In 2016, our NE Minneapolis continuing education Polish language homework assignment was to research something regarding Poland that interested us and then share it with our class the following week. I already knew Poland was known for weaving, so I did a random internet search for information on contemporary Polish weaving. The moment Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Abakans appeared on my computer screen, I experienced a shock of recognition and understanding. I instantaneously knew I needed to learn about this art and the artist who created it.
During the 1970s, I was in a study program for the Polish language, history, and culture behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Poland. It was my first time outside the United States, so my culture shock was enormous. I flew from a country of abundant material goods, modern architecture, vivid colors, smiling faces, freedom of movement, and opinion. I landed on what may as well have been another planet when I saw the dull gray and blackened, machine gun-riddled holes in the facades of historic, sometimes abandoned old buildings, stared at the somber-faced strangers speaking an unintelligible tongue, and walked past the frequently empty shops of Communist Poland. I experienced restrictions on my movements and felt the frequent presence
of the police. It was as if time had stopped when I observed villages and small farms with horses and buggies, farmers using primitive tools to work the land, growing food to feed themselves and their animals. It was impossible to process how a country so rich in history, former wealth, and pride of its people could change into such a dreary place.
The contemporary art created by Magdalena Abakanowicz embodied everything I felt and observed about the Soviet Union’s domination of Poland. So, who is this powerful woman artist who captured the essence of my first Polish experience?
Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) is an internationally recognized contemporary Polish artist, famously known for her enormous Abakans, headless Agora, and Humanoid Sculpture in standing and seated poses and the War Games series. It was the Abakans that first turned the heads of the international art world to focus on Magdalena and her art. Her work was shocking, and even more so to have come out of a Communist country where information and freedom of artistic expression were rigidly controlled.
Abakanowicz revolutionized art history during the complicated and difficult period of Soviet domination over Poland from 1945 to 1989. The Soviet-imposed government restrictions on Polish artists dictated what was appropriate as art. Social Realism was one accepted style of painting.
Folk Art was another art form allowed by the authorities and in fact, encouraged through government-sponsored artist workshops. Folk Art was sold to the public in Cepelia shops to help support Polish artists. Polish weaving was a popular art form sold in Cepelia shops. In the 1960s, Magdalena shifted her focus from her early student painting studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw to begin an exploration of weaving. At the Art Academy, she learned traditional weaving methods and produced work in the standard format of a rectangular shape that hangs flat against a wall or lays on a table.
Her weavings slowly evolved into larger works, incorporating exaggerated forms, textures, and compositions. They grew into gigantic, organic shapes that hung in the middle of an art gallery. This was a groundbreaking development in the history of weaving. Abakanowicz took an object with a history of two dimensions, a flat surface on a wall, and turned it into a super-sized, three-dimensional, suspended sculpture and installation. These pieces became her Abakans.
It was an austere time in Poland under Communist rule, and supplies were scarce. Abakanowicz searched for suitable raw materials that would work for her oversized, unique fiber creations. She used horsehair, wool, flax, and ropes. Magdalena walked along harbor waters to collect fragments of thick, washed-up ropes broken away from large boats that traveled the waterways. She later unraveled, cleaned, and dyed the sisal hemp for her weavings. What resulted were coarse, raw, overwhelmingly sculptural pieces with an exciting new use of ropes and fibers.
Abakanowicz’s use of materials reflected a connection to the animal, human, handmade, raw simplicity, and organic nature of Polish folk arts. The larger-than-life, biomorphic Abakans hovered in space like imposing, floating creatures, or abstract configurations of female genitalia and fecundity, suggesting birth, renewal, and the life cycle. These pieces were timely, created during the Second Wave Feminism Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a movement originating in the United States, also known in European countries.
Magdalena’s radical approach to her art-making process transcended the history of weaving and surpassed the entire notion of weaving to become something called fiber sculpture as well as a new type of art called Installation Art. Her suspended Abakans filled the gallery's center, forcing her viewers to walk around and engage with the overpowering pieces from various locations. The imposing presence of these enormous fiber sculptures was like a silent, constant reminder of larger forces at work.
Mary Welke is a second-generation Polish American, a persistent student of the Polish language, and a professional fine artist. Her writing is based on her first experiences and personal impressions of Communist Poland and her inadvertent discovery of Magdalena Abakanowicz from an artistic and art historical perspective.