This year, March 2nd marks the 44th anniversary of Alina Szapocznikow’s death. In 1973, after a long illness, the artist died in the Praz-Coûtant sanatorium in Passy, ​​France. She was buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. Only after the funeral, her testament was discovered, in which she asked to be buried in Warsaw.


She was born in 1926 in Kalisz in an assimilated Jewish family of doctors. Her father, Jakub, was a dentist, and mother, Rywka (later Regina), was a paediatrician. Just after Alina’s birth, the family moved to Pabianice – Jakub’s home town. They lived in the New Town district.


At that time, Alina’s elder brother Mirosław attended the 2nd Municipal Middle School of the Jewish Middle Schools Society in Łódź. The parents sent their daughter first to the Polish school in Pabianice, and then to the St Jadwiga Public Middle School where the numerus clausus was in force (only two Jewish students were accepted every year).



At the beginning of 1940, Alina, her mother and brother were resettled to the Pabianice ghetto located in the area limited by the following streets: Sobieskiego, Batorego, Bóżnicza, Kapliczna, Konopna, Garncarska and Kościelna. Alina's father was already gone then – he died of tuberculosis in 1938. Alina and Mirosław dropped out of school, and their mother probably started to work at the hospital located in the closed district. After its liquidation on May 18, 1942, the family was deported to the Łódź ghetto, where they checked in at 24/4 Zgierska Street. The check-in in Łódź is the last mention of Mirosław. He died in January 1945 in a German Nazi concentration camp in Litomerice, Czech Republic. Alina and her mother did not know what had happened to him until the end of war.


In the State Archive in Lodz, a letter of recommendation has been preserved, issued for Alina by the ghetto administration on June 28, 1943. Looking at it, we may assume that due to her mother’s position – Rywka worked as a doctor at a tailor’s workshop – Alina began education at a vocational school at the Leon Glazer’s lingerie and dress factory, and then got a job there. In 1944, in the course of the ghetto liquidation, mother and daughter were assigned to the last transports and went to Auschwitz only at the end of August. Due to this probably, they spent only a few weeks there. Then they were transferred to Bergen-Belsen. Also there, Rywka got a job at the camp hospital. In November, both women were relocated to Duderstadt (a subsidiary of Buchenwald camp) and directed to work at the Polte munitions factory. They stayed there until April 1945, when the prisoners were evacuated to Terezin. At that time, Rywka and Alina were separated. They met again only at the end of 1945.



After the liberation, Alina went to Prague. She applied for Czechoslovak citizenship as Alena Šapočnikova from Czech Cieszyn. With this lie, she easily acquired the status of a returnee in 1945 and the citizenship in 1947. She was convinced her whole family had been killed during the war, so she decided to stay in Prague. She began studying at the Higher School of Arts and Industry under the guidance of Josef Wagner. At the same time, she started practices at the sculpture studio of Otakar Velínski. She continued her studies at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she attended the classes of Paul Niclausse. She spent a lot of time at the canteen on the rue de Racine which served as a meeting place for Polish left-wing circles and was financed by the Polish embassy. During one of the visits, she met her future husband, Ryszard Stanisławski, who later headed the Museum of Art in Łódź for many years. Stanisławski was studying mathematics then, but, prompted by Alina, he began to study art history. During his stay in Paris, the couple made friends with Jan Białostocki, Mieczysław Porębski, Tadeusz Kantor, Jan Kott, Adam Ważyk, Stefan Żółkiewski and others.


Since August 1948, Szapocznikow maintained a lively correspondence with her husband, also after the divorce in 1958, until September 1971. She never spoke about her life during the occupation. In the letters, she referred to her wartime experiences only twice. In one of them, she writes:


“(…) I’ve read recently Miasto niepokonane (The Unbeaten City) by Brandys (a story of [occupied – ed.] Warsaw). After many books of French writers... And it occurred to me the antagonisms and disagreements arising between us stem mostly from a single source. You simply look at some things still so nicely, culturally, politely, as it actually should be, and maybe sometimes I envy you that. But the difference is that at the time of your formation, during the last 10 years you have not passed the baptism of despair, all of that, the world did not end up to you totally for several times, as it happened to me in the ghettos and camps. I'm sorry, Ryś, I am ashamed of it, you know how I hate, how I despise those people who reproach themselves or »boast« with the years of ordeal they experienced. But you have to understand me, I told you already, and I might be able to tell everything concerning those times, and in this case it is a very important thing. Because you experienced certainly a lot then, you lived better or worse, you loved, got married, wanted (or not) to start a family. But the concepts have not changed essentially, as in my case, where what have remained instead of »nice, culturally, politely« is »beautifully, humanely, deeply true«”.


[Szapocznikow’s letter to Stanisławski of January 25, 1949, in: Kroją mi się piękne sprawy. Listy Aliny Szapocznikow i Ryszarda Stanisławskiego 1948–1971 (Beautiful things are afoot for me. Correspondence of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanisławski, 1948-1971), Agata Jakubowska, Katarzyna Szotkowska-Beylin – ed., Kraków-Warszawa, pp. 91-93.]



In February 1951, Szapocznikow and Stanisławski returned to Poland. He started to work at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAS), she quickly obtained numerous public commissions (e.g. at the MDM Studio). She made friends with Jerzy Tchórzewski and Wojciech Fangor. She took part in many competitions and exhibitions in Poland, and after the October thaw, also in Western Europe.


In 1963, she moved permanently to France, together with her son, Peter, and her second husband, Roman Cieślewicz, a graphic designer and co-creator of “Ty i Ja” magazine. Her sensual, organic works exploiting corporeality did not gain understanding of Paris community; she had not managed to mark her presence at the Western art market before she died. Only in the last years of her life, when she had to refuse due to health reasons, the Academy of Fine Arts in Nice offered her the chair of sculpture.


In 1968, during her stay in Poland, she was witness to the events of March and the growing anti-Semitic atmosphere. She experienced in person the of power anti-Semitic propaganda in 1969, when she was not allowed to participate neither in art competitions nor in 25 years of sculpture in Poland exhibition.



Alina Szapocznikow spent the last months of her life in the Praz-Coûtant sanatorium in Passy, France. There, fully aware of the upcoming death, she took leave of her friends and relatives:


"I want you to remember that each leaf flying which you can see, every piece of rubbish that you can touch, every taste or smell, or wind noise is more important than all the works of art and artistic »successes«".


[Testament, 12th of November, quoted after: Beylin, M., Ferwor. Życie Aliny Szapocznikow (The Fervour. The life of Alina Szapocznikow), Kraków-Warszawa, 2015, p. 250].


Agata Korba


 


References:


Beylin M., Ferwor. Życie Aliny Szapocznikow, Kraków-Warszawa 2015.


Alina Szapocznikow. Sculpture Undone. 1955-1972, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2012.


Zatrzymać życie. Alina Szapocznikow. Rysunki i rzeźby (To preserve the life. Alina Szapocznikow. Drawings and sculptures), red. Józef Grabski, Kraków-Warszawa 2004.


Read more about Alina Szapocznikow in our biographical note.

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