Magdalena Abakanowicz is a Polish sculptor who believes that sculpture
testifies to man’s evolving sense of reality and fulfils the necessity to express what cannot be
verbalized. Her heritage is from Polish-Russian aristocrats. When she was only nine, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Pola
nd. Her family survived and the after-effects
shaped her artwork.
She graduated from high school and spent an
extra two years of art school at Liceum Sztuk Plastyeznych w Gdyni. She went on to attend Gdansk Academy of FineArts located in Sopot. In 1950, she move to Warsaw to study at the Academy of Fine Arts which was the leading art school in Poland. The early 50s was a time of Socialist realism and all Soviet occupied nations were forced to adhere to the limitations of artistic expression. Magdalena found this envirnoment too rigid, she recalled: “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.” She was also required to take textile design classes, learning weaving,
screen printing, and fiber design. This would influence her work greatly.
Between 1956 - 1959,Magdalena produced some of her earliest works; a series of large gouaches and watercolor on paper and sewn-together linen sheets. The work depicted plants, birds, fish and seashells. She described her work, “My gouaches were as large as the wall permitted. Depressed by years of study, I was fighting back by making my gouaches for myself. For so long it had been repeated that I couldnot do it; my response had to be on a big scale. I wanted to take a walk among imaginary plants”.
With the death of Stalin, Poland experienced a dramatic social and cultural shift. Magdalena felt the freedom to experiment and soon adopted weaving as one way to explore. In 1962, she was included in the first Fiennale Internationale de le
Tapisserie in Lausanne, Switzerland. This helped her find international success.
In 1967, she began producing large scale fiber works called Abakans.
These works would secure her place in the art world as one of the great artists of the
time and influenced all of her work she hasproduced since. Her website describes them: “Each Abakan is made out of woven material using Abakanowicz’s own technique. The material used for many ofthese pieces was found, often collecting sisal ropes from harbors, untwining them into threads and dying them. Hung from the ceiling, Abakans reach sizes as large as thirteen feet with sometimes only a few inch clearance from the ground.”
In the 1970s, Magdalena changed mediums and started working with figurative and non-figurative sculptures made from sewn together sackcloth bonded with resin. Her sculptures called Alterations were hollowed out headless human figures placed in rows. In the 80s, she produced The Crowd which were 50 standing figures and also her series Embryology, which were egg-like sculptures in different sizes. She said, “the multiplicity of the human forms represent confusion and anonymity, analyzing an individual’s presence in a mass of humanity.”
In the 90s, Magdalena began working with metals, such as bronze for her sculptures, as well as wood, stone and clay. Her recent work is a project called Agora, which is located at the southern end of Chicago’s Grant Park. There are 106 cast iron figures, each nine feet tall. The casting took place for two years. The surface resembles tree bark. In her speech to the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz: “Perhaps the experience of the crowd, waiting passively in line, but ready to trample, detoy or adore on command like aheadless creature, became the core of my analysis. And maby it was a fascination with the scale of the human body or the desire to determine the minimal amount necessary to express the whole.”
I find her work extrodinary. I’m also drawn to natural materials. I’ve been weaving with fibers for six years and before that, I learned the traditional art of finger-weaving from a Seminole elder using yarn and buffalo hair. I’m currently working with burlap and fabric. Sometimes I can’t believe how happy I am working with these materials. At times I find myself laughing and feeling like I’m in the right place in the universe. I relate to her work like we are sisters, especially with her natural materials in abstract figurative forms. I wish I could work with her one day.