Polish sculptor 
Alina Szapocznikow.Credit: Fabrice G
Illuminated Lips Fabrice GoussetCredit: Fabrice G
''Bellies'' (1968) by Alina Szapocznikow in sculpturepark KMM/The NetherlandsCredit: Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw / Copyright by Piotr Stanisławski
Alina Szapocznikow in 1961 next to her sculpture Naked. Credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Alina Szapocznikow, Sculpture-Lamp VI, 1970.Credit: Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw / Copyright by Piotr Stanisławski