M. Abakanowicz in her art room. photo: J.Pijarowski
June 20, 1930|
|Died||April 20, 2017
|Education||Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts|
|Known for||sculpture, fiber art|
|Awards||Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts (1999)|
Magdalena Abakanowicz (June 20, 1930 – April 20, 2017) was a Polish sculptor and fiber artist. She is notable for her use of textiles as a sculptural medium. She is widely regarded as one of Poland's most internationally-acclaimed artists. She was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, Poland from 1965 to 1990 and a visiting professor at University of California, Los Angeles in 1984.
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Magdalena Abakanowicz was born to a noble landowner family in Falenty. Her mother descended from old Polish nobility. Her father came from a Polonized Tatar family, which traced its origins to Abaqa Khan (a 13th-century Mongol chieftain). Her father's family fled Russia to the newly independent Poland after the October Revolution.
The Russian invasion of 1920 forced her family to flee their home, after which they moved to the city of Gdańsk. When she was nine Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland. Her family endured the war years living on the outskirts of Warsaw. After the war and resulting Soviet occupation, the family moved to the small city of Tczew near Gdańsk, in northern Poland, where they hoped to start a new life.
Under Soviet control, the Polish government officially adopted Socialist realism as the only acceptable art form which should be pursued by artists. Originally conceived by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, Socialist realism, in nature, had to be 'national in form' and 'socialist in content'. Other art forms being practiced at the time in the West, such as Modernism, were culturally outlawed and heavily censored in all Eastern bloc nations, including Poland.
Abakanowicz completed part of her high school education in Tczew from 1945 to 1947, after which she went to Gdynia for two additional years of art school at the Liceum Sztuk Plastycznych in that city. After her graduation from the Liceum in 1949, Abakanowicz attended the Academy of Fine Arts, then located in Sopot (now in Gdańsk). In 1950, Abakanowicz moved back to Warsaw to begin her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, the leading art school in Poland.
Her years at the university, 1950–1954, coincided with some of the harshest assaults made on art by the Soviet leadership. By utilizing the doctrine of 'Socialist realism', all art forms in Soviet occupied nations were forced to adhere to strict guidelines and limitations that subordinated the arts to the needs and demands of the State. Realist artistic depictions based on the national 19th-century academic tradition were the only form of artistic expression advocated by in Poland at the time. The Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, being the most important artistic institution in Poland, came under special scrutiny from the Ministry of Art and Culture, which administered all major decisions in the field at the time.
Abakanowicz found the climate at the Academy to be highly “rigid” and overly “conservative”. She recalled:
I liked to draw, seeking the form by placing lines, one next to the other. The professor would come with an eraser in his hand and rub out every unnecessary line on my drawing, leaving a thin, dry contour. I hated him for it.
While studying at the University she was required to take several textile design classes, learning the art of weaving, screen printing, and fiber design from instructors such as Anna Sledziewska, Eleonora Plutymska, and Maria Urbanowicz. These instructors and skills would greatly influence Abakanowicz's work, as well as that of other prominent Polish artists of the time.
Following her education at the Academy, Abakanowicz began to produce her first artistic works. Due to the fact that she spent most of her academic life moving from place to place, much of her earlier artwork was lost or damaged, with only a few, delicate plant drawings surviving. Between 1956 and 1959, she produced some of her earliest known works; a series of large gouaches and watercolors on paper and sewn-together linen sheets. These works, described as being 'biomorphic” in composition, depicted imaginary plants, birds, exotic fish, and seashells, among other biomorphic shapes and forms. Joanna Inglot wrote in the The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz about these early works: “[they] pointed to Abakanowicz’s early fascination with the natural world and its processes of germination, growth, blooming, and sprouting. They seem to capture the very energy of life, a quality that would become a constant feature of her art.” Abakanowicz said:
My gouaches were as large as the wall permitted. Depressed by years of study, I was fighting back by making my gouaches for myself. For so long it had been repeated that I could not do it; my response had to be on a big scale. I wanted to take a walk among imaginary plants.
It was also during this time that Poland began to lift some of the heavy political pressures imposed by the Soviet Union, mainly due to the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953. In 1956, under the new party leadership of Władysław Gomułka, Poland experienced a dramatic social and cultural shift. The shift resulted in the liberalization of the forms and content of art, with the Stalinistic methods of art form being openly criticized by the Gomulka government.
A major freedom granted to Polish artists was the permission to travel to several Western cities, such as Paris, Venice, Munich, and New York City, to experience artistic developments outside the Eastern bloc. This liberalization of the arts in Poland and injection of other art forms into the Polish art world greatly influenced Abakanowicz's early works, as she began to consider much of her early work as being “ too flamboyant and lacking in structure." Constructivism began to influence her work in the late 1950s as she adopted more a more geometric and structured approach. Never fully accepting Constructivism, she searched for her own “artistic language and for a way to make her art more tactile, intuitive, and personal.” As a result, she soon adopted weaving as another avenue of artistic exploration.
In her first one-person exhibit at the Kordegarda Gallery in Warsaw in the spring of 1960, she included a series of four weavings along with a collection of gouaches and watercolors. Though her first exhibit received minimal critical notice, it helped advance her position within the Polish textile and fiber design movement and resulted in her inclusion into the first Biennale Internationale de le Tapisserie in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1962. The event opened the way to her international success.
The 1960s saw some of the most important works produced during Abakanowicz's career. In 1967, she began producing gigantic three-dimensional fiber works called Abakans. These works would secure her place in the art world as one of the great artists of the time and influence all of her work she has produced since.
Each Abakan is made out of woven material using Abakanowicz's own technique. The material used for many of these pieces was found, often collecting sisal ropes from harbors, untwining them into threads and dying them. Hung from the ceiling, Abakans reach sizes as large as thirteen feet with sometimes only a few inch clearance from the ground.
During the 1970s, and into the 1980s, Abakanowicz changed medium and scale; she began a series of figurative and non-figurative sculptures made out of pieces of coarse sackcloth which she sewed and pieced together and bonded with synthetic resins. These works became more representation than previous sculptures but still retain a degree of abstraction and ambiguity. In 1974-1975 she produced sculptures called Alterations, which were twelve hollowed-out headless human figures sitting in a row. From 1973–1975 she produced a series of enormous, solid forms reminiscent of human heads without faces called Heads. From 1976-1980 she produced a piece call Backs, which was a series of eighty slightly differing sculptures of the human trunk.
In 1986-87 she created a series of fifty standing figures called The Crowd I. She also began to once again work around organic structures, such as her Embryology series, which consisted of several dozen soft egg-like lumps varying in size. These were dispersed round an exhibition room at the Vienna Biennial in 1980.
These humanoid works of the 1970s and 1980s were centered around human culture and nature as a whole and its condition and position in modern society. The multiplicity of the human forms represents confusion and anonymity, analyzing an individual's presence in a mass of humanity. These works have close connections to Abakanowicz's life living in a Communist regime which repressed individual creativity and intellect in favor of the collective interest. These works also contrast with her earlier Abakan series, which were individually powerful pieces, whereas the figurative sculptures lost their individuality in favor of multiplicity.
In the late 1980s to 1990s Abakanowicz began to use metals, such as bronze, for her sculptures, as well as wood, stone, and clay. She continued the subject matter of the human condition but changed her medium; her burlap and resin figurative sculptures were now being made out of bronze, such as Bronze Crowd (1990–91) and Puellae (1992). She stated in a speech given at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź:
In consequence, the expression of art saturated with history, deformed by modernity, diverging from the direction of art in the free world. Perhaps the experience of the crowd, waiting passively in line, but ready to trample, destroy or adore on command like a headless creature, became the core of my analysis. And maybe it was a fascination with the scale of the human body. Or a desire to determine the minimal amount necessary to express the whole.
One of Abakanowicz's most unusual works is titled War Games, which is a cycle of monumental structures made up of huge trunks of old trees, with their branches and bark removed. Partly bandaged with rags and hugged by steel hoops, these sculptures are placed on lattice metal stands. Like the name of the cycle implies, these sculptures have a very militaristic feel to them, as they have been compared to artillery vehicles. During the 1990s Abakanowicz was also commissioned to design a model of an ecologically-oriented city. She has also choreographed dance.
Abakanowicz's most recent work has included a project called Agora, which is a permanent installation located at the southern end of Chicago's Grant Park, next to the Roosevelt Road Metra station. It consists of 106 cast iron figures, each about nine feet tall. All the figures are similar in shape, but different in details. The artist and her three assistants created models for each figure by hand, and the casting took place from 2004 to 2006. The surface of each figure resembles a tree bark or wrinkled skin. The work creates a feeling of crowdedness, hence the name "agora". Furthermore, all the bodies end at the torso, giving them an eerie, anonymous look.
- Grand Prix of São Paulo Biennale, São Paulo, Brazil (1965)
- Herder Prize, Vienna, Austria (1979)
- Jurzykowski Prize, New York City (1982)
- Award for Distinction in Sculpture, granted by the Sculpture Center, New York (1993)
- Commander Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (1998)
- Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Paris, France (1999)
- Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts, Norway (1999) 
- Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (2000)
- Visionaries! Award granted by American Craft Museum (2000)
- Germany's Star of the Grand Cross for Service to Germany (2010)
- Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award, International Sculpture Center, (Hamilton, NJ, USA) (2005)
Doctorates and honors
- Honoris Causa doctorate from the Royal College of Art, London, England (1974)
- Honoris Causa doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island (1992)
- Honorary member of the Academy of Arts, Berlin (1994)
- Honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City (1996)
- Honorary member of the Sachsische Akademie der Kunste, Dresden, Germany (1998)
- Honoris Causa doctorate from the Academy of Fine Arts, Łódź, Poland (1998)
- Orden Pour le Mérite fur Wissenschaften und Künste, Berlin, Germany (2000)
- Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree, Pratt Institute, New York (2000)
- Honoris Causa doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, Massachusetts (2001)
- Honoris Causa doctorate from the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, Poland (2002)
- Honoris Causa doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (2002)
“My work comes from the experience of crowds, injustice, and aggression… I feel an affinity for art when it was made a form of existence, like when shamans worked in the territory between men and unknown powers… I try to bewitch the crowd.”
“I feel overawed by quantity where counting no longer makes sense. By unrepeatability within such a quantity. By creatures of nature gathered in herds, droves, species, in which each individual, while subservient to the mass, retains some distinguishing features. A crowd of people, birds, insects, or leaves is a mysterious assemblage of variants of certain prototype. A riddle of nature's abhorrence of exact repetition or inability to produce it. Just as the human hand cannot repeat its own gesture, I invoke this disturbing law, switching my own immobile herds into that rhythm.”
"Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind born out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind."
- List of Polish artists
- Socialist realism
- Birds of Knowledge of Good and Evil
- Fiber art
- Inglot, p. 12
- Inglot, p. 31
- Inglot, p. 32
- Inglot, p. 27
- Inglot, p. 28
- Inglot, p. 34
- Inglot, p. 39
- Brenson, Michael, Magdalena Abakanowicz's Abakans, Art Journal. Volume 54. Issue: 1, 1995
- Kitowska-Lysiak, Malgorzata, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Visual Arts Profile, Polish Culture, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, 2004
- Abakanowicz in Cracow, Warsaw Voice, 3 May 1998
- "Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts 1999". Retrieved August 14, 2013.
- Magdalena Abakanowicz, The World's Women On-Line!
- Hillstrom, Laurie Collier; Hillstrom, Kevin (1999-01-01). Contemporary women artists. Detroit: St. James Press. ISBN 1558623728.
- Inglot, Joanna, The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz, University of California Press, 2004.
- Rose, Barbara. Magdalena Abakanowicz. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994. Print. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/28506480
- Magdalena Abakanowicz at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Magdalena Abakanowicz at the Museum of Modern Art
- Magdalena Abakanowicz at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
- Magdalena Abakanowicz at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
- Magdalena Abakanowicz collection at the Israel Museum. Retrieved September 2016.
- Magdalena Abakanowicz's 'Abakans.' (fiber sculptures), Art Journal
- Magdalena Abakanowicz, artnet
- The Jackboot Has Lifted. Now the Crowds Crush, By Rita Reif, The New York Times, June 3, 2001
- (French) Magdalena Abakanowicz