Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Like many attractive artists, Alina Szapocznikow enjoyed posing, whether it was for someone else’s snapshot or for her own darkly surreal creations. And yet it’s unfathomable that the cheerful sprite we see in photographs, with her flirtatious grin and thicket of wild hair, could have made the menacing objects now seething at the Museum of Modern Art. Those are her mouth, breasts and limbs we see enshrined like relics in polyester resin, but the fragmented self-portraits are defiant rather than revealing. For the camera, she was puckish and charming. If her works could make sound, they would howl.

Szapocznikow’s volatile sculptures look cramped and caged in MoMA’s small galleries, where they’ve been gathered into a rare retrospective. A frightening life-sized figure greets us in the dark corridor. “Bouquet II” resembles a mummy, wrapped from chest to feet in cellophane, sprouting a pair of balloon-like breasts and a head assembled out of multiple mouths. From its crown springs another bouquet of grimacing lips, smeared with blood-red lipstick.

Yet more disembodied mouths are scattered throughout the galleries as if whispering silent secrets. There are electric lamp-lips lit from within, ceramic vase-lips cradling flowers, ashtray-lips overflowing with cigarette butts, lips on stems, and luscious candy-pink lips served on a dessert plate. Yet in all their variety, most of them recognisably belong to the artist, cast from life and moulded into resin that looks nearly as vital and fragile as flesh.

Szapocznikow, who began her career just after the second world war and died in 1973, has remained widely ignored outside her native Poland. Rigorously trained in classical sculpture in Paris and Prague, she gradually unravelled her education until she was left with a tangle of useless techniques and a pile of existential discomfort. She was, she wrote, “a sculptor who has experienced the failure of a thwarted vocation”. What she meant was that the traditional practice of muscling tough materials into permanent forms seemed irrelevant to her in a time when machines could do the job so much more efficiently. When Szapocznikow looked around, she saw a world of chaos, destruction, dissolution and change, and she searched for a medium to represent it.

She found it in polyester resin, a viscous liquid that, once poured into a mould, would harden, preserving the texture and detail of organic tissue. Handling that oozing, sticky stuff seemed infinitely more modern to her than chiselling stone or casting bronze, and it allowed her to use sculpture almost photographically, to freeze a vanishing instant, rather than to hew a lasting statue. She cast her own body parts, fashioning truncated limbs and facial features into grotesque constructions. She moulded chewed gum into mantis-like hybrids; she entombed her hair and clothes in plastic. “Despite everything,” she wrote, “I persist in trying to fix in resin the traces of our body: I am convinced that of all the manifestations of the ephemeral the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering and all truth.”

She called her pieces “fetishes” and “awkward objects” to distinguish them from sculptures; the irony is that in fleeing her artistic inheritance, she produced a robust catalogue of works that for all their hostile weirdness, possess a monumental poise.

For inspiration, Szapocznikow turned to the Paris Surrealists of the 1920s, a generation of artists who, like her, tried to circumnavigate the wreckage of their time and rebuild European culture after a cataclysmic war. She found a creative spark in the tumorous excrescences of Hans Bellmer’s S&M dolls; in the floating, disembodied lips popularised by Man Ray and Salvador Dalí; and in the “Involuntary Sculptures” that Brassaï coaxed out of toothpaste and pocket-lint. Like them, she dipped into Freud’s idea of the uncanny, the “ghastly harbinger of death” incarnated in the puppet, the double, the automaton, the severed limb and the spectral shards of the human face.

Her work is much more intense and personal than the output of her cool Surrealist muses. For one thing, she had grown up with intimate knowledge of suffering and death. Born in Poland in 1926 to Jewish parents, Szapocznikow spent her teen years in ghettos and concentration camps. She survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and a near-fatal brush with tuberculosis in 1950, before succumbing to breast cancer in 1973. The show’s curators, Elena Filipovic and Joanna Mytkowska, play down her biography, fearing that viewers might start to see her work as nothing more than a testament of woe. They have a point. Once you know the role that disease played in her life, it’s difficult to see “Tumours Personified”, a malignant scattering of resin-coated clods, each marked with a malformed self-portrait, as anything but a sufferer’s lament. The curators would rather place her in an art-historical context and hint at links with contemporaries such as Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse, who mapped out extremes of the female grotesque.

But Szapocznikow herself insisted on erasing the boundaries between where she ended and her creations began. “I want to exalt the ephemeral in the folds of our body, in the traces of our passage,” she wrote. She did that especially in the last, devastating series called “Herbarium”. For these she coated her body in liquid plastic, peeled it away, and pressed the luminous strips onto wooden boards, preserving them like flayed skins.

Meandering through these mournful rooms, we are left with the disconcerting presence of an artist who was at once reticent and exhibitionistic, who trafficked in her own image but dealt it out, literally, one bit at a time. It’s this ambivalence that makes the show feel somehow paltry and excessive at the same time. Szapocznikow gives us plenty of lip, but she shrouds her heart.

Until January 28,

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