Roll to the Parnassus goal and ... behind the wall of silence. The case of Magdalena Abakanowicz

One day she went to bed and lost her desire for any activity. She still accepted a group of loved ones, but otherwise she sank into her own thoughts or memories. I can guess why: she couldn't understand why all the obstacles were suddenly placed against her. Moreover - a wall of silence surrounded her as well.

In memoriam Magdalena Abakanowicz (June 20th , 1930 – April 20th, 2017)

First a general observation.

There are several reasons why buried fame is taking on a star-studded glow again: her rewritten biography full of dramatic (and additionally dramatised) events; the turn of fashion and the resulting search for trend pioneers; scandal uncovered years later…

But if someone lives properly, proves to be a model of moral conduct, and achieves the pinnacle of success on their own account, the return to the collective consciousness can be done only with money that commands respect.
In autumn 2021, a record on the Polish auction market was set by Magdalena Abakanowicz's sculptures. "Bambini", a group of 83 concrete children's figures, was auctioned for 13.6 million PLN.
She's back.


"Bambini" is a set of almost a hundred children's figures (repeated consistently from the 1980s to the late 1990s, made of various materials - more or less durable - starting from sackcloth, through ceramics, going towards bronze). When taking Abakanowicz’s art, they are usually without individual features, hands and heads. They stimulate your imagination only when presented in a group. However, it is worth taking a closer look at them. There are no two identical silhouettes. Yes, they all repeat the same gesture or pose: legs apart, back bent forward, stiff neck. One senses anxiety, humility and fear of going out of the rhythm, out of the imposed order, out of the regime. This is how young generations are trained - following the top-down guidelines.

The author used to say that one figure could have a decorative effect or symbolise an event. However, a collection of individuals, a crowd, a horde, put the viewer FACING IT. They bring anxiety - is it a murderous power, are these enslaved people subordinate to someone or people enslaved by the system?
The exhibition “Biotexture, the Mystery of the Breath: Magdalena Abakanowicz's "Bambini" - opened on November 10th, 2022, at the Silesian Museum in Katowice. The exhibition consisted of a series of 83 sculptures, "Bambini", which were created between 1998 and 1999 and are among the artist's most famous works. Photo. PAP/CTK, Grzegorz Klatka
The same work, "Bambini", was exhibited in 2010 at the Royal Castle in Warsaw - but did not attract much attention. Also, only a few years ago, did anyone notice this installation's presence, when it was presented in Berlin during Gallery Weekend? And it was in a special entourage: in the side aisles of the Evangelical Church of St. Elizabeth. They took on sacral rhetoric there.

Crowd in the library

Volumes have been written about her - and there is no exaggeration. I have only some of the albums, catalogues and leaflets that were issued on the occasion of her exhibitions, which take up a lot of space on the shelf. But all the publications, documentaries, ballet performances, and Abakanowicz's own notes could form a separate library.

Abakanowicz’s art projects have been featured in so many places around the globe that just the very list of places where she exhibited her work would resemble a geography lesson. Very often, she was there herself.

The current triumphant return of Abakanowicz we also owe to a foreign exhibition. At London's Tate Modern, the presentation of our artist's early textile masterpieces is underway (until May 21st, 2023), which is proudly reported by the Polish media. Almost simultaneously, a much more modest show is taking place in the Polish capital's Royal Castle ("Abakanowicz. Confrontations" - until February 19th, 2023).

One can only speculate why this is so. I believe The Royal Castle in Warsaw mostly attracts the audience with Art from past generations, and hardly anyone would expect to see contemporary art pieces here. Perhaps, the choice of the space - where the selection of our artist's works was placed - was not the most fortunate one: the Royal Library is the only castle’s room preserved in its original shape, but ... too "aggressive" visually, due to the white and dark grey flooring and candelabra, objects that somehow compete with the exhibits. Although the constructors of the monograph tried to use the layout of the tiles on the marble floor as a narrative asset, this gives the impression of over-interpretation. For example, "Crowd" (1989) closing the show, arranged in a military formation in two rows narrowing in perspective towards the last but strongly illuminated figure - is an attempt to make viewers perceive one of the characters as a commander, hero, the ringleader. In the “Crowds”, the author meant something else: the strike force of the human mass, remotely controlled by ideology, the desire for revenge, greed and other negative features of human nature.

And something else: Abakanowicz's works have the strongest impact on the emotions and imagination of the recipients in neutral rooms or where she herself chose forms and materials, inscribing them into the surroundings, in the open air. Different contexts, as well as the history of places, inspired her and added new meaning to her search.

She always tried to supervise the arrangement of the sculptress and objects herself, keeping an eye on the layout, from the beginning to the end, down to every centimetre. Depending on the location, the meaning of her works changed. Sometimes the clusters of figures seemed to be a mindless, attacking mass of people - the one she feared so much during and after the war under Stalinism. Sometimes, the individual figures entered into a dialogue with each other - but this was in later and "lighter" stagings - when communism had already collapsed.

Would she be satisfied with cramming several figural collections with two objects from the "War Games" series in one space?

Now it's the war

Speaking of “War Games”; Other objects from this series, exhibited at the Tate Modern, happen to be a form of a link to the current monographs. Except that in London, the focus was on textiles, and in Warsaw - on human "shells".
"Games..." were created in the late 1980s. It was then when it was believed that Abakanowicz had finally decided to change her country of living and her address. Meanwhile, she ... went to the Masurian Lake District, where she worked on the "War Games". It was there where she saw the great fallen trunks of linden trees lying by the road. She couldn't leave them "to get wasted". She visualised new material in them, an incentive to open a new chapter in her artwork.

  She stayed in the Masurian District for a long time. She removed the bark of the trees and processed the trunks herself, trimmed, slashed, smoothed and occasionally darkened in places. Then she completed it with a hard material - steel clamps, "beaks", hoops or other metal elements. As a result, the wooden – always lying horizontally chunky logs - seem soft, while the steel parts empower the sculptures and make them seem menacing.

Some people see them as metaphors for limbs wounded and massacred by war, saved by amputations, or replaced with prostheses; others sense their fighting potential. Another biographical association again: Abakanowicz's mother was shot in the shoulder during the war. Are these retrospections?

As you know, the artist was born in the town of Falenty, near Warsaw. Her former house could have become a local attraction if the legacy and the exhibits had been taken care of, but above all, if the renovations were carried out. The building is currently in danger of demolition. The Abakanowicz family house in Falenty is actually the object of a battle - but before it is settled, let's give the floor to its minor (then) resident.

She was nine years old "when the world has heard about her" - though the world would have been better off - if it hadn’t ...
This is how she remembered it: “I was nine years old. It was autumn. On the road that went from the mill to the alder alley, along the very edge of the park, there were German tanks. We stood on the terrace, looking surprised. They also watched, leaning out as if on parade. I saw them for the first time, their faces, their uniforms. I couldn't hate. I didn't believe it. I didn't understand why they would hate the four of us standing on the terrace. They fired, apparently aiming deliberately at the wall.

Then she recalled her experiences from her studies in the era of Stalinism:
A person is shaped by the first ten years of life. I spent that time in splendid solitude. When I found myself among my peers, after the Warsaw Uprising, I didn't know any group games - dodgeball, for example - and I needed help finding myself in a group. I was terribly shy. Each peer was a colossal problem for me, which I tried to figure out. This experience stays forever. From the time of my studies, I remember the fear of talking about myself, about the family's past. I lived in a dormitory, in a sixteen-person bunk-bed room. It was hard to hide anything there. Yet, we knew nothing about each other. Finally, after forty years, I met my roommate and only then did it turn out that we both had similar experiences - we were children of landowners’ families.
Warsaw, 1975. Sculptress Magdalena Abakanowicz in her studio, among her fabric sculptures – “Abakans”. Photo. PAP/Jan Michlewski
Her fear of the silent, thoughtless crowd dates back to those times - the one she feared after the Soviet revolution:
– I am puzzled by the colossal destructive power of a human being, perhaps pushing him towards self-destruction, ordering him to kill and destroy against his intellect ... These are the issues that besiege me. Surprisingly enough, the man had never changed - since the moment he left Paradise, when Cain killed his brother Abel. Maybe each of us is a potential murderer?

Today, in the context of the war in Ukraine, the "War Games" take on a new, gloomy meaning. Like other outstanding artists, Magdalena Abakanowicz had the gift of clairvoyance - not as much as predicting the facts but anticipating human behaviour. Because she recognised the human nature.

Abakan is a proper name

There was a time, and it was a long time, when the list of Polish world-recognised artists was opened with her name - starting with the letter "A" as Abakanowicz.
Then, Kantor and Opałka were following on the list, and nobody was even informed about the Fangor's success - he was screwed for a long time as he stayed abroad illegally.

In the Polish People’s Republic era, we were rarely present in the international artistic circles. In addition, around those – who, by various methods, managed to leave their homeland for longer or forever - there was this conspiracy of silence imposed by politics. As a result, even Józef Czapski, a man of many talents and a great deal of merits, was erased from history for a long time. It was only in the 1990s that we began to learn the names and achievements of the "refugees" who returned with their heads held high after the political transformation.

She was always there (although travelling a lot) - because she never decided to emigrate, despite having many opportunities to do so. Why not? Because... "she hated easy things." And she wanted to check whether, starting at the level of a poor socialist country, she could meet the challenges and catch up with the prominent creators from the West. At what level do you have to be to meet, match, or even outperform those from the West?

Magdalena Abakanowicz, independently and on her own, broke through to the global peloton, starting with what in the 1960s seemed to be the domain of women: artistic fabric.

She quickly "rebounded" from this field. It reached sculptural monuments, multi-element installations (such as "Embryology" - the gift to Tate Modern, currently exhibited there), and then outdoor accomplishments. She made her journey ... rolling to the goal - as if on a string or a rope. Sisal one.

Her name went down in the History of Art thanks to "Abakans" - gigantic constructions woven from sisal fibre, rope and wool. Up close, you don't distinguish the raw materials, but you observe a rough, uneven texture that you can admire and taste; from a short interspace - "Abakans" overwhelm you with their scale and heaviness; from a greater distance - they delight with the perfection of shapes - compositions wonderfully proportioned, a combination of spontaneity and vitality of nature with an almost mathematically calculated balance. How did she manage to achieve this without watching the results on a regular basis?

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Once she told me, "A man is born with a certain amount of necessity." I had my own vision of the fabric; I had to go beyond the walls of the studio. I dreamed of acting in space, of combining my works with open-air premises. "Abakans" brought me incredible fame, but that was the starting point. I wanted to free the Art from any aesthetic expression - because here in Europe, we consider Art to be decoration - I tried to convey something non-verbal through sculpture. One human figure, a single sculpture, is less powerful than a group of figures, a crowd. So I made multi-figure installations.

Unlike most artists, she did not stop at the concept that brought her the international fame in the mid-1960s (1965, Grand Prix at the São Paulo Art Biennial). She dared to change the resources for each cycle and master the next, new technique each time.

You can enumerate the most important ones: from resin-hardened jute fabric, through wood and stone, to cast iron and bronze. More… Abakanowicz dared to enter into architecture, proposing a row of houses in the shape of tree trunks for the Parisian district of La Défense - on the extension of the great axis of Paris. She won the competition, but the implementation did not take place. Fortunately, mock-ups have been preserved that prove the visionary concept.

Is it possible to achieve more, starting from a traditional - gradually enriched and complicated, but still - weaving workshop? From dyeing the fibres in the old-fashioned, hand-managed “Frania” wash machine? And all of this - in a small studio apartment space, in a socialist block of flats.

By the way, the dimensions of the apartment caused one of her most famous "Abakans" - the one with a slit in the middle, resembling an enlarged exotic flower- (over three meters high, and if you hang it "loose", it requires at least five meters) - it gained this crack for ... practical reasons.
Well, on the wall where Abakanowicz hung her tapestries (in parts), there was a socket, a switch for electricity. To have access to it, you had to break through the fabric or lift it. Surreal! However, through the slit, you could easily switch yourself into the switch.

The size and weight of the textile compositions also caused problems: the author had no chance to see the works in their entirety before they were sent to the gallery. Their transport was also problematic - they did not fit in the elevator and had to be lowered down on ropes through the top-floor window of the block. That’s the prose of the Polish People's Republic - PRL life.
And an incomparable worldwide success.
Leaving alive

I remember the time when Magdalena Abakanowicz… disappeared. Still during her lifetime.

This was in the early 2000s, before she developed what was said to be Alzheimer's disease, or was it really? I think her intellectual collapse was accelerated by despair.

One day she went to bed and lost her desire for any activity, including contact with people. She still allowed a group of loved ones, even sat down with them to eat together, but otherwise she sank into her own thoughts or memories.

I guess the reason was that she didn't want to and couldn't understand why all the obstacles were suddenly placed against her. Moreover - a wall of silence surrounded her as well.
Magdalena Abakanowicz at her work "Agora", presenting 106 headless iron statues, exhibited in November 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. It was the artist's gift to the city, inspired - as she said - by her own experience of war. Photo. PAP/EPA, Tannen Maury
As a result of a secret conspiracy, her works were no longer exhibited, no space was allocated in Warsaw to store her large objects, the design of the Sculpture Park - on the escarpment, near the artist's house - was not approved, and the decision to set up a spatial installation at the “Plac na Rozdrożu” square was revoked. She was removed from the bodies deciding on matters important to our Art. In general, in the capital, where she lived most of her life, none of her objects were purchased or accepted for museum collections.

It's hard to say that the native audience was "overfed" - she didn't exhibit in Poland very often, and she had to wait until 2002 for her first open-air sculpture in Poznań. However, as monumental as it is - "Unrecognized", set at the Park Cytadela in Poznań - has almost no audience at all …

It is also impossible to accuse her of flirting with the communist authorities; on the contrary, she has never been “the darling” of the "red" and achieved foreign successes thanks to her talent and titanic work.
Well, “we already say thank you”.

"Her portrait"

Magdalena Abakanowicz's work has been analysed, described and interpreted by many people of art and intellect. I would also place her in these two areas of human activity. It is forgotten that she had an excellent command of language expression and left behind many records that might be studied. She was aware of her academic needs and talents, but she believed that her remarks about the world would resonate most strongly when transferred into visual art.

I would like to save her from oblivion - a woman of a not very monumental posture, although she appeared to be so to all observers. How did she manage to achieve that?
Charisma. Restraining weakness. Control over the body and diseases. At the same time, she was able to manage her needs - she moved harmoniously between being a public figure and intimacy. This was during the days before the social media expansion, but still in the early internet era. She knew that after months of activity, she needed solitude; she needed it so much that she did not even read anything, wanting to be alone with her thoughts.

Then she caught the wind in her sails again. She was able to get along not only with people of art but also with helpers and manual workers. She gained their respect with her seemingly indestructible strength and knowledge of trades. Sometimes, her co-workers collapsed from exhaustion after long, overseas voyages – but she worked, designed, and corresponded again during long hours of flights. And the next day, after an exhausting journey, she didn't seem to feel the jet lag - she was enthusiastic about her next project.

Recently, on the occasion of her current exhibitions, I was looking through some old catalogues in which she was immortalised in many photos, next to her installations. This was not due to vanity - most often she posed as a "human element" to imagine the scale of her works.

I compared how visible the changes in her status and position were; those countless awards and honours, primarily foreign, all the more arousing envy.

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For a long time, she seemed unchanged. She always wore short hair, trousers, and men's clothes during her work. Compared to her monumental creations, she seems petite, although in a close-up, her face is striking determined and serious (as always). She never smiles, but you can notice her pride and confidence.

And here, looking through the catalogues, I observe changes in these portraits. Not only the passage of time - understandably, everyone begins ageing. That's something different. Her seriousness turns into bitterness, strength - not only physical but also mental - visibly decreases, and her strong body becomes fragile, as if her vital forces suddenly disappeared.

In the photographs from the exhibition at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, from 2010, when Magdalena Abakanowicz acutely felt that she was being removed, her face resembles a mask. There are no more vivid, spontaneous reactions to reality; pride and bravery disappeared. There is an elderly lady who has failed despite her worldly career. In her own country, which she wanted to bring to the public attention so much.

– Monika Małkowska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– translated by Katarzyna Chocian

The exhibition "Abakanowicz. Confrontations" at the Royal Castle in Warsaw will be open only a few more days - until February 19th, 2023.

The exhibits were displayed in the Royal Library - the only building in the Royal Castle complex that was not demolished during World War II. The works have been selected according to the key: the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the sense of threat associated with it. The exhibition was accomplished in cooperation with Marta Magdalena Abakanowicz Kosmowska and Jan Kosmowski Foundation. It is accompanied by a publication illustrated with amazing photos, containing essays prepared by experts of Abakanowicz's work, published by the Castle ‘Arx Regia’ Publishing Centre.

Curators of the exhibition: Dr Mariusz Klarecki, Katarzyna Rogalska (Royal Castle in Warsaw, Board of Trustees of the Copper-Roof Palace)
Main photo: Main: Abakan Red - one of 26 large-scale works by Magdalena Abakanowicz called “Abakans”, presented at the "Every Tangle of Thread and Rope" exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. Photo. PAP/PA, Aaron Chown
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