The Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow made a career of disassembling the body, of exposing its weaknesses, its many vulnerabilities, whether through the uses and abuses it’s been put to in the abattoir of twentieth-century history or at the mercy of the more mundane, if no less fatal, everyday mortality. If that sounds like a bit of a downer, worry not: Szapocznikow managed to keep a sly tongue firmly in cheek, and her work, for all its startling beauty, its nearly unbearable intimacy, its sublime evocation of pain and disease and suffering, is witty, even funny.
Her sculptures—on display, through January 28, at the Museum of Modern Art, where they are presented as part of a retrospective entitled “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972”—indulge in the darkest shade of black humor, extracting their punch lines from abysmal pockets of human experience. Take, for example, her Lampe-bouche (Illuminated Lips) (1966), a series of resin casts of a female mouth set atop metal stands and wired to work as lamps. These resonate as blazoned bits of romantic poetry, the celebration of the mistress’s body through its reduction to component parts, but also as morbid enactment of the apocryphal human-skin lampshades made by the Nazis. Here is the human body, desecrated and unmade, and it is glorious to look at, an illuminated, illuminating display of power and its subversion. Something similar is at work in Petit Dessert I (Small Dessert I) (1970–1971), the lower half of a woman’s face, done up in colored polyester resin, sumptuously melting beyond a glass saucer, like an over-scooped sundae breaching the borders of moderation. And there is Cendrier de Célibataire (The Bachelor’s Ashtray) (1972), which transforms the female visage into a vessel for cigarette butts.
That Szapocznikow was a Holocaust survivor helps contextualize her concern with abjection, with how easy it is to destroy other bodies, how difficult to control and maintain the integrity of one’s own. Born in Kalisz, a small city in central Poland, the daughter of two Jewish doctors, she was a teenager when the Germans invaded. She spent time in the Lodz Ghetto, and, in 1942, when the ghetto was liquidated, she was sent to a series of concentration camps: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt. After the war, she trained as a sculptor, studying in Paris, absorbing the influence of seminal abstract artists like Jean Arp and Alberto Giacometti and Ossip Zadkine. To their abstractions of the human form, she brought an unabashedly feminine sensibility, coupled with a hard-won contempt for traditional pieties, the vision of one who has witnessed the dismantling of the world and improbably lived to tell of it.
Like Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five, Szapocznikow’s response to the atrocities she had lived through seems to have been “So it goes.” For, like Vonnegut, who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden and who concluded that writing an antiwar novel would be not unlike writing a book against glaciers, she seems to have realized that, even without wars, without human cruelty, “there would still be plain old death.” Such knowledge was, as it tends to be, hard won: Szapocznikow was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1951, and she died, at the age of forty-seven, from breast cancer.
The tuberculosis perhaps helps explain the artist’s apparent obsession with the consumption of bodies, as does the cancer. One of Szapocznikow’s most striking pieces is Tumeurs Personnifiées (Tumors Personified), made in 1971, using polyester resin, fiberglass, paper, and gauze: a series of faces laid out on the gallery floor, suggesting decapitated heads, washed up on some seashore like small dead creatures. Cruel and crude, they are as brutal as they are banal, fatal and funny all at once.
Tumeurs also speaks to other exemplars of Szapocznikow’s work, especially Souvenir I (1971), a piece done in polyester resin, glass, wool, and photograph. Reminiscent of a tombstone, Souvenir is a study in the subjugation of the body to forces beyond its control, beyond, even, its imagination. The MoMA catalog for the show includes a collage made by the artist in preparation for Souvenir: a photograph of Szapocznikow as a young girl juxtaposed with a dead concentration-camp inmate. The final work itself is nowhere near this explicit; it merely hints at its own history. We do not know, cannot know, it taunts, what will happen to us, save of course the inevitable end, and all we have to show for the process are the souvenirs we amass along the way, the inchoate scars, mementoes of innocence and of woe.
Szapocznikow’s gift lay in her ability to take her more-than-fair-share of suffering and transform it into something ambiguous, something lovely and nightmarish, which is really a roundabout way of saying she took history and disease and made them art. Working in nontraditional materials—polyuetherine, polyester resin, cement, and gauze—she produced visions of the body at once defeated and triumphant, insisting on corporality, on solidity, even as the body disintegrated. The world may be cruel, Szapocznikow’s works say, and I may be vulnerable to its predations, but I’m having a fine time anyway.
Szapocznikow’s sensibility is clearly aligned with surrealism and with Pop, but her madcap creations are also a kind of confession. Like the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, whose oeuvre her own suggests, Szapocznikow’s works are revelatory narratives with autobiographical intimations, deconstructed bits of personal history that, at their best, become universal. (Like Bourgeois, Szapocznikow is also interested in gender, in the ways its entrenched and the ways in which it undoes itself. Her Goldfinger , a cement-and-car-part assemblage painted gold, anticipates Bourgeois’s Janus Fleuri , a sexually ambiguous form cast in bronze.) Many of Szapocznikow’s pieces had been cast from her own body, and there is a faintly pornographic thrill in seeing forms so intimately connected to the artist. But it is a demanding sort of voyeurism, this confrontation with the war without and the war within, this—to quote Vonnegut quoting Celiné—duty dance with death.
Oh, but how sensual it is! “Through casts of the body,” Szapocznikow wrote in a 1972 artist statement, “I try to fix the fleeting moments of life, its paradoxes and absurdity …” Acknowledging that her “work is difficult,” that “everything is all mixed up, the situation … ambiguous,” she also maintained that “of all the manifestations of the ephemeral the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering and all truth.” In telling the truth about all that suffering, she achieved a measure of joy, of grace and redemption, an undoing that became the making of a scarily beautiful world as seen by an unflappably amused artist.
Yevgeniya Traps is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY.