Head ashtrays and pin-up body parts – Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes review
Source:theguardian Author:Skye Sherwin Date: 2017-10-25 Size:
Julie Christie’s pink mouth blooms in a glowing orb atop an elegant curving stem ……

‘A Janus-faced ashtray, filled with fag butt sludge’ … Cendrier de Célibataire I [The Bachelor’s Ashtray I] by Alina Szapocznikow, 1972. Coloured polyester resin and cigarette butts.Photograph: © ADAGP, Paris 2017

Julie Christie’s pink mouth blooms in a glowing orb atop an elegant curving stem. These Illuminated Lips, a 1966 series of lamp sculptures by the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, repeat in coloured polyester resin, varying from flesh tones to ice white against black. There are also lit-up nipples and rumpled amber-hued planes that resemble art nouveau glass light shades, petals and skin.

When Szapocznikow was making these forays into pliable industrial materials in her adopted city Paris, her work was frequently dismissed as simply sexy and narcissistic. She was more likely to use her own physique, though her collaboration with the movie star hints at her place in a switched-on circle that took in the artist Annette Messager and the cult film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

‘The sassy lamps start to conjure Nazi horror stories’ … Lampe-Bouche [Illuminated Lips], 1966, by Alina Szapocznikow. Coloured polyester resin, electrical wiring and metal. Photograph: © ADAGP, Paris 2017

After the artist’s death from breast cancer in 1972, the art historian Urszula Czartoryska wrote how, after seeing an early sculpture of her shapely leg, “we thought of the perfection of the anatomy, of flirtatiousness”. Another work from this time, Illuminated Woman, a skinny, near life-size plaster figure sporting a kind of strapless bikini of radiant, hot red resin, has a cartoonish, beach babe appeal. With her pin-up’s body parts fragmented into interior design, Szapocznikow was clearly setting her sights on sex and commodity, an update of the surrealist fetish object for the postwar consumer age.

Seen today however, in the context of the Hepworth Wakefield’s revelatory survey of her long-overlooked, searching, experimental output, even the artist’s most pop creations take on a darker tone. The sex always goes hand-in-hand with death; the present is freighted with the trauma of the past.

Rewind to the mid-1950s and things look completely different. Emerging from the sanctioned style of Soviet socialist realism, she started making huge semi-abstract bronzes like Maria Magdalena, a hulking amorphous thing, which seems to take shape, before our eyes, from primordial mud. Like other postwar artists, she has an acute awareness of the vulnerability of bodies, depicting them in fragments, half-formed and beset by change.

As a teenager, she survived the Ghetto, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, as well as TB thanks to an experimental antibiotic treatment. While she never spoke of these experiences, it’s hard, once you know the history, not to see them in her art. Even the sassy lamps start to conjure Nazi horror stories, like the ashtrays made from Jewish skin. In fact, in 1972 she cast the lower half of her head to create a Janus-faced ashtray, filled with fag butt sludge.

Illuminated Woman, 1966, by Alina Szapocznikow. Photograph: © ADAGP, Paris 2017

Szapocznikow would later recall how people struggled to square her earlier abstract sculpture, “so big, so ugly”, with their maker, who in photographs looks chic, petite and playful. Of course, she wanted to address how we feel, rather than how we look. When she moved to Paris she reached a decisive creative turning point, however, developing a kind of oblique self-portraiture, casting herself in polyester resin and using carcinogenic polyurethane.

The results are consistently arresting conflations of the elegant and grotesque. Full of lumps sprouting lips and nipples, her sculpture can recall the polymorphous perversity of Louise Bourgeois. The malleable resin suggests Eva Hesse’s eroding sculpture or Lynda Benglis’s pours. She didn’t know their art. Yet like them, she was searching for a new voice. “How can we express today?” she asked.

For Szapocznikow, polyester resin was the perfect up-to-the-minute material. Almost literally so: it demands fast treatment before it hardens. Like a photograph it registers the moment – the shape of a belly, a mouth – at a given point in time. And, as with the body, it’s destined to fade, a physical testament to passing years. It allowed her to both embrace the future and memorialise, a compelling tension that gains a horrible intensity after her 1969 diagnosis of breast cancer.

‘Some kind of monster egg-sac or cancer cells’ … Alina’s Funeral, 1970, by Alina Szapocznikow. Polyester resin, glass wool, photographs, wood, gauze, artist’s clothing. Photograph: National Museum in Krakow

While Szapocznikow’s work had dealt in beauty and abjection, the exhibition’s final, far more personal room, stages a battle with body horror. The bulging wall sculpture Alina’s Funeral (1970) suggests some kind of monster egg-sac or cancer cells. Up close it’s more like a burial mound: just discernible beneath browning, gelatinous resin are photos, pages from her art catalogues and her pyjamas. Recalling the broken statuary of fallen civilisations, Tumours Personified (1971) is the artist’s attempt to own the illness, with a scattering of head-size lumps, bearing her own face.

Such works become a kind of 20th-century take on vanitas painting, with their urgent reminders of the closeness of death and what we leave behind. The most poignant is a life cast of the artist’s teenage son. Long haired and naked he lies at a diagonal, suspended in space, recalling the dead Christ in Mary’s arms. This is a pieta minus the mother. The kicker though is how this beautiful, alabaster youth, rendered, not as he first appears in impermeable marble, but via two skin-thin polyester casts, has a body barely held together at the seams.

Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes is at the Hepworth Wakefield until 28 January.

[Editor] 姜鑫