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Polish Sculptor, Magdalena Abakanowicz.

September 16, 2008

Magdalena Abakanowicz was born in Falenty, Poland on June 20th, 1930. According to Wikipedia, she was born into an aristocratic PolishRussian family. Her mother, who was Polish, had roots connected to the Polish nobility of ages past. Magdalena’s father, who was of Polish, Russian, and Tatar ancestry which dated back to the great leader of the Mongolian tribe Abaka-Khan, fled Russia at the time of the October revolution. The Russian invasion of 1920 forced her family to flee their home, after which they moved to the city of Gdańsk. When she was nine Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland. Her family endured the war years living on the outskirts of Warsaw.

Ms. Abakanowicz studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 1950-1954. She started off by painting, producing large gouache compositions on cardboard and canvas, but moved into a medium that was to become her “signature” work: textiles. She began working with textiles in a  three-dimensional way, these became the soft sculptures she titled “Abakans”, a derivation of her family name. They were an attempt to reconcile her fascination with the soft, loose fabric and expressive color. Abanowicz was also intrigued by the texture of the matter, her “Abakans” – made from dyed sisal fibre – shocking with their multiplied organic nature. At exhibitions they were suspended from the ceiling, the artist breaking away from the tradition of flat surfaces of decorative textiles hung against the walls.


“Abakans” inspired admiration for the artist’s ingenuity and consistency, becoming Abakanowicz’s ticket to international salons. They delighted the viewers and critics at the 1964 International Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne and earned the artist the gold medal at the 1967 Sao Paolo Biennial, triggering off Abakanowicz’s international career.

Ms. Abakanowicz shifted gear somewhat during the 1970’s and into the 80’s by changing scale and medium. She began a series of figurative and non-figurative sculptures made out of pieces of coarse sackcloth which she sewed and pieced together and bonded with synthetic resins. These works became more representational than previous sculptures but still retained a degree of abstraction and ambiguity. In 1974-1975 she produced sculptures called Alterations, which were twelve hollowed-out headless human figures sitting in a row. From 1973–1975 she produced a series of enormous, solid forms reminiscent of human heads without faces called Heads. From 1976-1980 she produced a piece called Backs, which was a series of eighty slightly differing sculptures of the human trunk.

80 BACKS.  1976-80 Burlap and resin.


According to MOMA: in the 1970s she experimented further with textile sculpture, using burlap, string and cotton gauze. She started with the “Deviations series, followed by the “Alterations” series, featuring ‘faces’ and ‘schizophrenic heads’.


 Burlap and hemp rope on metal support. 
Sixteen pieces: from 84 x 51 x 66 cm to 109 x 76 x 71 cm. 

After this period her work concentrated on fragmented human figures (heads without trunks, bodies without heads, torsos without legs) placed singly or in large groups. The human body as a structure became her chief interest, and for her research she visited scientific laboratories and dissecting rooms, consulted the most advanced scientists and studied slides of the brain.


 Charcoal on paper. 100 x 70 cm. 

Ms. Abakanowicz has lived through, and been witness to, years of war and the resultant succession of political, social, economic and spiritual upheavals. She has always been concerned with the human condition and her sculpture reflects the loss and hardships incurred during those times of strife. 

Below is RUNA from the series WAR GAMES. This is a cycle of monumental structures comprised of huge trunks of old trees, with their branches and bark removed. Partly bandaged with rags and hugged with steel hoops, these sculptures are placed on lattice metal stands. Like the name of the cycle implies, these sculptures have a very militaristic feel to them, as they have been compared to artillery vehicles. Wikipedia.

 RUNA 1987-89, 91-93

Wood, iron, burlap.

She is best known for her headless, half-hollow human figures, which are made out of resin “soaked” burlap or cast bronze. (According to Wikipedia: In the late 1980s to 1990s Abakanowicz began to use metals, such as bronze, for her sculptures, as well as wood, stone, and clay.) The fragmentary form of the figures, which lack any designation of race or culture, allows them to become generalized metaphors for the human condition.

HURMA. 1994/95

 Burlap, resin. Group of 250 figures children and adult. Life size.  

Ms. Abakanowicz has stated: “My work comes from the experience of crowds, injustice, and aggression… I feel an affinity for art when it was made a form of existence, like when shamans worked in the territory between men and unknown powers… I try to bewitch the crowd.”

DANCING FIGURES. 2000, burlap, resin.  


ANIMALS. From a group MUTANTS. 2000

Stainless steel. Six figures. Dimensions vary between 132-136 x 50-80 x 216-260 cm. 


 Burlap, resin. Group of 14 pieces 175-215 x 58-65 x 60-90 cm.   

Ms. Abakanowicz states apropos AGORA (below), “Models for each figure were made by hand, by myself and my three assistants. The surfaces of figures  are like a tree bark  or wrinkled face  expressing a different individuality of each sculpture.” 

AGORA. 106 Cast iron figures, each about 9′ tall.

“I feel overawed by quantity where counting no longer makes sense. By unrepeatability within such a quantity. By creatures of nature gathered in herds, droves, species, in which each individual, while subservient to the mass, retains some distinguishing features. A crowd of people, birds, insects, or leaves is a mysterious assemblage of variants of certain prototype. A riddle of nature’s abhorrence of exact repetition or inability to produce it. Just as the human hand cannot repeat its own gesture, I invoke this disturbing law, switching my own immobile herds into that rhythm.” Wikipedia.

She resides in Warsaw, Poland.

All photos are from:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Glenpooh permalink
    September 17, 2008 6:22 pm

    I visited Agora in Chicago. Very interesting.

  2. February 21, 2014 11:09 am

    Thanks for the post! This artist is amazing… I found great pictures of Magdalena Abakanowicz in Art Days, here is the link! Enjoy! 🙂

  3. Marlene Diamond permalink
    February 21, 2016 7:35 pm

    Wonderful Artist!

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