Effigies of Life, A Tribute to Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017) comes in the form of 200 sculptures spread across the city, from public galleries and the Contemporary Museum of Wroclaw to the airport and Bastion Ceglarski historic fortress. It is a journey through her artist studio. “This is a city that Abakanowicz enjoyed,” said Mariusz Hermansdorfer, co-curator and friend of the artist. “It’s also a city that enjoyed a very close relationship with Abakanowicz.” Spanning the entirety of the artist’s career, the retrospective was planned prior to her death, and despite her failing health, still incorporates many personal items from Abakanowicz’s collection to infuse her presence.
“No other Eastern European artist had been able to capture so profoundly in form and content the essence of the human condition experienced by entire nations under communism,” co-curator Maria Rus Bojan said in a statement. Abakanowicz, who changed her name from Marta to Magdalena following the Communist takeover in order to avoid persecution, she even adopted the fake identity of clerk’s daughter to hide her Genghis Khan and noble family ancestry. “I think that if she left the country—and she had offers—other totalitarian movements would be reflected in her work,” said Hermansdorfer to Artnet. “The capitalist world is also full of violence and influence, manipulation—it is art that shouts, speaking about human problems—about our problems.”
Deeply representative of post-war Poland and its complete state of ruin — from infrastructure through morale — it slowly reinvented itself as a new blended culture, resulting in Wroclaw being named the European Capital of Culture 2016. The cultural revival, implied Hermansdorfer, was mirrored in Abakanowicz’s practice. Beginning with painting in the 1950s, it was a decade before she established her iconic and eponymously coined Abakans technique of working with unraveled and dyed sisal from ships. One of the first of its kind in the art world, the swathes of cloth and textile as supportive structures of sculpture can be read with less-than-subtle political undertones, later incorporating iron casings as a metaphor for the ironclad Communist rule. Metal then worked its way into figurative sculptures, such as the army of “damaged” children outside Wroclaw’s train station in order to show individual identity within multiplicity and what Rus Bojan calls “aberrations of nature.”
While a powerful embodiment of personal experience and cultural memory, Abakanowicz’s works have not been widely internationally acknowledged — referenced only in comparison to Bourgeois or Gormley, despite far predating them. Now with the aid of the ArteEast Foundation, the curators state that she is finally getting the attention she deserves.
Effigies of Life: A Tribute To Magdalena Abakanowicz runs 23 June-25 August in Wroclaw, Poland. For more information visit arteeast.org
Harper’s Bazaar Art has collaborated with ArteVue. To download the app click here.