I’ve decided to declare March Female Artist Month as there are many worthwhile Polish women artists to look at, and I realized that I’ve featured only male artists thus far. March seems like a good month because in Poland on March 8th we celebrate Women’s Day. It’s a controversial holiday left over from the communist times. On this day, men give women flowers and other little gifts. I’m sure you can imagine why it’s controversial. On the other hand, there are also many demonstrations and debates organized by feminists. My personal opinion is that if something gets people talking on such a hot topic, it can’t be that bad, and this holiday does just that every single year.
Anyway, I’ve decided to start off with an artist most, if not all, of you should be familiar with – Magdalena Abakanowicz. She’s probably the most famous Polish artist. Even most Polish people who don’t know a thing about art know who she is. What I’m including below is an essay I wrote in 2003 while studying at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago is a lucky city because in 2006, they got a permanent Abakanowicz installation (image below).
Sometime this month I’ll post an interview with Abakanowicz. Here’s my essay:
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Ninety-Five Figures from the Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures
I first saw Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Ninety-Five Figures from the Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures at the Cultural Center in Chicago in November 2000. I didn’t realize at the time, but the Ninety-Five Figures would have me thinking for the next three years. This piece consists of ninety-five headless and armless figures made of bronze. Their backs are hollow and the skin has a wrinkled texture to it.
Looking at this headless crowd, you can’t help but feel solitude as well as melancholy. It reminds me a little of Edward Hopper’s work, because in his paintings, there are people, but they are always alone, they never interact with one another. That is the feeling I get with Abakanowicz’s figures. It is a large crowd, overwhelming in mass because of the material, but it is a lonely crowd. In thinking of that, I started thinking of my everyday experiences. On my way to school or work, I pass many people, avoid them, but never really interact with them. In these large crowds of people, we are always alone.
That is a really sad and depressing thought. And I think that is why I have always thought about this exhibit. To have an image impact me so much emotionally is not an everyday occurrence. I mean, I look at a lot of great artwork, but I can honestly say, that there are only a few pieces that I think about constantly. I really enjoy when a piece overwhelms me and submerges me in an experience. That is exactly what Abakanowicz did for me.
Magdalena Abakanowicz was born in Falenty, Poland (near Warsaw) in 1930. (1) She grew up on her parents’ estate, spending most of her time making forms out of clay, stone, twigs, broken china, etc. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and graduated in 1954. (2) She has received honorary doctorate degrees from the Royal College of Art in London, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz, Poland. She has been a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland and a visiting professor at UCLA. (5)
First Abakanowicz was a painter, and then she became famous for her organic textile reliefs that “were expressive, monumental, and evocative of the human condition. Her use of natural materials was in response to the dire economic conditions in Poland, but her eloquent use of these materials imbued her textiles with great presence.” (4) Eventually, Abakanowicz started working with burlap, glue, resin, and sisal, then turned to casting in aluminum, and finally in bronze. “In her early bronzes, Abakanowicz created diverse forms that still relate to her organic sensibility.” (4)
Ninety-Five Figures in a Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures “reveal her ambivalence about crowds.” (3) Abakanowicz said, “I’m frightened by crowds of people, birds or even insects swarming in great masses. People in an airport, people on a metro or on a tram, can seem threatening, horrible, a brainless entity. Today we are pushed by quantity in general. I create these crowds of figures as a warning: they’re saying we are too many.” (3)
“Unable to think, fight, or even gesture, these anonymous husks of bodies become monuments to the mute human endurance of regimentation and repression so tragically characteristic of modern history.” (1) It is tempting to think that works such as these are commentaries on the oppressive life Abakanowicz experienced in Poland under the Nazis and then the Communists. But while she admits that her vision has been shaped by her life in a totalitarian society, she rejects constricted political readings of her sculpture and thinks of them in more universal terms. “If I talk about problems, it’s global,” she says. “Everything I do is about the human condition.” (1)
I’m not the only one who thinks Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is emotionally provocative and powerful. Kathy Zimmerer in her article on Abakanowicz says, “Abakanowicz’s work delves directly into the human sensibility. While mute, her figures resound with a raw emotion and power that is full of psychological tension.” (4) There are so many things you can read into this work. And I think that the artist intends on there being some ambiguity. She wants the viewer to bring into it of their own life, their own experience. Like I quoted earlier, she deals with the human condition, and we are all a part of that.
“Abakanowicz’s genius at gathering a group of figures and creating an eloquent whole is evident throughout her work, while her emphasis on individual personalities is stressed in their expressive surface textures and subtle poses.” (4)
Magdalena Abakanowicz has been rewarded a multitude of awards: Grand Prix of Sao Paulo Biennale in 1965, the Comandor Cross of the order of Polonia Restituta, Chevalier dans l’order des Arts et Lettres in Paris, the Leonardo da Vinci Prize in Mexico, and the Award for Distinction in Sculpture, granted by the Sculpture Center in New York. Her works are in many public collections, including the National Gallery in Washington, Nelson Atkins Museum in Missouri, the Seson Museum in Tokyo, Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Sun Jeu Museum of South Korea, the Reina Sofia Muzeum of Madrid, the Center of Modern Art in Warsaw, and the Museum of Modern Art in Seoul. (5, 2)
(1) Cateforis, David. “Magdalena Abakanowicz.” http://old.jccc.net/main/docs/news_entertainment/cec/gallery/htms/Abakanowicz.htm
(2) Przyuski, Alyssa D. “Magdalena Abakanowicz.” http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/a/d/adp132/3.htm
(3) Reif, Rita. “The Jackboot Has Lifted. Now the Crowds Crush.” The New York Times, June 3, 2001. http://abakanowicz.art.pl/times/index.html
(4) Zimmerer, Kathy. “Magdalena Abakanowicz.” http://artscenecal.com/ArticlesFile/Archive/Articles2001/Articles0301/MabakaniczA.html
(5) _______. “To the Rescue: Eight Artists in an Archive.” International Center of Photography. http://www.icp.org/exhibitions/to_the_rescue/artistbios.html
Images from Abakanowicz’s website.