Major Hepworth Wakefield exhibition of overlooked Polish artist’s body of work

Alina Szapocznikow's work at The Hepworth Wakefield.
Alina Szapocznikow's work at The Hepworth Wakefield.
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The Hepworth Wakefield never disappoints – each show seems to surpass the last – but even by its own very high standards its latest exhibition is quite a coup.

Human Landscapes, which runs until the end of January, is the first major UK retrospective of the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, one of the most important, yet for many years overlooked, artists of the 20th century.

It is a familiar narrative – a female artist overshadowed by her male counterparts who hasn’t received the recognition she deserves – but it’s one that the Hepworth’s curatorial team, with their consistently bold and thoughtful programming, continues to subvert.

“Around 60 to 70 per cent of our programming has been female artists,” says Andrew Bonacina, chief curator at the gallery. “It is something we are all attuned to. I believe that kind of programming is necessary to reduce the imbalance that continues – and Szapocznikow is totally deserving of this scale of show.” It brings together over a hundred works, including rarely seen drawings and a lost work that is on display for the first time in 56 years, tracing a chronological path through the artist’s career which was sadly cut short by her death from cancer at the age of just 46 in 1973. Born into a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1926, Szapocznikow was interned in the ghettos of Pabianice and Lodz between 1940 and 1942, before being transported via Auschwitz to the camps of Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt where she was imprisoned for over ten months. Although she never spoke about her wartime experiences, it is impossible to separate her creative output from the context of her personal history which, understandably, left an indelible mark on her psyche. “While she didn’t want to vocalise those experiences, or talk about that time, you can see it in her work,” says Bonacina. “Thinking about her own body, exploring her physicality and using it in her work, she was living out what she had experienced.”

Szapocznikow’s fascination with the human form came from that very dark place. Having witnessed first-hand the devastating physical effects of the Holocaust, after the war she determined to become an artist, studying first in Prague and then in Paris.

Returning to Communist Poland she received several state commissions for public art pieces in the sanctioned Soviet realist style of the time. “Her early works reflect her traditional arts education,” says Bonacina. “But moved pretty quickly to more abstract pieces, especially after the death of Stalin in 1953 when artists were allowed a bit more freedom.”

Undermining the patriarchy, critiquing consumerism and questioning the macho heroism of sculpture were always very much on Szapocznikow’s agenda. She did this both through her experimentation with new materials – using plastics, resins and polyurethane – and her exploration of form. And from 1960 onwards she started to literally bring her own body into her work, making casts of various body parts. “She put them together with found objects, so you get this idea of the body being cumulatively built from things around her,” says Bonacina. “She almost wanted to pollute the heroic idea of sculpture.”

Later Szapocznikow introduced functionality and illumination into her work. There are vases and lamps, some full scale female forms such as The Illuminated Woman with her featureless head and brightly illuminated red breasts. These works are all about abstracted feminine sensuality – lips, mouths and breasts feature frequently, including a whole series of small-scale ‘desserts’, where those fragmented sexualised body parts are literally ‘served up’ on a plate. While all these pieces are joyous and have a jaunty sexiness about them, they also have a disturbing, disembodied, festishistic quality.

Asense of playfulness pervades much of Szapocznikow’s work, but there is a serious message underlying it and her exploration of the tyranny of the male gaze and the objectification of the female body feels especially resonant today. Szapocznikow was being deliberately provocative says Bonacina. “She was an attractive female artist, saying ‘well you desire me but not my work, so what happens if I put myself in my work – do you want it now?’ It is quite a cutting criticism of the patriarchy and the art world.”

Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes, at the Hepworth Wakefield until January 28.