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Art HERstory: Magdalena Abakanowicz


One of the most respected women to be featured in Art HERstory: Magdalena Abakanowicz

One of the most respected women to be featured in Art HERstory: Magdalena Abakanowicz

Rebellion is a natural part of the human psyche. As 20-somethings we all tend to get tired of the monotony of straight-laced living. Redundancy can be so blah sometimes. Once that breaking point is reached, something has to give. The one thing that everyone hates to have controlled is their creativity. Nobody wants to be creatively restricted. Nobody. The Nazi reign was the power that put constraints on Magdalena Abakanowicz’s open mind. We know pressure is what makes diamonds. Well, Magdalena was Poland’s diamond in the rough.

Magdalena's early sketches were ones of chaos. The product of a restricted childhood.

Magdalena's early sketches were ones of chaos. The product of a restricted childhood.

Magdalena was born into an aristocratic Polish-Russian family in 1930. The family lived well for the earlier part of Magdalena’s life, but things took a turn when she was 9. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on her ninth year of life and her family lived on the outskirts of Warsaw during the years of World War II.

"Abakan Red." Collection of the Museum Bellerive, Zurich (1969). This hand woven "abakan" towers almost 10 feet off the ground. You can get an idea of how huge it is by seeing how small Magdalena is in comparison.

"Abakan Red." Collection of the Museum Bellerive, Zurich (1969). This hand woven "abakan" towers almost 10 feet off the ground. You can get an idea of how huge it is by seeing how small Magdalena is in comparison.

After the war, the family relocated to the small town Tczew in north Poland in hopes of a new beginning. Since Poland was now under Soviet control, the Polish government declared Soviet realism as the only acceptable art form.  The art form, courtesy of Joseph Stalin, defined that successful works of art were the pieces that “glorified the proletariat’s struggle towards ‘social progress.’” Under all the fluff the government basically wanted to educate the citizens in the goals and meaning of Communism which would in turn create Lenin’s “New Soviet Man.” All other types of art were outlawed. What a crock.

"Turquoise Abakan." National Museum, Warsaw (1969-70). This "abakan" is said to be a replica of the lungs with the connecting blood vessels.

"Turquoise Abakan." National Museum, Warsaw (1969-70). This "abakan" is said to be a replica of the lungs with the connecting blood vessels.

Magdalena’s breaking point came when she was in college. She was already being monitored by the government and forced to create socially acceptable works of art. From 1950 to 1954 the reigns were tightened on art schools and the list of artistic restrictions lengthened. During this time, Magdalena was a student at the most important artistic institution in Poland, the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. She recalls:

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 at the university, Magdalena partook in textile classes where she learned to weave, screen print, and the skills of fiber design. The skills she picked up in college are what she used to launch career, post-governmental muzzle.

"Agora." Grant Park, Chicago (2005-6). A collection of 106 iron figures who look like they are frozen in mid-stride. Beautiful. I want to travel to Chicago to see this work!

"Agora." Grant Park, Chicago (2005-6). A collection of 106 iron figures who look like they are frozen in mid-stride. Beautiful. I want to travel to Chicago to see this work!

Eventually, the Polish government gave its people just enough freedom to keep them content. Magdalena seized the moment. In the 1960s is when some of her most influential works were created. She had a whole new outlook on life and was able to finally create what she wanted. In 1967, Magdalena began producing gigantic three-dimensional sculptures from cloth she made and dyed by hand. She called her creations “Abakans.” Some of the “Abakans” were as large as 13 feet tall.

Magdalena hard at work on two new "abakans."

Magdalena hard at work on two new "abakans."

During the 1970s and 1980s Magdalena changed focus and began to create sculptures from sackcloth that were sewn and molded together with the resin from trees. Many of these organic sculptures were made into the silhouettes of people. The humanoid sculptures were Magdalena’s way of criticizing society and the human condition. She expressed her beliefs 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.

All and all, Magdalena has to be the Art HERstory chick I respect the most. She saw the weakness in the human race and expressed it in a subtle way. She doesn’t blatantly point the finger; she leaves it up to observers to pull her feelings from the art. No persuasion or hints given. Apparently, those years of confinement paid off because the lady definitely had something to say when she was able to express herself freely. I truly understand why she is regarded as one of the most important and influential female artists of the 20th century.

"80 Backs." Museum of Modern Art, South Korea (1976-80). Yes, you read it right. There are a total of 80 individual sculptures to make up this ONE piece.

"80 Backs." Museum of Modern Art, South Korea (1976-80). Yes, you read it right. There are a total of 80 individual sculptures to make up this ONE piece.

Magdalena currently works and lives in Warsaw, Poland.

Image Layout: Phaymiss


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