Magdalena Abakanowicz was a Polish sculptor and fiber artist, who was known for her revival of figuration in late-twentieth century sculpture. Her evolution from textile artist to fiber sculptor took place in the context of Poland’s postwar struggle with issues of contemporary art.
Born to aristocratic parents, she grew up on a country estate east of Warsaw. When she was attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw from 1950-1954, Socialist Realism under Communist rule was the only art form allowed. Artists had to conform to the strict guidelines and limitations that subordinated art to the needs of the State. Only realistic depictions in the nature of 19th century European academic tradition were acceptable in Poland and in the other countries under Soviet rule. In addition, because she was female, she was required to take textile design and weaving classes. These classes would however influence her work later on.
After the death of Stalin, Poland in 1956 experienced a dramatic social and cultural change. The knowledge of different kinds of art liberated Poland from the Stalinesque era of social realism.
Constructivism began to influence her work in the late 1950s, and she adopted weaving as a way to express her art. In 1960, she included a series of four weavings along with art works of large gouaches and watercolors on paper and linen sheets. She became well-known in the Polish textile and fiber design movement, and her work was shown in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1962.
In the late 1960s she produced large, woven, abstract works of fragmented and vulnerable figural pieces. Her 1967 room-filling “Abakans,” derived from her own last name, were representations of human bodies made from three-dimensional fiber works of sisal, wool, hemp rope, and other organic materials. Their uneven weaving and rough surfaces looked like scars, like the scars and sense of trauma she suffered having lived through World War II and the Soviet Occupation of her country. These pieces secured her place in the art world.
During the 1970s her humanoid sculptures were followed by her “Alterations,” which were hollowed-out headless human figures sitting in a row. Her 1976-1980 burlap and resin “Backs” is a composition of eighty headless, limbless, and genderless figures, made on a single mold. In the late 1980s she began working with other materials, including metals. She created headless cast-bronze figures and trees capped with steel. She produced powerful and monumental sculptures not just in bronze but also in stone, iron, and wood in the 1990s. Her final work is “Agora” a permanent installation in Chicago’s Grant Park.
Her work, shown at the Venice biennial of 1980, caused a sensation. She received countless honors and awards and had public commissions for large, outdoor sculptures and environments in Europe, United States, Asia, and the Middle East.