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Body casts appeared in works by Alina Szapocznikow in 1965, when she began to present her own fingers and mouth in sculptural material. In 1971, she made of polyester the crushed Autoportret–Zielnik [Self-Portrait  Herbarium], regarded as an introduction to Zielnik [Herbarium] — one of her most important works made on the basis of body casts.

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Body casts appeared in works by Alina Szapocznikow in 1965, when she began to present her own fingers and mouth in sculptural material. In 1971, she made of polyester the crushed Autoportret–Zielnik [Self-Portrait  Herbarium], regarded as an introduction to Zielnik [Herbarium] — one of her most important works made on the basis of body casts. However, in the Herbarium created in the spring of 1972, the artist did not present herself but the body of her son, Peter (Piotr in Polish). The cycle encompasses both full-figure nudes of the boy sculpted in clay as well as polyester casts made of plaster impressions taken directly from his body. From these forms, the sheets of the Herbarium — polyester casts of the fragments of Peter’s body, crushed and affixed to boards painted in black – were created. These include deformed representations of her son’s head (Głowa Piotra — Zielnik. Szkic, Zielnik I, Zielnik II, Zielnik V, Zielnik VI, Zielnik VIII, Zielnik XII [Głowa Chrystusa], Zielnik XIV [Peter’s Head  Herbarium. Sketch, Herbarium I, Herbarium II, Herbarium V, Herbarium VI, Herbarium VIII, Herbarium XII {Christ’s Head}, Herbarium XIV]).
Szapocznikow created these works in the period when she already knew that she had cancer. Aware of the impending death, she preserved the healthy body of the boy – her adopted son – instead of her own, which was overcome by her illness. Peter’s Head is thus a kind of a trace; it is a peculiar, moving projection of the future, expressing hope for further existence.

Elaborated by Dominik Kuryłek (The National Museum in Kraków), © all rights reserved

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“Lovely, Human, True, Heartfelt” – about Alina Szapocznikow

When dying of breast cancer in the sanatorium of Praz-Coutant in France, Szapocznikow was at the age of 47. The cancer first appeared at the beginning of 1969. She underwent successful surgery and therapy, and introduced the theme of illness into her art.

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When dying of breast cancer in the sanatorium of Praz-Coutant in France, Szapocznikow was at the age of 47. The cancer first appeared at the beginning of 1969. She underwent successful surgery and therapy, and introduced the theme of illness into her art. “Everything that a surgeon rejects – those tampons, scissors – must be preserved,” she used to say. One of the cycles created in this period was Nowotwory uosobione [Tumours Personified] (1971). The fragment of the Herbarium presented on our website is the last piece of work by Szapocznikow. The cancer returned in 1972. The artist failed to overcome the illness and died on 2 March 1973.
However, it would be erroneous to refer to work by the sculptor exclusively from the last years of her life, a time when the illness dominated this period. The body was always in the centre of Szapocznikow’s interests. Initially, treated as a whole in figural representations from the 1950s and the early 1960s, later, with growing frequency in multiplied and processed fragments. From 1963, when the artist settled in France, she began to use plastics: vinyl, polyurethane, polyester. She made casts of the parts of her body: legs, breasts, stomach and face, multiplying them subsequently and thus making her body both indirect material and the main theme of her art. Did she leave her trace in this way? Did she desperately try to preserve her body, perfectly aware that in transitional points a man is reduced only to his or her body?
Alina Szapocznikow was born in 1926 in Kalisz. Being of Jewish origin, she was closed in the ghetto in Pabianice in 1940. After its liquidation, she was transported to the ghetto in Łódź, and subsequently – through Auschwitz – to the camps in Bergen-Belsen and probably Terezin. She never spoke about this period of her life and did not like when it was mentioned by other people. Although in 1958 she participated – together with Jerzy Chudzik, Roman Cieślewicz and Bolesław Malmurowicz – in a competition for the design of the Monument in Auschwitz, she never officially spoke about her experiences in the times of war. There is, however, a very personal statement by Szapocznikow about how it influenced her entire work and life in general. In the letter to her first husband, Ryszard Stanisławski, she wrote:

 “(...) You have not gone through this baptism of despair, all this; everything did not end for you irretrievably several times as it did for me in the ghettos and camps. (…) You know how I hate and feel disgusted with those people who reproach or ‘boast’ about the years of torment they have lived through. (…) Because you experienced a lot in those times, you did live for better or worse (…). But your terms have not changed radically as they did for me, so what remains for me now of ‘nice, polite, gracious’ is ‘lovely, human, true, heartfelt”.

Kroją mi się piękne sprawy. Listy Aliny Szapocznikow i Ryszarda Stanisławskiego. 19481971 [Lovely, Human, True, Heartfelt. The Letters of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanisławski,
1948
1971] Kraków 2012.

And this “true, heartfelt” is visible in works by Szapocznikow most intensely. No compromises, half measures, aesthetisation. In her works, man is deprived of spiritual “niceness”, reduced to the body or rather its sick fragments. The absolute, merciless message frequently subjected her to strong criticism, incomprehension, accusations of narcissism and being unnecessarily shocking. Although the experience of war, the Holocaust, invalidation and objectification of human existence do not appear in the output of Szapocznikow, they do permeate it throughout.
Thus, there is the experience of war, the extermination, suffering and debasement, memory of the moments when human life meant nothing. There is also the helplessness of a sick body, pain and suffering again.
After the war, the young Szapocznikow went to Prague, where she enrolled in the Faculty of Art at the Artistic Industrial College (19451946). However, she soon developed ovarian tuberculosis. The treatment was very difficult and long, which again left her feeling she had no influence on her own life. It was a time of numerous hospitals, later preventoria, and immobilisation. Tired with hospital stays, the illness, and separation from the possibility of any creative work, in a letter to her future husband, Ryszard Stanisławski, she wrote:

“Sometimes this life seems unreal to me. Unreal because it is only corporal. As if a man was composed only of flesh and organs. Then how can it be that there is me and you?”

Kroją mi się piękne sprawy. Listy Aliny Szapocznikow i Ryszarda Stanisławskiego. 19481971 [Lovely, Human, True, Heartfelt. The Letters of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanisławski,
1948
1971] Kraków 2012.

And although in the Parisian period from the fragments of her own body casts she created lamps and ashtrays, perversely transforming them into utility items, the question from the letter written in hospital in 1949 seems to have accompanied her entire work.

Elaborated by Kinga Kołodziejska (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

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From the diary of a body

Is it possible to dry a body in a herbarium? I will ask more expressively: Is it possible to dry a living body in a herbarium? Or even more clearly: Is it possible to dry the body of your own adolescent son in a herbarium?

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Is it possible to dry a body in a herbarium? I will ask more expressively: Is it possible to dry a living body in a herbarium? Or even more clearly: Is it possible to dry the body of your own adolescent son in a herbarium?

“Dry” in the sense of “retain” or ”preserve”. We know as well as Alina Szapocznikow how impermanent the human body is, how it designates borders beyond which we just cannot reach, boundaries beyond which we are simply gone; when we know that when our body dies, we die with it. When we know that in the final analysis, despite our spiritual aspirations and our striving for the immortality of the soul, in reality we are just flesh. We cannot live without this sometimes chafing shell, whose physicality we often reject, and which brings us both pleasure and pain, which is sometimes amazingly beautiful or hideously ugly, and which gives us the power to act, to make changes happen, and which then mercilessly refuses to obey.
Inevitably, Alina Szapocznikow did not dry up the body of her son, Piotr Stanisławski. A year before her death, she completed her Herbarium series.  She had already known of her imminent demise due to a late cancer diagnosis. The series had viewers transfixed by its intimate nature. It consisted of crushed imprints of her son’s body parts attached to rectangular boards. Works are numbered with Roman numerals from I to XIV. Parts VII and IX are missing. Experts do not agree on whether this gap is a result of a conscious decision of the artist, or the cycle is simply incomplete.

In her declaration, Szapocznikow said:
“My gesture is directed towards the human body, this “entirely erogenous sphere”, towards its most undefined and ephemeral feelings, in order to praise the impermanence of the recesses of our body, in our footsteps on this earth. Through these imprints of the human body I attempt to preserve the ephemeral moments of life, its paradoxes and absurdity in transparent polystyrene. [...] I strive to hold imprints of our body in resin; I am convinced that among all the manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most sensitive, the only source of all joy, all pain and all truth; and it is due to its ontological misery, inevitable and – at the conscious level – completely unacceptable”.
In the materials we have from the period when the Herbarium cycle was created, photographs documenting the subsequent steps of creation of the imprints of Piotr’s body can be found. We can see the artist working on her model, but we can also see a mother sticking plaster to successive, and also intimate, parts of her son’s body in order to use their imprints to prepare polyester castings. These then became “sheets” of the corporeal Herbarium. While these are very intimate scenes, we realise also that in the studio there is a third person taking the photographs.

Elaborated by Kinga Kołodziejska (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

See also: ”Peter’s Head” from the cycle ”Herbarium” by Alina Szapocznikow

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“Peter’s Head” from the cycle “Herbarium” by Alina Szapocznikow

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