Magdalena Abakanowicz: Corporeal Materiality

It is not easy to describe the art of Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) in a few words, although she is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, and one of the best-known Polish artists. Corporeal Materiality is the title of the current exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, London, showcasing works from the artist’s long and successful career. Magdalena Abakanowicz was born in 1930 in Falenty, a village near Warsaw. The artist lived through WWII and the communist period which followed and her works need to be seen in the context of the experiences of those difficult years. Originally trained in textile art she went on to produce works in other media, including bronze, aluminium, steel as well as drawings, but her textile works remain the most fascinating. Her tapestries and textile sculptures have a rough appearance, due to used materials, such as sisal and burlap (relatively easy to obtain during post-war years as opposed to other art supplies).

Magdalena Abakanowicz Pregnant (1970-1980) tapestry, sisal, hair
Magdalena Abakanowicz – Pregnant (1970-1980) (tapestry, sisal, hair)

In the 1960s Abakanowicz was one of the most prominent artists of the so-called Polish Textile School. Abakanowicz stood out because she pushed the boundaries and redefined what textile and fiber art could be. While her earlier works were akin to tapestries or wall hangings, she began to experiment with large-scale three-dimensional works, turning textiles into sculptures which she called Abakans. Unfortunately only two of her early textile hangings are included in this exhibition, Czarna (‘Black’) dating from 1966, and Pregnant (1970—1980), nevertheless they are good examples of the artist’s accomplishment in textile art. The latter work is especially moving as it recalls a stomach of a pregnant woman depicted as bursting from a dark background.

Displayed next to this artwork is a group titled Infants (1992) consisting of thirty three figures made of burlap and resin. Groups of headless (often also armless) figures are among Abakanowicz’s most iconic creations. Those empty shells cast off human bodies resemble rows of prisoners awaiting execution. Referencing the WWII but also the universal human experience, they speak of loss, trauma, violence, hopelessness, balancing between life and death.

Magdalena Abakanowicz Group Infants (33 Figures), 1992, burlap and resin
Magdalena Abakanowicz – Group ‘Infants’ (33 Figures), (burlap and resin, 1992), detail 

Figure in Iron House (1989-1990) is a hollowed out, headless figure sitting in an iron cage, depicting perhaps a political prisoner, or prisoner of war. At the same time this is a metaphorical prison. The title also hints at the Iron Curtain (the artwork dates to the time which shaped the history of post-WWII Europe, the revolutions of 1989 in the Eastern and Central Europe and the collapse of the Berlin Wall).

Figures trapped in cages, appear often in Abakanowicz’s later works, as are figures with wings or metal bars merging with their bodies, addressing issues of freedom and oppression. It is ambiguous if the figures received their wings so they can be free, or if their wings were clipped as to take away their freedom.

Magdalena Abakanowicz view of the exhibition Corporeal Materiality
Magdalena Abakanowicz: Corporeal Materiality exhibition, installation view 

In a more intimate setting in the upstairs gallery there are several drawings by the artist and small-scale bronze sculptures. The charcoal drawings of human bodies, again headless, are stretched on a plan of a cross in a reference to the Crucifixion. Sculptures from the Incarnation series formally resemble death masks (face casts usually taken post-mortem), however the artist based them on her own face and distorted the features.

The much more optimistic of Abakanowicz’s artworks are the works from the Embryology series. In contrast with the already discussed works, they are more abstract, although also biomorphic. Their organic forms are drawn from nature and symbolize transformation, evolution and metamorphosis. Those large groups of sculptures are usually exhibited in groups, such as the three-piece stainless steel group Embryology (2002-2003) on display here.

Magdalena Abakanowicz view of the exhibition Corporeal Materiality 2
Magdalena Abakanowicz view of the exhibition Corporeal Materiality (on the left ‘Czarna/Black (1966), centre Winged Sister (2005-2006), on the right detail of Embryology (2002-2003)

Many of Abakanowicz’s iconic works are large in scale and therefore difficult to display, especially the textile sculptures. Corporeal Materiality consists of a relatively small but representative selection of the artist’s works. The exhibition at Marlbourough gives a taste of what is to come next year. I am impatiently waiting for the major Abakanowicz retrospective, which will take place in the summer of 2020 at Tate Modern. (Update: after much delay the Tate Modern exhibition opened in 2022, read my review here)

Magdalena Abakanowicz: Corporeal Materiality is a free exhibition at Marlborough, London (12 Nov – 21 Dec 2019)

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Photos: Ground Impressions

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