Hauser & Wirth: Alina Szapocznikow 'To Exalt the Ephemeral 1962-1972' (until 1st August 2020)

Alina Szapocznikow was an artist with a vibrant and historically potent biography, and while it often pains me to bring an artist’s personal details into an analysis of their work, ultimately it is these things that make up the fabric of our identity as people, and the more I reflect on this the less concerned I am in using this information for context, as long as I'm not prying and it is readily available to me. This being said, Hauser and Wirth, who undeniably produce museum-quality exhibitions, have made this body of work feel important while emphasising its aesthetic strengths with a curation style that is loudly understated. Clean, white walls frame traditional podiums and glass boxes, allowing the artist’s voice to be heard, and her hand to be seen. While I'm not hugely keen on the glass boxes housing individual small works, the table-style podium for Szapocznikow’s lamp pieces seem a simple solution, effectively displaying function and aptness, with domestic allusions.

Alina Szapocznikow, Sculpture-lampe, 1970. Coloured polyester resin, light bulb, electrical wiring and metal, 54cm x 37cm x 23cm. ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy the Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck. Photo: Thomas Barratt


Unlike many of the hyper-Instagrammable installations we see in galleries today, Hauser and Wirth have gone for, as mentioned, a rather blank backdrop for the artist’s work. This, of course, is no accident, and I can’t help but feel it is a nod to not only the bright and vibrant energy of the work, so as not to overwhelm it, but also to the various influences Szapocznikow had to her practice. She died in 1973 at the age of 46, which, in a typical yet dark way, most likely makes her work of more interest to collectors, gallerists and the like. In all truth, many of the pieces could have been produced long after the exhibition's time frame of 1962-1972 as they have aged incredibly well. One particular work, ‘PamiÄ…tki (Souvenirs)’, comprised of photographic prints immersed in polyester resin, feels excitingly new, a kind of memento mori in its most literal sense: images of faces frozen in time, forever.

Alina Szapocznikow, Noga (Leg)1962. Plaster, 20cm x 49.8cm x 63.5cm. ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy the Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie LoevenbruckPhoto: Thomas Barratt


Observing the ways in which the artist depicts bodies atomistically is a recurring theme in the show. ‘Noga (Leg)’ from 1962 is subtle and quiet in its violence. A leg in isolation made from plaster is severed from any context, instead lying motionless; however the way in which the knee is bent implies that there is still life left in the body, that a body or a spirit can carry on when there is a part missing. Although it is not always helpful to use the artist’s biography as a benchmark for understanding their work, here I believe it is incredibly poignant, as Szapocznikow survived the horrors of concentration camps in her early life. It is difficult to fathom how life goes on after such an experience, but the ways in which the artist has created art to design her legacy and memory is thoroughly emotional to witness.

Installation view: To Exalt the Ephemeral. Hauser and Wirth London, 2020. Copyright ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Alex Delfanne


Bringing together this first-hand experience of the Holocaust with her later love for Surrealism creates work that needs to be considered closely. It would be easy to learn this information and take it at face value, but looking at the outcome of these two factors together makes Szapocznikow’s work not only unique but totally fascinating and almost addictive to behold. If you have seen any of the artist’s work before, it will most likely be something from the ‘sculpture-lamp’ series. Perhaps it is the gentle pink hues alongside a glowing lamp mouth and curvy structure, but these works are sumptuous, sexy and inviting; all this with an added functionality! ‘Lampe-bouche’ from 1966 and ‘Sculpture-lampe’ from 1970 are my personal highlights, so to speak, but the series alone is arguably worth the trip to Savile Row.

These works bring a large Pop aesthetic to the show, which is very of the time, yet still the Surrealist influences are strong enough to ensure that Szapocznikow cannot be classified lazily: she fits comfortably in neither Surrealist nor Pop movements. Yes, her biography can be used as a tool almost fifty years after her death to understand her work and processes, but the nature of her creativity forces us to overlook our own prejudices and expectations on how something should look, or how a certain subject or life experience should be addressed in a fine art practice. Szapocznikow uses the displacement of the body as a vehicle to create art that is genuine in its Surreal and Pop tendencies, before unwrapping multifaceted layers of love, pain, eroticism and femininity.

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