Polish abstract sculptor and weaver Magdalena Abakanowicz (born 1930) is considered by critics to be one of the most extraordinary creative artists in the world. A pioneer in her field, her work has been featured in more than a hundred group shows and forty solo exhibitions, and is on display in over forty museums including Warsaw, Amsterdam, Germany, New York, Brazil, Japan, Paris, and Chicago.
Magdalena Abakanowicz was born on June 20, 1930, in Falenty, Poland eight miles west of Warsaw. Her father was Konstanty Abakanowicz, a Russian Tartar descendant of Abaka–Khan—great–grandson of Genghis Khan—who fled to Poland to escape the Bolshevik revolutions. Her mother was Helena Domaszowska Abakanowicz, descended from the Polish nobility and one in a long line of Polish aristocrats. The second of two daughters, Magdalena's mother had desperately wanted a son, and Magdalena always felt that she was a great disappointment in that regard. Abakanowicz was raised in a thirty–two room mansion on a country estate in eastern Poland, and her elevated social class isolated her from other children and her parents.
Surrounded by servants and tutors, Abakanowicz struggled with a deep loneliness which she held at bay by spending the majority of her waking hours communing with the natural world in the ancient woods and fields that surrounded her home. She later wrote a prose poem titled Portrait X 20 that described her fascination with the cohesive connections between the flora and fauna she encountered, and her desire to be included in that cosmic unity. When she was not being drilled by tutors or cared for by servants, she ran wild in the forests, striving to feel at home among the gnarled, towering trees and soft, vibrant vegetation.
Abakanowicz's life of privilege ended abruptly in 1939, when German Nazis invaded Poland. She was nine years old when the tanks rolled onto her parents' estate grounds, and the woods and fields she had sought refuge in became a war zone crawling with soldiers and thieves. Her father quickly joined the Polish Resistance, and their home acted as a refuge for partisans and Jews. The young girl learned how to assemble and shoot a gun, but as she mentioned in Barbara Rose's 1994 biography Abakanowicz, losing the forests left her feeling "hollow, as if [her] insides had been removed and the exterior, unsupported by anything, shrank, losing its form." In 1943, a drunken Wehrmacht soldier broke into their home and shot Abakanowicz's mother right before her eyes—the bullet severing her mother's right arm at the shoulder. At the end of World War II, Abakanowicz and her family found themselves permanently exiled by the encroaching German forces, and fled to Warsaw.
While living in Warsaw, Abakanowicz's family had to keep their aristocratic background hidden. They were classified as enemies of the people because of their previous wealth, and had to sell everything they owned on the black market to avoid suspicion. Abakanowicz's parents opened a modest newspaper stand and did their best to keep their affluent heritage a secret. In August and September of 1944, Warsaw was rocked and decimated by a bloody uprising. A fourteen–year–old Abakanowicz watched women and children being strapped to tanks and used as human shields. She served as a nurse's assistant in a makeshift clinic, and was exposed to the broken and damaged bodies of the patients who were treated there—imprinted with images of death and disfigurement that would inform her art later in life.
In 1947, Poland was occupied by the liberating efforts of the Soviet army, and Communist representatives took over the Polish government. Abakanowicz wanted to study art, but to do so she had to convince her parents and fight the ban that had been imposed by Stalin against the previously wealthy attending universities. In 1949, she lied about her family history with the blessing of her parents, and was admitted into an art school in Sopot on the Baltic coast.
Although Abakanowicz began her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sopot, a year later, in 1950, she transferred to the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and remained there until 1955. She lived with various families who were willing to house students and supported herself and her education by selling her blood, a pint every two weeks, as well as performing multiple odd jobs such as coaching athletes, cleaning the streets, small construction, and all–night shifts holding a lamp for men repairing streetcar lines. Her artistic education coincided with the period in which Social Realism was both popular and expected. Propaganda art featuring paintings of happy peasants smiling as they worked was prevalent, and despite the distaste Abakanowicz had for the artistic work of the time, she knew she must persevere and obtain a degree if she wanted to enter the Polish Artists' Union and work as a sculptor someday.
The young artist was unable to study sculpture right away, and initially focused on painting. Her nonrealistic images, however, offended her teachers who believed that the purpose of art was to help build a perfect society. Hoping to exercise the freedom to truly express herself in this repressive atmosphere, she gravitated towards textile work and weaving, a low–visibility and traditionally female medium which allowed her to experiment without attracting the wrong kind of attention. Abakanowicz graduated with a M.A. from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 1955, and began to pursue a career as a working artist. On September 22, 1956, Abakanowicz married civil engineer Jan Kosmowski, who remains a loving partner and presently acts as her business manager, engineering consultant, and photographer. 1957 saw an influx of creative energy in Warsaw, and Abakanowicz attended gatherings of artists, intellectuals, scientists, and politicians in the one–room apartment of Constructivist painter Henryk Stazewski. She thought of this as her true schooling, and found the company both challenging and inspiring.
Life as an Artist
In the Spring of 1960, Abakanowicz was granted her first one–woman show at Galerie Kordegarda, in Warsaw. Just hours before opening, however, a government official demanded that it be shut down due to the abstract nature of the pieces Abakanowicz had prepared. Seasoned weaver and tapestry artist Maria Laszkiewicz had come to view the exhibit, and although no one was allowed to enter the building, she saw some of Abakanowicz's pieces through an open window. She was so impressed with the work that she took the young artist under her wing, allowing Abakanowicz to work in her basement studio for many years. In 1962, Laszkiewicz entered Abakanowicz in the First International Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne, Switzerland.
At the Biennial, Abakanowicz entered a group of textile objects that were awarded a category of their own by the judges because they did not fit into any of the show's established groups. People began calling them Abakans—based on the artist's name—because they defied categorization. The structures were assembled from pieces and hung from the ceiling to create a uniquely expressive environment. The Abakans were unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Viewers and critics alike stumbled over images and words in an attempt to describe their powerful effect. In a single 1995 Art Journal review, the Abakans were likened to "cocoons," "underwater vegetation," "rain–swollen clouds," "cloaks," "chambers," "forests," "shells." They created a wave of interest that swept the international artistic community, and effectively launched her career as a ground–breaking artist.
In 1965, Abakanowicz became a member of Z.A.I.K.S.—the Union of Polish Artists, Writers and Composers. She also obtained a position as an instructor at the National College of Fine Art in Poznah. She rose to the level of associate professor in 1974, and full professor in 1979. She remained until 1990, when she retired from teaching to devote her full energy to her own work. Abakanowicz made it clear that she would never abandon her native country of Poland, regardless of the difficulties of working in a post–Solidarity culture. She always faced the economic and environmental challenges with determination and patience, standing in line for meat and dealing with rationing along with other Polish housewives. It is an exceedingly bureaucratic trial to travel and work outside the country, but she feels infinitely at home in Poland, and believes that living there colors her work.
Many critics feel that Abakanowicz's isolated, provincial upbringing provided an artistic sensibility rooted in magic and myth rather than modernity. Her art has been described as abiding in the spaces between organic and man–made, life and death, creation and destruction, wisdom and madness, dream and reality. The group, crowd, parade, and tribe are a recurring theme in her work, with each individual piece cast from the same mold, then enhanced until it is slightly irregular. When displayed together, some viewers find that they express an essential humanity, while others find them terrifying and anonymous. Abakanowicz personally controls where and how her art is shown, always installing the pieces herself so that the result is site–specific, utilizing the space the pieces are placed in as an integral part of the overall expression. The end product is described by the Smithsonian's John Dornberg as "haunting, anguished, personal art charged with energy and emotions that jar the senses." Although most critics agree that the pieces operate as powerful, emotional structures that relate to the world we live in and the shape, unreliability, and tensions of the human body, the 1997 Chambers Biographical Dictionary also labels the exhibitions as "primitive and disturbing."
Abakanowicz's better known works include Abakans and Black Garment (1969), Heads (1975), Seated Figures (1974–1979), Backs and Embryology—described by the November 1993 issue of Artforum International as "A morass of 600 hand–stitched elements made of burlap, cotton, gauze, hemp, nylon, and sisal, shaped like boulders, stones and pebbles, [and] arranged to allow the viewer to walk among [them] . . . like swaddling clothes for invisible babies, these elements formed a distressing pile of organic structures, thrown on top of each other as if in a collective grave" (1978–1981), Katharsis (1985), Incarnations (1986), War Games—misfit trees deemed too irregular for wood, and too dangerous to be left standing by the side of the road, salvaged and made into art, Trunks, Arboreal Architecture, Wheel and Rope, Marrow Bone, Negev (1987), Space of Dragon (1988), Zyk, Winged Trunk, Anasta (1989), Great Ursa, Infantes, Circus, Puellae—a host of headless, bronze figures lined up "as if facing a mass execution or awaiting a roll call" according to the Artforum International review (1992), Hand–like Trees—which, according to the January 1997 issue of Art in America featured "stubby fingers spreading open in a helpless gesture of entreaty or closed tight in fists against the sky evok[ing] a voiceless cry protesting the injustice of the universe" (1992–1993), and Unrecognized (2002). Each piece, as well as each series or cycle, requires years of work. Embryology took four years to complete, while Seated Figures and Backs took five and six years, respectively.
The Greatest Risk
Abakanowicz remains one of the cutting–edge artists of the times. She is eclectic and outspoken, a physically robust and emotionally vibrant individual. She also prefers to leave the meaning of her art up to the psyche of each viewer, and never explains her art. She told the Smithsonian's Dornberg that "people today are afraid to judge or understand such objects in their own way. We have got accustomed to having everything explained, explained and explained away . . . If you think it needs explaining, you wouldn't understand it anyway. At the bottom of all art, there is mystery." From her first government–banned solo show, to her present–day artistic efforts, Abakanowicz remains both controversial and admired. As she stated in the Smithsonian interview with Dornberg, "We find out about ourselves only when we take risks, when we challenge and question . . . I was searching for the greatest risk; to make art of something that is not considered art." As her status has risen among the artistic communities of the world, the risks she has taken have provided art that will evoke powerful responses from viewers for years to come.
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