The Polish Artist Who Redefined Contemporary Sculpture

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Magdalena Abakanowicz in her worshop, aprox. 1968
Magdalena Abakanowicz in her worshop, aprox. 1968 r. (in the background, “Yellow II”, 1967-1968.)Courtesy of the artist's archive

Haunted by her experience of war, Magdalena Abakanowicz sought to shine a light on some of the darkest and most terrifying aspects of humanity

Who? Born into a noble family known to have been direct descendants of Genghis Khan, Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) could not have known that her world would soon be shattered with the outbreak of the Second World War. Not only did she live through the devastating attacks on her own city of Warsaw, but she also witnessed a personal tragedy when drunken German soldiers attacked her home and shot her mother, severing her right arm.

Following the conflict Poland was placed under communist rule and Abakanowicz adopted an alias (she was born Marta) in order to shield her privileged birth and gain access to an art education. Unsurprisingly, her studies were fraught with anxiety as she tried to realise her creativity under the oppressive ‘approved style’ of Socialist Realism. Despite this overbearing pressure, the artist soon developed a complex visual vocabulary that reimagined how sculpture and textiles could coexist. “Her contribution to the language of sculpture is huge,” says Maria Rus Bojan, the co-curator of Abakanowicz’s enormous retrospective across Wroclaw, West Poland. The city holds the largest collection of the artist’s work in the world, almost entirely due to the unwavering support of Mariusz Hermansdorfer, who was the artist’s friend, collaborator and former director of the National Museum.

The decision to bring over 120 of her works to various locations throughout the city was one that Abakanowicz and Hermansdorfer had discussed at length prior her death earlier this year, but it was only following the appointment of Rus Bojan (who co-curates alongside Hermansdorfer) that the programme could become fully realised. “Abakanowicz is the most important female artist to come out of Eastern Europe in the last 50 years, and this is the city’s tribute,” she tells me. “She was interested in conveying our conditions as humans in the world.”

What? The sheer scale of the artist’s work is astounding. From early on she began producing enormous sculptural forms woven from burlap, hemp and horsehair, labelled ‘Abakans’ after her own name. These enormous masses are both overwhelming and meditative; they explore utilitarian materials and push them to a new, elevated realm. Later, she moved on to figures – nearly always in groups – which create a ghostly imprint that inhabit both positive and negative space. The roughly formed shapes seem fluid yet weighed down, and the headless masses immediately call to mind the faceless crowds of communism’s collective consciousness.

The most heart-wrenching display, called Bambini, has been installed outside the newly opened Dworcowa Gallery, which is housed inside the city’s railway station and functions as the main site for the exhibition. Here 83 smaller humanoid figures stand on a grassy bank, in a ragged formation. The piece pays tribute to the Jewish children who were deported from the city during wartime, but froze to death during the journey.

With such disturbing context it is fair to say that Abakanowicz’s work is not for the fainthearted. Her armies of anonymous characters and colossal organic forms lock your gaze and invite you to examine every fold, crease and curve, but they are infused with a brutality and unease that rejects the notion of a pleasing aesthetic object. Her interrogation of human suffering is crystallised by Hermansdorfer: “Abakanowicz rejects everything that is beautiful and decorative, all wrappings and camouflage. She strips down layer after layer as if flaying a man.”

Why? Until now the full extent of Abakanowicz’s contribution to the chronicles of contemporary sculpture has been somewhat overlooked, but by displaying so many works in close proximity, her influence is unmistakable. Her mark can be seen in the practices of Antony Gormley, Kader Attia and Doris Salcedo, as well as younger Eastern European artists such as Catalin Badarau. The ghosts of collective grief may have inspired Abakanowicz, but her sculptures now carry her own spectre within them too.

Effigies of Life: A Tribute To Magdalena Abakanowicz is in Wroclaw, Poland, until 25 August, 2017, supported by Irmina Nazar and Artur Trawinski’s ArtEast Foundation.