Tag Archives: Female Artist Month

Feminism in Poland until 1989 and some “feminist” artists

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but I’ve been very busy. It’s amazing how I always think I have more time than I actually do. You’d think I’d learn at some point, but no… I still feel like maybe somehow I can squeeze more hours out of the day. Anyway, on to the post…

Feminism in Poland is divided into 7 waves. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the earlier waves as I’d like to tell you about modern feminism. The earlier waves assured women the right to an education and the right to vote (Nov. 28, 1918).

The 6th wave is from 1948-1989. After the end of WWII, the situation of Polish women differed from that of women in Western Europe and the U.S. Communist Poland propagated the emancipation of women at home and at work. This period was characterized by mass propaganda promoting gender equality and called women to join industrial manufacturing and collective farming (popular slogan of the times: Women on tractors!).

The peak of the sixth wave was the legalization of abortion by the Sejm in 1956, which was accompanied by “pro-abortion” propaganda and heated debates with Catholic groups. After that, feminism in Poland pretty much ceased to exist (until 1989), because authorities deemed that they fulfilled all the requirements of feminism. The fact is that the legalization of abortion took place in communist Poland almost 20 years earlier than the US and France (but later than in the Scandinavian countries).

Formally, gender equality was guaranteed, and sexual education was being gradually introduced in primary schools. Contraceptives were also legalized. However, in practice, gender equality existed only theoretically. Any sort of debate on the problems and issues of women’s rights was forbidden. Any contact with “western” feminism was also forbidden (as a result ideas of feminism reached Poland only after 1989). Communism only tolerated “limited” official feminism, mostly aimed at propagating removing the burden of the family and household, and active participation in the workforce. This, of course, was also in theory, as Poland was and is a patriarchal society, and women were (and are) still responsible for childcare (despite the proliferation of public child care facilities) and household duties.

Some “feminist” artists associated with these times often focused on the body and female sexuality. Some artists worth checking out are:

Natalia Lach-Lachowicz whose “consumption” series of photographs and films evoke comparisons to pornographic advertisements and introduce a discursive tone to the rigid view of women.

“Consumption” series. http://nataliall.com/

Maria Pinińska-Bereś created soft, organic forms with erotic sounds and in candy pink colors evoking the aura of the boudoir – the contractual place of pleasure and erotic kitsch produced by urban culture.

Ewa Partum did performances. She would show up on the street nude. She organized street interventions and actions calling women liberate themselves from married slavery. She ran a “flying gallery” and published manifests until the 1980s when she left Poland.

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Female Artist Month – Magdalena Abakanowicz

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)

Bibliography

(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.

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