There is a restlessness to Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow’s work that stems from her relentless pursuit towards understanding the human form. Not only an astute sculptor, Szapocznikow was a master of depicting form through ink, brush, crayon and ceramic at a level rivalled only perhaps by the likes of Barbara Hepworth herself. This major exhibition, Human Landscapes, continues The Hepworth Wakefield’s dedication to ground-breaking artists and brings together the curatorial team Andrew Bonacina, Chief Curator at The Hepworth, with Mata Dziewanska, Curator and Head of Research at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw for a long overdue retrospective of Szapocznikow.
The show is split into three rooms that reference the progression of Szapocznikow’s career: first her traditional training as an an artist leading up to her return to Poland, second her dances with Pop-Art and Surrealism up until the late 60s where she was diagnosed with cancer, and finally the latter part of her career where her own body, and that of her son Piotr, featured extensively in her pursuit of understanding illness in the body.
In quite a remarkable turn of events, the sculpture Bird (1959) was a late addition to the show seen for the first time in 55 years. It was thought destroyed, lost or stolen until September 2017 and its display here at the Hepworth is its first UK showing to date. It is a daunting figure with a crude, corrupted form in an upright position facing into the gallery, yet Bird and all surrounding bronze sculptures in the room are both foreboding and filled with delicate beauty.
Szapocznikow’s early training enriched her hand and eye but the restraints of the Soviet era, coupled with her growing reputation and the expectance to adhere to communist funded commissions meant that it wasn’t until her relocation to Paris that she embraced her own body through her work.
The second of the three rooms features Szapocznikow’s fully functioning light sculptures made from molds of her face, lips and breasts. Her experimentation with resin and glass wool in works such as the multiple Lampe-Bouches [Illuminated Lips] (1966) is a precursor to Szapocznikow’s later practice in the following room. When the artist was diagnosed with cancer in 1969 she increasingly sought to explore the nature of her illness and its effects on her body and practice. Tumeurs personnifiés [Tumours Personified], (1971), a series of 14 miniature tumours in a faded, globular form in the final space is a prudent example of the artist’s late focus on a deeper knowledge of oneself and how to express the inexpressible through her art.
Each room is filled not only with Szapocznikow’s sculptures, drawings and photographs but also with archival footage of her studio and friends. This adds an unexpected dimension of empathy and intimacy to the exhibition. Photographs of the artist playfully wearing casts of her own sculptures are displayed throughout, making her figure a strong presence within the show.
The Hepworth displays Szapocznikow’s work in such an astute and fully conceived manner that you’d never expect this to be her first major UK retrospective. Credit is also due to VPPR, an all-women architectural group based in London who, specifically for the exhibition, created the architectural partitioning screens in each of the three rooms. The screens try to emote something of the collective trauma experienced by Szapocznikow and her family, survivors of both Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Throughout the exhibition you can faintly see through these lightly coloured screen: the shadow of the past looming as time moves forward.
Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes, The Hepworth Wakefield, 21 October 2017 – 28 January 2018.
Professor Griselda Pollock (University of Leeds) will be leading an afternoon of talks exploring Alina Szapocznikow’s place in the history of twentieth-century sculpture on 27 January 2017 at The Hepworth Wakefield.
Liam McCabe is a writer and curator based in Leeds.