Alina Szapocznikow

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Alina Szapocznikow
Born (1926-05-16)May 16, 1926
Kalisz, Poland
Died March 2, 1973(1973-03-02) (aged 46)
Praz-Coutant, Passy, France
Resting place Montmartre Cemetery, Paris
Nationality Polish
Education Ecole nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris
Known for Sculpture, Drawing
Spouse(s) Roman Cieślewicz

Alina Szapocznikow (Polish: [ʂapɔt͡ʂˈɲikɔf]; sometimes called Szaposznikow; (May 16, 1926 – March 2, 1973) was a Polish sculptor and Holocaust survivor.[1] She produced casts of her and her son's body. She worked mainly in bronze and stone and her provocative work recalled genres such as surrealism, nouveau realism, and pop art.[2]

During World War II she was imprisoned in the Pabianice and Łódź Ghettos and in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt Nazi concentration camps.


Alina Szapocznikow Grands Ventres, 1968, in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Szapocznikow was born in Kalisz in 1926 to a Jewish family.[3] Her father died in 1938.[4] In February 1940, Szapocznikow's family was interned in the Pabianice ghetto.[3]

While interned, Szapocznikow and her mother worked as a nurse's first in Pabianice ghetto, and later in the Łódź ghetto where the family was transferred in May 1942. During this period she endured the premature death of her father from tuberculosis in 1938.[5]

The Szapocznikow family was transported via Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they stayed for about ten months. Szapocznikow and her mother worked at a camp hospital until their separation in the autumn of 1944. Her experiences during the end of the war are unknown. After the war, Szapocnikow headed to Prague with a group of prisoners while her mother headed to Łódź .[6]

She was married to Polish graphic designer Roman Cieślewicz.[3]

Szapocznikow trained as a sculptor in Otokar Velimski's studio in Prague from 1945–1946.[4][7] In 1947 she studied at the Academy of Art and Industry in Prague under the tutelage of Josef Wagner,[4] after which she attended Paul Niclausse's atelier at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.[4]

The artist was exposed to and inspired by the works of Jean Arp, Ossip Zadkine, Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti. Two years later she met her husband Ryszard Stanislawski, a Polish art historian, and the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Łódź. In 1951 Szapocznikow was diagnosed with tuberculosis and returned to Poland, where she adopted a son and participated extensively in the Polish artistic life. The artist took part in numerous competitions to create public monuments to Chopin, Polish-Soviet friendship, Warsaw heroes, the victims of Auschwitz, and Juliusz Słowacki. In 1962 Szapocznikow was offered a solo show in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The following year she moved to Paris[7] where she became friends with the art critic and founder of the Nouveau Réalisme movement, Pierre Restany. Back in Paris, Szapocznikow started to produce casts of her breasts, stomach and legs.

Working mainly in bronze and stone, Szapocznikow's early artistic production constitutes the first materially documented trace of her own embodiment. In 1963, the artist began to combine fragmented body parts with revolutionary sculpting materials including polyester and polyurethane. Such technical innovation allowed Szapocznikow to immortalize a personal language informed by her exposure to death in childhood, traumatic memories of the Holocaust, as well as witnessing the premature collapse of her own body due to tuberculosis. In 1968 the artist was diagnosed with breast cancer.[7] That same year Szapocznikow started making her "tumour" sculptures using resin, gauze, crumpled newspapers and photographs.[7] Through casts of the human body, the artist intended to preserve the impermanence of the body as a source of pain, trauma and truth.[8]

A Holocaust survivor, a Jewish woman with a history of sickness tattooed on her body, Szapocznikow's biography is integral to understanding her artistic achievement.[citation needed] This use of personal pain resembles other female artists such as Eva Hesse and Frida Kahlo who also experienced and confronted their own bodies. An artist who made the private experiences of her body public, who coped with pain and yet was not defeated by it in her creativity, Szapocznikow gave form to trauma while capturing the volatility of life, its paradoxes and absurdities.



Throughout her career, Szapocznikow explored the fragmented human body through sculptures of bronze and later used modern plastic materials including polyester, polyurethane, and wiring. Influenced by her experiences as a Polish Jewish woman during World War II, she uses the distorted, decaying, and fragmented human body as a witness to wartime experiences, ultimately criticizing the valorization of labor and militarism.[9] Exhumed, from 1955, is a portrayal of the body after war with a pitted surface texture and hollowed torso. The work evokes heroic Herculean figures and victims of the 79 CE Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, further driving the idea that valorized bodies are not immune to the impact of war.[10]

The Human Body[edit]

Alina Szapocznikow is known for her sculptures of the fragmented female. Made in 1956, Difficult Age is constructed of patinated plaster — a rather delicate medium for sculpture — that can easily be read as a metaphor for the fragility and impermanence of youth and beauty.[11]

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Alina Szapocznikow began her Tumors Personified series experimenting with polyester resin and polyurethane — a new use of materials which most artists had not utilized at this time.[12] She abstracts feminine sensuality in Illuminated Lips, Marching Lips, and Illuminated Breast among others from 1966 on, which transforms female body parts into utilitarian objects and changes their function. Her male contemporaries (e.g., César Baldaccini, Arman) had exhausted this notion of the mechanized body, but Szapocznikow’s functional household objects maintain a strange sensuality.[13]

One of her most recognized and well known works is Grands Ventres (Big Bellies) which depicts two large bellies stacked on top of each other, each around five feet tall. Compared to her other works regarding the body, these are very realistic and soothing to look at. Many of her other works have been regarded as impolite and are not what one might call "tasteful".[14]


In 1959 Alina Szapocznikow created the sculpture Bird in her studio in Warsaw. Bird was part of a series of abstract works that Szapocznikow created in 1958–1960 that were characterized by their inverted centre of gravity and their organic and distinctive expressive forms resembling shapes in nature.[citation needed]

Bird is made from cement and metal, exceptionally heavy materials for its dimensions — the sculpture stands 166 cm tall. With the bird’s neck and beak pointing straight upwards to the sky and its wings drawn together, the sculpture suggests the tension in the animal’s body during the precise moment of departing from earth, no longer fully on the ground but not yet in the sky.[15]

There are several photographs of Szapocznikow with Bird, including one made by the renowned photographer Tadeusz Rolke.[16]

The sculpture was last exhibited at Polish Painting and Sculpture in 1961 at the Gres Gallery in Washington, D.C., and was considered lost for over 50 years until it was rediscovered in the outhouse of an art collector in upstate New York.[17] When Bird was sold at an auction in April 2016[17] it broke the record for the most expensive Polish sculpture.[18] This work will be shown to the public for the first time in 56 years at The Hepworth Wakefield art gallery.[19]



  1. ^ Saltz, Jerry (August 27 – September 3, 2012). "And We're Also Anticipating..." New York. 
  2. ^ "Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972 | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2018-03-03. 
  3. ^ a b c "Alina Szapocznikow 1926-1973". Tate Museum. Retrieved 2017-10-18. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Alina Szapocznikow, Artist". Retrieved 2017-10-18. 
  5. ^ "Alina Szapocznikow | Artist |". Retrieved 2018-03-03. 
  6. ^ Filipovic, Mytowska, Elena, Joanna (2011). Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone 1955-1972. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-87070-824-4. 
  7. ^ a b c d "- Alina Szapocznikow". Retrieved 2017-10-18. 
  8. ^ Pollock, Griselda, "traumatic encryption: the sculptural dissolutions of Alina Szapocznikow" in: After-affects, After images. Manchester University Press, 2013, 165-222
  9. ^ Chmielewski, Amy (2011). "Alina Szapocznikow: And Her Sculpture of Plastic Impermanence". Woman's Art Journal. 32: 39–47 – via JSTOR. 
  10. ^ "Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972 | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2017-03-27. 
  11. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (2017-10-06). "Body shock: the intense art and anguish of sculptor Alina Szapocznikow". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-03-03. 
  12. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (2017-10-06). "Body shock: the intense art and anguish of sculptor Alina Szapocznikow". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-10-22. 
  13. ^ Filipovic, Elena (2011). Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972. New York, NY: The Museum Of Modern Art. p. 34. 
  14. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (2017-10-06). "Body shock: the intense art and anguish of sculptor Alina Szapocznikow". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-03-03. 
  15. ^ "Bird, 1959 - Alina Szapocznikow archive - Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw". Retrieved 2018-03-03. 
  16. ^ "TADEUSZ ROLKE ARCHIVE ALINA SZAPOCZNIKOW (1-35/35)". Muzeum, Museum of Modern Art Warsaw. Retrieved 2017-10-17. 
  17. ^ a b "Long-lost sculpture by Alina Szapocznikow discovered". ArtReview. 2016-04-06. Retrieved 2017-10-18. 
  18. ^ "2 mln zł za rzeźbę Szapocznikow. Nowy rekord aukcyjny". Forbes (in Polish). RINGIER AXEL SPRINGER POLSKA. 2016-04-11. Retrieved 2017-10-18. 
  19. ^ a b "Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes". Hepworth Wakefield. 2017. Retrieved 2017-10-18. 
  20. ^ "Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972". The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Retrieved 2017-10-17. 
  21. ^ Davidson, Alex (2015). ""Them" at Schinkel Pavillon". Art Forum. Retrieved 2017-10-18. 
  22. ^ "Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes". Galerie Loevenbruck. Galerie Loevenbruck. 2017. Retrieved 2017-10-18.