The Second World War left the city of Wrocław in western Poland utterly ruined, in terms of architecture, infrastructure, population and spirit. Afterwards, an influx of German and Jewish immigrants brought their own heritage to the Polish town, eventually creating a new, blended culture, upon which modern Wrocław stands. Early last year, the city won the title of European Capital of Culture 2016, flooding the cobbled streets, colourful squares and concrete suburbs with funding and international intrigue.
This newly appreciated artists’ hub is the canvas for a sprawling retrospective of Poland’s most recognised female artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, who passed away in April. Abakanowicz’s own dramatic story, in many ways, mirrors that of the city’s. A not-so-distant relation of Genghis Khan, Abakanowicz grew up on an estate near Warsaw, to a noble landowning mother and Konstanty, the son of a czarist general. War brought destruction, and later, communism made her a class enemy. In 1943, drunk, German soldiers broke into her home and shot her mother, severing her right arm below the shoulder. Escaping, Abakanowicz spent most of the war as a nurse’s aid in Warsaw, hiding her identity, later turning to art to document her experiences.
As Wrocław refound itself through cultural revival, so too did Abakanowicz. Her friend and collaborator, Mariusz Hermansdorfer, said at the exhibition’s opening, ‘This is a city that Abakanowicz enjoyed. It’s also a city that enjoyed a very close relationship with Abakanowicz.’ Now, her sculptures fill public squares and gardens; they occupy an underground walkway; the airport foyer and the train station; they're hidden in a courtyard inside the Museum of Architecture, and in the Museum of Modern Art (which is more avantgarde dyskoteka than museum).
Untitled sculptures, installed in the train station. Courtesy of the artist estate
The rangy exhibition ‘is like a journey through her studio’, says the indefatigable curator, Maria Rus Bojan. ‘It covers all her periods of activity from the early works to the last. I believe that it’s enough to give everybody an idea about the essence of her work and why she is so important for the art world.’
Abakanovicz was one of the first artists to use textiles as supportive structures in sculpture. Of her oeuvre, it’s her early ‘Abakans’ – great swathes of cloth hanging from the ceiling – that have garnered the most international attention. Three of these vast, opaque curtains of unfurled rope (slashed, tied in knots and pulled apart) hang in the train station gallery. They are tormented objects; wiry horse hair sticks out in clumps. Matted with organic matter, they look like they’re still living, despite having been produced half a century ago.
These complex, unruly curtains set the tone for a powerful life's work. In the War Games series (her most overtly political) unwieldy blackened tree trunks are wrapped in shrapnel-like iron casings – a metaphor for the tight fist of Poland’s communist rule. Her headless, marching army of bronze children, frozen outside the train station, each bare individual scars and blemishes; ‘her way of showing personal identity within multiplicity,’ explains Rus Bojan. Her early limbless torso sculptures – which Rus Bojan calls 'aberrations of nature’ – viscerally echo her mother’s violent wartime experiences. In each of these distinct phases, Abakanovicz maintains her complete and consistent refusal of stereotypical beauty and ‘prettiness’.
Despite the continuously relevant power of Abakanovicz’s art, few acknowledge her longstanding importance. Her faceless fabric mannequins can be read in Louise Bourgeois’ 1990s Couple and Single series, and her metal people recall Anthony Gormley’s storied 80s iron men – yet much of her work predates them. It’s only because of generous support from the newly inaugurated, London-based ArtEast Foundation that this exhibition happened at all. ‘Without ArtEast this exhibition would not have been possible,’ says Rus Bojan. ‘For them, the word “impossible” doesn’t exist.’ It has taken this dedicated (amply-funded) team, and Rus Bojan’s endless respect for Abakanovicz, that her work is finally being given the attention, and city-wide space, it deserves.