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Since the early 1980s, the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. 1930) has gained worldwide acclaim for her role in the revival of figuration in late-twentieth-century sculpture. Her cycles of headless, hollow, and crude burlap crowds of the mid-1970s and the 1980s, exhibited in major museums across America, Europe, and Asia, are roundly praised for their expressive power and innovative form.
In this first scholarly art historical analysis of Abakanowicz's figurative sculpture, Joanna
Inglot penetrates the myth of isolation that surrounds and obscures this internationally celebrated artist to disclose the artistic, sociopolitical, and cultural context in which Abakanowicz has lived and worked.
Examining Abakanowicz's representations of the human body from the fiber works of the 1960s known as Abakans through her War Games and outdoor environments of the 1980s and early 1990s,
Inglot shows how these works engage the international art scene and the figurative sculpture of postwar Poland, and how they reflect a particular generation's experience of war and communism. With reference to Abakanowicz's use of national symbols and ceremonies drawn from the public and political discourse of the 1970s and 1980s,
Inglot explains the complexity of the artist's attitudes toward contemporary politics and the troubled history of her native country.
Inglot clearly locates Abakanowicz as a major contemporary sculptor whose works have embodied innovations in style and media and reflected important sociopolitical issues.
THE POLISH CULTURAL MILIEU FROM 1945 TO 1960
When the war ended in 1945, Abakanowicz's family left the outskirts of Warsaw and settled in the small city of Tczew near Gdansk, in northern Poland, where they could start a new life. Their move to the Baltic coast was precipitated by the difficult sociopolitical circumstances they found themselves in during the early years of the Communist takeover of Poland. Almost immediately, the Communists declared many landowners "enemies of the people," confiscated all their property, and forced them to move away from their estates. Already in July 1944, the Polish Provisional Government, which was controlled by the Communists, issued a proclamation of radical land reform to be implemented on the territories liberated from the Nazi occupation. As the new authorities established themselves in the area around Warsaw, they took over large and medium landholdings and instigated a ruthless agrarian revolution, which made it impossible for the Abakanowicz family to reclaim their property.
Like many other people of similar background, Magdalena's parents moved to the territories vacated by the fleeing German population, where they were able to find a place to live and work. In this new environment, it was easier to hide their true identity and to avoid political harassment. Abakanowicz recalls that her father believed that they should all adapt to these circumstances and support the changes imposed by the new regime. Carefully hiding his background, he managed to get a post as a supervisor in the regional department of agriculture, and later, together with Magdalena's mother, Helena Domaszowska, he also ran a small newspaper kiosk to support his family.
Abakanowicz completed part of her high school education in the gimnazjum in Tczew from 1945 to 1947; then she went to Gdynia for two additional years of art school at the Liceum Sztuk Plastycznych w Gdyni. Two of her classmates from Tczew, Janina Pilowska-Wlostocka and Janina's brother Jerzy Wojte, who was then Abakanowicz's boyfriend, remember that already in high school Magdalena showed talent in art and that she used to make small sculptures as gifts for her friends. Jerzy Wojte maintains that Abakanowicz dreamed then of becoming an artist. This desire crystallized during her studies in Gdynia, especially when she took a school trip to the southwestern city of Wroclaw in 1948 to see the widely advertised "Exhibit of the Regained Territories" (Wystawa Ziem Odzyskanych). This show was organized by the authorities as a historical, political, and economic overview of Poland's triumphant acquisition of the former German territories in the west, but it also became one of the most important manifestations of avant-garde trends in art after the war. There, for the first time, Abakanowicz saw large-scale installations designed by such prominent Polish artists as Henryk Stazewski and Stanislaw Zamecznik, whom she befriended in later years, and encountered innovative multimedia works incorporating nontraditional materials such as ropes, railroad tracks, and pieces of coal. This experience greatly impressed the young Abakanowicz and awakened her passion for modern art.
Immediately after her graduation from the Liceum in 1949, Abakanowicz entered the Gdansk Academy of Fine Arts, located then in the nearby resort town of Sopot. Later known as the Sopot School, this institution was established in 1945 by a group of artists who sought to create a new interdisciplinary art program based on a close interaction among painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, and interior design. The trademark of the Sopot School was its emphasis on the colorist tradition, which strongly influenced all of the disciplines taught there, especially ceramics and textile design, two areas for which the school became well known. The experimental work in ceramics was directed by Hanna Zulawska, who promoted application of colorful glazes in a gestural and expressionistic way. Textile design, taught by Józefa Wnuk, was treated as a monumental form of painting. Wnuk initiated the production of brightly colored, semi-abstract, biomorphic paintings on large fabrics that she and her students often exhibited hanging freely outdoors.
Abakanowicz maintains that she wanted to study sculpture in Sopot but was denied this opportunity because her sculpture instructor, Adam Smolana, declared that she "did not have a feeling for form" and relegated her to study other disciplines. Such an unequivocal verdict from the leading authority on sculpture, she says, discouraged her from pursuing this medium for years. But even if Abakanowicz secretly longed to work in sculpture, in Sopot she became deeply engaged in the study of textile design. The large painted fabrics promoted by Józefa Wnuk, in particular, fascinated her and became an important resource for her in the 1950s. Most important, however, the Sopot experience taught Abakanowicz to think of art as a free and flexible process in which she could move easily from one medium to another or combine media in inventive ways. Such an open and experimental approach gave her courage to break the rigid disciplinary boundaries, an attitude that came to typify her art throughout her life.
Abakanowicz stayed at the Sopot School for a year; then, in 1950, she transferred to the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She knew that living and studying in the capital would provide her with greater opportunities as an artist. Indeed, next to Kraków, Warsaw was the most important cultural center in Poland. Its stature as an artistic hub grew rapidly after World War II as prominent intellectuals, writers, and artists converged there, supporting the reconstruction of the nation's capital, which had been devastated by the war.
Certainly, the war had brought catastrophic destruction to all Eastern and Central Europe, but the extent of Poland's devastation was unparalleled. Over 80 percent destroyed, Warsaw was the most ruined city in Europe. Restoration of the war-torn country and its demolished capital became a common goal, pursued with determination by the entire society. It also constituted one of the most urgent propaganda objectives of the Polish Communist leaders, who, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, tried to rally national support for the Moscow-backed government. Reconstruction of Warsaw became for them an important phase in the creation of a new political system, a powerful symbol of the "construction of socialism." Indeed, the Communists staged regular propaganda campaigns to mobilize the population to participate in the process of reconstructing Warsaw. Ubiquitous slogans, such as "The entire nation builds its capital city" or "Working for Warsaw is a point of honor and duty of every Pole," successfully aimed at instilling a sense of moral obligation and evoking the spirit of national integration in support of the regime's policies.
The socialist ideas were especially appealing to intellectuals and artists, who saw themselves at the forefront of this new historic process. The intelligentsia in Poland, as in other Eastern European countries, had been disillusioned with the pre-World War II reality, especially the failure of previous regimes to promote social equality and to protect the national interest. Soon after the war, numerous artists, scholars, and thinkers, especially of the younger generation, embraced the Marxist-Leninist ideology. They strongly believed that after the defeat of the Nazis only the leftwing progressive forces would be able to abolish injustices of the past, foster progress, and create a better social system. The Communist leadership, in turn, stressed the pivotal importance of artists and intellectuals for its planned sociopolitical and cultural change. Hoping to play a leading role in building a new society, the Polish intelligentsia responded to the call of making art more accessible to the masses. Although this postwar wave of enthusiasm for the idea of "mass-oriented" culture was brief, it nevertheless affected the creation and consolidation of many artistic circles in Warsaw in the early 1950s.
Abakanowicz's decision to move to Poland's capital was to a large extent motivated by the appeal of this new cultural climate. Recalling her enthusiasm about these years, Abakanowicz stated that "everything was boiling there," so many artists and intellectuals were moving to Warsaw at that time and she wanted to be part of all this. Despite her family background and the hardships she had experienced as a result of the Communist takeover, Abakanowicz was supportive of the regime. Like many young Polish artists at that time, she embraced the Marxist vision of an egalitarian community. She saw in socialism the means of achieving a new and superior social order that would prevent a recurrence of recent tragic historical events.
But as much as the idea of living in Warsaw while a new political system was forming excited the young artist, her everyday life there was extremely difficult. Living on her own, she could count only on minimal support from her impoverished parents and a small stipend from school. Moreover, in October 1950, at the very outset of Abakanowicz's studies, the Communist government introduced a radical currency reform that substantially devalued individual savings and led to the pauperization of large segments of the society. Like many other students in Warsaw, she had to divide her time among long hours of classes, mandatory political activities in Communist organizations, and a range of menial jobs. At the same time, she had to endure the stress of constantly hiding her family history-for she knew that the discovery of her heritage and association with Piotr Abakanowicz could result in expulsion from the Academy. This experience was probably a large factor in Abakanowicz's subsequent efforts to reinvent herself and to conceal the details of her early years, as she herself admitted in an interview with Michael Brenson: "This was a very difficult moment because we, as a family, lost our identity. We were deprived of our social position and we were, like, thrown out of society. We were punished for being rich. So I had to hide my background. I had to lie. I had to invent."
The Academy of Fine Arts was not what she expected, either. Abakanowicz entered the Warsaw Academy at the worst possible time in Polish postwar history. The period of her studies there, 1950 to 1954, coincided with the most severe Stalinist oppression and the attempted imposition of Socialist Realism in the arts. The Stalinist leaders of Eastern Europe, in accordance with the Soviet model, staged total transformations of their societies. In theory, Stalin's propaganda extolled "people's democracies," but in reality the power was monopolized by the Communist Party and its self-selecting leadership. The Communists placed special emphasis on reconstruction and reform of culture and education. Stalin, like Lenin before him, aimed at subordinating the arts to the needs and demands of the party and using them for political agitation, which he achieved by imposing the Socialist Realist doctrine.
The first measure to impose this dogma came in 1932 in the Soviet Union, when Stalin's regime dissolved all existing literary and artistic groups and replaced them with the Artists' Union, designed to control all cultural matters. Socialist Realism was officially proclaimed in Moscow two years later, at the first Congress of Soviet Writers. Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary of the Communist Party under Stalin, announced that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable artistic form for Soviet art and literature, and defined it as a "true and historically concrete depiction of reality in its revolutionary development ... combined with the task of educating workers in the spirit of Communism." Equating art with party propaganda, Zhdanov ensured the party's right to intervene directly in cultural matters and control them. His decrees had a paralyzing effect on all creative work in the Soviet Union throughout the 1930s. The strict imposition of monolithic views on art intensified after World War II, when these ideas were also forced upon the Soviet-dominated countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
In Poland, Socialist Realism (realizm socialistyczny) was proclaimed as a cultural dogma in 1949. It was first discussed at the Conference of Artists, Architects, and Critics in the small town of Nieborów outside of Warsaw on February 12-13, when the vice-minister of art and culture, Wlodzimierz Sokorski, together with the rector of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, Juliusz Starzynski, introduced its fundamental concepts and goals. The conference created controversy among artists and critics, but this did not stop the implementation of the program. The formal acceptance of Socialist Realism in Poland was announced only two months later at the Fourth General Meeting of the Union of Polish Artists in Katowice. Vice-minister Sokorski stipulated the philosophical underpinnings of this new policy, stressing that the goals of "socialist society" could be expressed and realized only in ideologically charged realist art. He also declared that cultural policies would be supervised centrally by the Ministry of Art and Culture. The goal was not only to control the development of Socialist Realism but also to ensure that Polish art followed the canons established in the Soviet Union.
The premise of Socialist Realism was that art should be "national in form" and "socialist in content" in all Soviet bloc countries. These concepts were never clearly defined, but the general understanding was that art should reflect the ideology of the Communist Party in a style that was based on the local national tradition and not on Western cultural influences. Modernism in art was categorized as "bourgeois" and "cosmopolitan," and condemned as harmful to the Marxist-Leninist order. In 1949 Jerzy Albrecht, the head of the Department of Propaganda, Culture, and Education of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, summarized this view in an article published in the official Cominform journal: "The sharpening struggle between the forces of progress, peace, and socialism, led by the Soviet Union, and the imperialist camp has faced us with the urgent task of fighting cosmopolitanism in culture, for it is with the help of this weapon that American imperialism hopes to weaken the people ideologically."
Excerpted from The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz by JOANNA INGLOT Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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