What happens when art confronts horror? Can art testify to suffering without betraying it? Is art sometimes undone by the surfacing of traumatic memory? How do we, the viewers of art, respond to artworks that tell us of the unbearable experiences that artists who survived the Shoah have witnessed?
For many years, as an art historian, I have been pondering these ethical questions by investigating how art can transform traumatic pasts in the work of largely Jewish artists of the twentieth century who are women — Charlotte Salomon,Vera Frenkel, Chantal Akerman, Hannah Wilke, Bracha Ettinger and Eva Hesse. One of these artists is the Polish-born Jewish sculptor named Alina Szapocznikow (1926-73) (pronounced: Shah-potch-nikoff), whose amazing sculptures are now on view at The Hepworth in Wakefield until January 28. It has taken several decades for this brilliant artist, whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 46 by cancer, to return to the level of public renown she enjoyed during her lifetime, both in Poland and France, where she had lived during the last decade of her life. Now frequently exhibited alongside Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Hannah Wilke and other well-known contemporaries, her work has never been exhibited in Britain before.
Alina Szapocznikow was born into a medical family in the Polish town of Kalisz in 1926. Her father died in 1938 from tuberculosis. In 1939, following the conquest of Poland by Nazi Germany, the thirteen-year-old Alina, her mother and brother were forced into the ghetto of Pabianice and then the infamous Lodz ghetto. Transported thence to Auschwitz, but soon moved to Bergen-Belsen (as was Anne Frank and her mother and sister) where she worked alongside her doctor mother, Alina Szapocznikow was finally liberated alone from the ghetto-camp of Terezin in the Czech Republic in 1945 where her brother died earlier. She believed she was the sole survivor of her family. Thus, like the writer Janina Bauman, whose powerful memoir Winter in the Morning (published in 1986 and reprinted in 2006 as Beyond These Walls: Escaping the Warsaw Ghetto) makes us share her adolescence in Warsaw ghetto and then in hiding, Szapocznikow’s formative years were passed in some of the most terrifying and unspeakable places on earth.
Defiantly deciding to identify as Czech rather than return to Poland when she was liberated, Szapocznikow moved to Prague to study sculpture before moving to Paris to continue her artistic training where she encountered the modernist art of Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti and Ossip Zadkine. Forced by the French to return to Poland, and having refound her mother from whom she had been separated in 1944, the artist worked under the new Communist regime in Poland that at least supported artists providing them with studios and resources, commissions and travel grants. She took part in the competition for the memorial at Auschwitz, then considered by the Polish state a memorial site for its own national suffering.
Despite the political control of artistic production, Szapocznikow produced works that indicted Stalinist repression, such as a sculpture now on show at the Hepworth Exhumed (1957). It is a bronze sculpture of a partly mutilated body, that suggests partial decomposition in the grave. It commemorates the belated vindication of an executed Hungarian resistance politician in 1949 in the aftermath of the brutal repression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. Yet I cannot but also be reminded of images of charred bodies glimpsed in rare film footage from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This dreadful association on my part exposes the twin dimensions of Szapocznikow’s sculptures. Her work fearlessly engaged with the politics of her own post-war present. Yet always, perhaps unconsciously or against her will, the affectively charged work is recaptured by powerful images from a traumatic past she attempted to silence. Visceral memories surface in her work even as he artist bravely uses the form-making aspect of sculpture to rebuild bodies that stand up to the world, as for instance in bold sculpture of a teenage girl, The Troubled Age, (1956).
While a non-Jewish world might cling onto the contemporary dimensions in her work and celebrate its later sensuality, a sensitised Jewish viewer may be pierced by the pathos of the figure in Exhumed, struggling to arise, yet cruelly broken, with a gaping hole in place of its once human face that nonetheless suggests a visceral scream of pain delivered to the heartless world.
Enjoying growing international recognition for her new direction in abstract forms made from fluid concrete, after the death of her mother the artist returned to live in Paris in 1963. There she became a visible member of the lively artistic community that was creating the French version of Pop Art named New Realism. She returned to the body as her core subject, experimenting with often toxic new industrial materials: polyester resin, polyurethane foam, as well as electricity (illuminating lamp-sculptures of her lips and breasts) and found objects often associated with violence. During the 1960s, Alina Szapcznikow made powerful, daringly erotic, wickedly playful, and increasingly shockingly dark sculptures often embedding photographs alongside clothes and even grass. In a statement of 1972, she made clear what was the core of her work: the uneven contest between a sometimes deadly technological modernity and the fragility of our human bodies, referencing Pop Art’s love of modern things:
I have been defeated by the main protagonist, the wonder of our times, the machine. Today all beauty, the discoveries and testimonies of our times, the recording of history, all belong to the machine. True dreams belong to it; it is applauded by the public. I only produce awkward objects.
Then she described a more poignant dimensions of this project, which was based on making casts of her own body:
Despite everything, I persist in attempting to fix in resin the imprints of our body: I am convinced that among all the manifestations of perishability, the human body is the most sensitive, the only source of all joy, all pain, all truth…on the level of consciousness because of its ontological misery which is as inevitable as it is unacceptable.
These piercing statements are a touchstone for our understanding of what, at a desperate moment of her fatal illness (she was agonizingly dying of breast cancer), she had come to understand were the stakes of her artistic practice. The choice facing the artist, according to Alina Szapocznikow in 1972, is to produce objects that knowingly lack both traditional formal beauty and resist the aesthetics of the new technological order of the of the machine age, emblematic of an inhuman genocidal industrial modernity. Instead, they defiantly exhibit their own vulnerable deformation as testimony to the lived misery of human bodies in the face of our acute sense of mutability and mortality.
The sculptor is not just talking about flesh versus machine. Making no direct reference, her words evoke the extreme experiences witnessed during the years 1939-45. Even while she refused ever to speak in public of what she had endured, the drag of that trauma becomes clear as we progress through the exhibition at Wakefield. As much as the artist sought at first to create proud, beautiful bodies that stand upright and defiant, over time gravity pulls them down. Her works lose their contours, descend from vertical to horizontal, ending laid on the ground. A work titled Tumours Personified (1971) is a collection of casts of the artist’s head in various states that pathetically yet with dignity lie scattered on a bed of stones.
Other works of this moment offer repulsively compelling formless masses composed of paper, material, hair, cigarettes held in viscous now brittle and discoloured polyester resin or black polyurethane foam. As she pushed the boundaries of her art with experiments with these toxic new materials that may have contributed to her cancer, she created more and more tragic works, tensely holding to a desire to create forms, and accepting the utter impossibility of doing anything but bear witness its impossibility. One of her final works becomes more personal. Souvenir I (1971) floats a photograph of the child Alina in bathing suit perched on the shoulders of her young father— a precious childhood memory of a summer holiday before—while the smiling child is ominously ’watched’ from two bulbous, paper stuffed forms protruding from the dried, curling ‘skin of polyester resin in which is a third repeat of this ghastly face of a dead woman from a found photograph from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.
We who had not seen and endured what she had seen and endured may not understand the full implications of her knowing in her own body at several different times of her very short life that the body is not only perishable but the site of prolonged and sustained torture and degradation. The forced encounter with human perishability is traumatic – through bereavement or diagnosis of a fatal disease. Exposure to the daily possibility of undeserved death and the witnessing of dying in atrocious conditions sets Alina Szapocnikow, like other survivors, apart from whatever comfort we non-survivors might draw from the poetics of her text as a statement of the human condition. The concentration and the death camps–very different from each other—were novel political laboratories for systematic dehumanization, the lived but deadly torture of still human consciousness witnessing the attrition of starved, diseased and brutalized and abused bodies until their physiology no longer supported human identity.
Witnessing in post-war culture the adulation of technology and mechanical beauty, Szapocznikow’s work is both the symptomatic registration of the politicisation of industrial production to destroy and a conscious defiance of it at the deepest level that could only play itself out through the life-long exploration of the relation of hand made forms that try to re-present the body as a human form. Yet the powerful force of her sculptures arises from the creative failure, which produces a radical and affecting sculptural language to assert both the intensities of the body and our existence as embodied beings in its totally novel condition of post-Auschwitz perishability. Hence the sexual body and dead body are the twin poles of her work. Her materials enshrine and entomb as well as represent this classic doubling of life and death, pain and pleasure, rendered terrible by the real of actual historical occurrences which we sentimentally package up in words like camps, atrocity, the Holocaust without pausing long enough to grasp the implications of those events for all who live and die after them. Encountering her sculptures, will make us do so. In its grandeur and pathos,
Alina Szapocznikow produced one of the most powerful artistic monuments to one woman’s experience of the Shoah precisely by trying never to represent anything of what she had seen. Do not miss this exhibition if you have the chance.
Griselda Pollock is author of After-affects I After-images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation (MUP, 2013) Charlotte Salomon in the Theatre of Memory Yale, 2018) which will be discussed in Jewish Book Week on 6 March at JW3.
The Alina Szapocznikow exhibition is at the Heworth Wakefield until January 28.