Monday, March 18, 2013

Ariel May: Alina Szapocznikow, Jozef Szajna, and Marian Kolodziej


A photo work taken from Marian Kolodziej's Labyrinth. It is most likely a self-portrait.
Alina Szapocznikow, Jozef Szajna, and Marian Kolodziej have at least two things in common, they are all phenomenal artists who  are Polish Holocaust survivors and they all possess names that are incredibly difficult to pronounce by the Average ‘Murican, namely, me. Though I haven’t the slightest idea of how to pronounce these artists’ names, as a result of my trip to Poland and a chance encounter, I’ve had to privilege to have been exposed to their works.
About two and a half months ago, I saw Alina Szapocznikow ‘s work at MoMA, she was on the fourth floor, the special exhibition. It was the first time I had been at MoMA in months. But what I had encountered on the fourth floor that day rendered me speechless. The day had been rather typical, I was intrigued by several works by Evard Munch, but in general, I found the museum to be what it has always been, a maze of beautiful works juxtaposed next to strange undecipherable works with no definite distinction between the two categories. What I found as I walked through the glass doors to the Alina Szapocznikow ‘s exhibition that day was completely unexpected: it challenged me. Szapocznikow was a mainly a sculptor, and in her work, she used casts of her own body. However, the body parts she made were fragmented, broken pieces, as if the body itself, along with its human dignity, had been shattered or destroyed. She also had enlarged lamps, displaying graphic sculptures of the female anatomy. Her art was grotesque and compelling: I felt sick at the images at some parts and yet I was unable to look away. Her art had a message to convey and as horrifying as it was, it was captivating and important.

Above is a sculpture of Szapocznikow's lips, with cigarette butts inside. Bleow is a picture of the artist with one of her sculputures.
I watched one of the interviews she had while she was in Paris and I learned that she was a survivor of the Shoah. The interview began as she emerged from behind one of her own sculptures, an enlarge version of her own lips, perhaps symbolizing that she had a message. In speech, her French was terse, and though the interviewer probed her on her experiences at Auschwitz Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt and the Lodz ghettos, she did not reply much expect for that since those experiences were a part of her, their relations to her art exist as a natural result because they are her works. She also did not answer much about the distinctly feminist themes in her work. She was a petit and pretty woman who moved about her studio with the motions of a small bird and it was hard for me to imagine such a woman creating such graphic and disturbing images, let alone the suffering that must have influenced such art. In addition to her traumatic experience as a result of the Shoah, she also suffered from breast cancer. But what she communicated from her documentary was that she was not defined by either or her suffering from the Shoah or her own bodily sufferings, it was through her art that she, herself was redefining them and that’s what impressed me most of all.  I felt myself absolutely drawn to her work: it was magnetic, terrifying, and brilliant. The pictures that I have included from the internet are the some of the milder of her sculptures and the same will be said about the following artist's orks as well. Unfortunately, the exhibition had required an extensive amount of borrowing from French and many Polish institutions and will not be available in the states any time soon. It does, however, give me a reason to visit Poland again.

Examples of Szapocznikow's scupltures. Note the faces in the second photo.
Ever since I saw Szapocznikow’s works, I had been intrigued by the art that had been created by Shoah survivors. While visiting Auschwitz I, I came across a book that contained the work of Jozef Szajna, a Polish resistance fighter that had been captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Unlike Alina Szapocznikow, Szajna retells his entire story within the small book entitled The World of Jozef Szajna , there are stories of his attempted escapes, intense laboring, but one thing was clear, every single one of his encounters with the Nazis resulted in a close encounter with death. The very fact that he was able to survive was more than incredible. His works span from photography, sculpture to painting, all of which are just as disturbing as Szapocznikow’s but without the feminist flair and with a style that was altogether his own.  In his sculpture, he did not use casts but instead used mannequins and disfigured them, maiming body parts and fusing others. His photos are mysterious, but hold the same sort of explorations of human depravity. His paintings are more abstract, and the direct influences of the Shoah are less visible there and his use of many different mediums are innovative and were especially ground breaking for his time. Besides his aesthetic works, he also was a playwright and a stage director. Like Szapocznikow, he also claims that his work was not defined by the Shoah.
The top is of a painting by Szajna. The middle is a scene from Szajna's interpretation of Dante's Inferno. The last is a sculpture in mixed medium.
“To Auschwitz there are no returns if one was allowed to survive the camp. Anyway, the world in its total situation aims quickly toward self-destruction. Those who suspect me of the post camp reminiscences either know about the war and Auschwitz from books only or have never yet faced the necessity of making a choice…
It is them who place a sign of equation between a drama and Auschwitz as if the tragedy of Aeschylus or Dante’s “Inferno” required the concentration camp to be felt or written about. No, I fo not identify my curriculum vitae with my art. My vision of the human tragedy is contrary to the camp autobiography I am accused of using the vision from afar… I do not only judge with my art but most, of all, accuse the time. The unfavorable, bad time when man abandoned himself”  - Jozef Szajna

Lastly, I saw the work of Marian Kolodziej, situated in the basement of a Franciscan church. The vast scope and sheer volume of his work was incredible. His work spanned the entire basement, which was large and when taken into consideration, probably large enough to house a family of five with some room to spare. He called the entire space and the work as a whole, a Labyrinth. He worked mainly in sketches of human figures, often taking on religious imagery, with a mass triptych –like work in the middle of the first room and a display flowing it that had benches with stones, honoring a tradition in Jewish Cemeteries.  Many of his works depicted a pro Jewish and Christian co-existence, an entire wall was devoted to the celebration of Hanukah and Christmas as something that was dreamt by the prisoners at Auschwitz. Kolodziej also evoked images from Revelations, Christ images, and that of saints, including the one most related to the Shoah, Father Kolbe.
A list of the first transport to Auschwitz, with Kolodziej's name on the list and listed next to his number 432.
Marian Koloziej was among the first transport to Auschwitz and he was a Polish Christian. He survived the camp and lived a “normal” life until he suffered from a stroke in 1993. Whilst recovering, he asked for a pencil and then  began to sketch images which reflected his experienced at Auschwitz. Below is part of  his personal statement of his art as translated in the English version from the Polish. It is displayed at the very beginning of his Labyrinth
Dr. Pocario-Foley next to the triptych inspired work of Koloziej. This is only a part of one of the many rooms included in the labyrinth.
“…This is not an exhibit, nor art, nor images, but words contained in designs.It wasn’t my intention to complete the obligation of the memory and testimony through art. Art is impotent before that which man has organized for man…. So I do not invite you to an ‘exhibition’. It wouldn’t be right to say. Instead, I propose a journey by way of this labyrinth marked by the experience of the fabric of death. Please, read my designed words, words born also for the yearning for clarity of criteria, also for the yearning to understand what separates good from evil, truth from lie, art from appearances. Also, this expresses my disagreement with the world as it is today… This is the letter of an elderly man to himself 55 years ago. It is a rendering of honor to all those who in ashes have gone away”
The image on top shows Koloziej's artistic statement in translation and the original is on the bottom.
This is a photo of Koloziej's work. Note the rocks placed on the bench under the painting.
This is a photo of one of Koloziej's many self portraits. This one in particular shows the changes that he experiences his time in Auschwitz passed.

With each of the artist, I include pictures of their art and conveyed their artistic vision or statement as best as I could, using as much of their own words or paraphrasing when possible. All three artists make use of the human form in a way that atypical, such as the Nazis had done to real human beings, fragmenting them into mere ideas and objects. I find it the upmost importance to reiterate the message of Szajna in my own understanding of it. Their art, of course, were not a direct result of the Shoah or the war, but their own visions that redefined the war and did not allow them to become defined by it, but that is only my interpretation of their works.


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