Profoundly affected by both her solitary childhood and the devastation of World War II, Magdalena Abakanowicz learned to escape loneliness and cruelty by taking refuge in her imagination. During the 1950s, she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland. Although the official style at that time was socialist realism, Abakanowicz preferred to paint huge gouaches of abstract plants and natural forms. In the 1960s she began working with natural fibers, creating weavings of flax, hemp, horsehair, sisal, and wool. Unlike many women weavers of the time, Abakanowicz rejected utilitarian concerns to create large reliefs and freestanding forms called Abakans: bulbous, flowing, organic, abstract forms that are hung from a wall or ceiling. These works, with their densely textured surfaces, are haunting and ominous.
As other artists in Poland turned from socialist realism to abstraction, Abakanowicz became interested in the evocative power of human imagery. For example, the works in her Garments series suggest standing figures by means of their empty clothes. From the 1970s through the 1990s, she glued burlap sacking and other rough fabrics over metal frames and plaster casts of nude bodies to create figural sculptures that are meditations on aspects of collective life and conformity.
As demand for her sculptures increased, Abakanowicz cast her burlap pieces in bronze editions. Her largest works consist of regimented forms, from as few as four to more than ninety identical figures. Their repetition in rows evokes the dehumanization and anonymity of totalitarian societies. In contrast, Figure on a Trunk features a lone human form presented on a stage of sorts, as if for our approval, judgment, or condemnation. The headless personage appears to be a hollowed-out husk—a mere shell, emptied of life and energy. The bench on which the figure stands seems stable, yet it rests on two logs that could roll out from underneath, suggesting a precarious balance. A powerful expression of the human condition, Abakanowicz’s sculpture is at once personal and universal, an effigy waiting passively for change and completion.
Location: Bass Concert Hall Plaza