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//Szapocznikow opining her Eyes to the real World// Agata Jakubowska

Szapocznikow opining her Eyes to the real World Agata Jakubowska

In 1963, Alina Szapocznikow decided to leave Warsaw and settle in Paris. She always gave the same reason – the technical possibilities available in France were much bigger, and she had been experimenting with new materials since the beginning of the 1960s. Afterwards, ‘“She did not justify her living in Paris by saying that she needed the artistic atmosphere of this city”, as recalls Andrzej Wajda, her friend. ... “It was a trip to a place where they could cast any form you wished in colourful plastic”’[1].

Szapocznikow did not do so well in Paris. She even thought about going back to Poland, which would have been relatively easy since she had never officially emigrated, keeping her Warsaw flat and studio. Her first success and her partner’s Roman Cieslewicz co-operation with the French ‘Elle’ made her stay in Paris. The success came in 1965, when she received an award from The Copley Foundation. She received it, among other works, for the Goldfinger, created the same year. It was her first piece that clearly referred to popular culture, more precisely to the third film of the James Bond series under the same title (directed by Guy Hamilton, starring Sean Connery).

The movie was shot and had its international premiere in 1964, and in February the following year it was released in cinemas in France. We do not know whether Szapocznikow saw this production. Her son, Piotr, certainly did, because he mentioned it in a letter to his father, Ryszard Stanislawski. The artist did encounter the advertising campaign, which, as usual for this series, was quite large-scale. All posters, including those in France, included the same motif: a picture of a naked woman covered in gold. Incidentally, the main villain in this movie is Auric Goldfinger, a gold smuggler. James Bond tries to prevent him from robbing Fort Knox (the US gold depository). At the beginning of the story, Goldfinger’s co-worker becomes Bond’s lover, for which she is punished in a very sophisticated manner: the murderers cover her body with gold and she suffocates. This scene, although it has virtually no impact on the plot, became immensely popular, in part because the creators decided to use the motif of a girl painted in golden colours to promote the movie. It appeared both on posters and in the opening credits which were, it should be said, quite evocative. They form a sort of a video clip for the song performed by Shirley Bassey, in which movie scenes are displayed not so much on the screen but on the gold-painted female body.

Szapocznikow then returned to the motif of a female body painted in gold in another piece, when she worked on the cast of her own leg. She had prepared the cast already in 1962 in Warsaw, but it seems that back then she had not been sure how to use it. Several years later, however, she cast the leg in bronze, partially covered it with patina, and polished a part of the hip and foot. In this way, she obtained a sort of a giant gadget.

Both works were presented at Szapocznikow’s first solo exhibition organised after she had left Poland. It took place in 1967, in Galerie Florence Huston Brown in Paris, and then in Zacheta in Warsaw. The artist also displayed lamps that she had made a year earlier, using a lip cast to create a small lampshade. The audience at the Galerie Florence liked the lamps so much that Szapocznikow received numerous orders that she tried to fulfil by organising a kind of small scale production line.

The lamps did not meet with comparable enthusiasm in Warsaw. It seems important though that their titles differed. In France, they were called Lampe-bouche, in Poland Usta iluminowane (Illuminated Lips). We can see how the utility aspect was marginalised in the Polish version. One of Szapocznikow’s friends, Andrzej Oseka, said after she had died, ‘I did not trust these innovations, I found them unnecessary’[2]. This attitude is characteristic of the way in which Szapocznikow’s work was received in Poland in the second half of the 1960s and also to Polish modernity as such, with its clear and resolute aversion to mass culture.

Obviously, Pierre Restany, the curator of the Parisian exhibition and author of the catalogue text, did not have such objections. He praised the change he noticed in Szapocznikow’s work, turning away from dramatic expressionism. ‘It seems that the artist is slowly emerging from her long suffering, from the nightmare of war and camps: she seems to be opening up towards life, towards an objective and calm awareness of the world. ... In 1967 in Paris, amidst a certain cycle of growing – delayed perhaps by the burden of psychological obstacles that she needed to overcome – Alina Szapocznikow is, to my mind, joining the regrettably small group of César’s and Delahaye’s, the most brilliant art talents of the second post-war generation’[3].

In the following months, Szapocznikow went in the direction recommended by Restany. The lamps made her start to think about constructing art objects which would also serve as items of everyday use. The artist started working on her Souvenirs, pictures of her friends and film starts, for instance Monica Vitti, embedded in polyester. A picture from the artist’s archive shows one of the Souvenirs as a table decoration, leaving no doubt as to how she wanted them to be treated. She also created pillows from stomach casts and she wanted to produce them on a wider scale. It seems that Szapocznikow was thinking about exploiting the rising interest in her designs. Restany said that ‘nothing could stop this process’ but, as I will explain shortly, he was wrong.

At the exhibition organised in late autumn of 1968 in Brussels, Galerie Cogeime, Szapocznikow presented works that were completely different from the ones to which her audience was starting to get used to. The gallery displayed Expansions, a series of casts of body parts – stomach, legs (whole or knees), torso – made from polyester and embedded in a black, polyurethane substance. This substance has several important characteristics; it rises very fast and it is impossible to fully control its shape.

Trying to describe what happened in Szapocznikow’s art in this period, Pierre Restany, writing for the exhibition catalogue, said that ‘Alina Szapocznikow’s vision attained the higher level, letting the decorative aspect yield to the breath of cosmic energies’. When discussing the polyester torso immersed in black polyurethane, he noticed that it was ‘a night from which a woman emerges’[4]. Shortly after Szapocznikow had died, Pierre Descargues wrote about these works referring to the mud of Hiroshima[5]. This metaphor is still very much alive today, offering a striking comparison, if we consider the unique meaning of Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima mon amour (1959), both in its visual aspect and in the narrative juxtaposition of a contemporaneous story and memories of what happened during the war (in Nevers). However, at that time Hiroshima was not a point of reference for Szapocznikow.

The period between the two exhibitions was marked with momentous historic events: May 1968, Polish March 1968, the Prague Spring and the invasion of Warsaw Pact’s armies on the Czech Republic. In March 1968, Alina Szapocznikow, Jewish of origin, prisoner of ghettos and camps, was in Poland. Her friends remember how frightened she was of the growing anti-Semitic campaign, some even claim that she asked them to hide her. Eventually she came back to Paris safe. She returned to Poland a year later, mostly just to finally settle her affairs. She applied for French citizenship, granted in 1972. The repercussions of this traumatic experience can be traced in her works.

In the context of March 1968, the black polyurethane substance may be interpreted as anti-Semitism, once again spreading in Poland. It is not a night from which, as Restany says, a women emerges, but lava that devours the once-shining female form. In 1967, Restany wrote, ‘Szapocznikow will probably need a lot of time to fully tear apart the stormy curtains of her inner world. But the first step was taken and nothing could stop this process now’[6]. March 1968 did.

Szapocznikow still maintained her dialogue with popular culture, but a dark shadow started haunting her art. The idea that she proposed in 1972 within the Operazione Vesuvio project in Naples is a perfect example of this trend. Szapocznikow wanted to organise an ice rink at the bottom of the volcano crater, where people could relax to the sound of On the Hills of Manchuria, a waltz. This piece was composed by participants of the bloody battle that ended the Russo-Japanese war in order to commemorate its victims. Let us quote the artist’s own words, ‘If one day at a figure skating contest the Peggy Fleming of the moment performs her programme in a frozen crater and if us, viewers, thrilled by her magnificent and frail pirouettes, will be surprised with a sudden eruption of lava and will be buried forever like the people of Pompeii, the triumph of the moment and passing time will be complete’[7].

[1] A. Wajda, Alina Szapocznikow (1926–1973), in: Zatrzymac zycie. Alina Szapocznikow. Rysunki i rzezby, [exh. cat.[, IRSA Fine Art Gallery, Krakow – Warsaw 2004, p. 131.

[2] A. Oseka, Alina Szapocznikow, ‘Kultura’ 1973, no. 12, p. 12.

[3] P. Restany, Forma miedzy cialem a gra, in: Alina Szapocznikow. Rzezba, [exh. cat.], Zacheta, Warsaw 1967.

[4] P. Restany, La nature moderne est l’amour, in: Alina Szapocznikow [exh. cat.], Galerie Cogeime, Brussels 1968, n. pag.

[5] Quoted after Alina Szapocznikow 1926-1973, [exh. cat.], Zacheta, Warsaw 1998, p. 39.

[6] P. Restany, Forma miedzy cialem a gra, op.cit.

[7] A. Szapocznikow, Slizgawka w kraterze Wezuwiusza, in: Alina Szapocznikow 1926-1973, op.cit., p. 162.

Agata Jakubowska (born 1972) – curator, art historian, professor at the Department of Art History at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. Author of books: Na marginesach lustra. Cialo kobiece w pracach polskich artystek, Portret wielokrotny dziel Aliny Szapocznikow, Alina Szapocznikow: Awkard Objects, Artystki polskie and many other texts as a feature writer. Member of the Poznan Society of Friends of Science, Polish Association of Art Historians, AICA, European Network for Avant garde and Modernism Studies.