Magdalena Abakanowicz

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Artists

Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. June 20, 1930, Falenty, Poland) is an abstract Polish sculptor. She is notable for her use of textiles as a sculptural medium and is regarded as being one of the most important and influential female artists of the 20th Century. She has been a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland from 1965 to 1990 and a visiting professor at UCLA in 1984. Magdalena Abakanowicz currently lives and works in Warsaw.


Early Life

Magdalena Abakanowicz was born into an aristocratic Polish- Russian 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 1917 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 Germany invaded and occupied Poland. Her family endured the war years living on the outskirts of Warsaw.

After the war and resulting Soviet occupation, the family moved to small city of Tczew near Gdansk, in northern Poland, where they hoped to start a new life. Under Soviet control, the Polish government officially adopted Socialist Realism as the only acceptable art form which should be pursued by artists. Originally created by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, Socialist Realism, in nature, had to be 'national in form' and 'socialist in content'. Other art forms being practiced at the time in the West, such as Modernism, were culturally outlawed and heavily censored in all Eastern bloc nations, including Poland.

Abakanowicz completed part of her high school education in Tczew from 1945 to 1947, after which she went to Gdynia for two additional years of art school at the Liceum Sztuk Plastycznych w Gdyni. After her graduation from the Liceum in 1949, Abakanowicz attended the Gdansk Academy of Fine Arts, located then in town of Sopot. In 1950, Abakanowicz moved back to Warsaw to begin her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, the premier art school in Poland.

Her years at the university, 1950-1954, coincided with some of the harshest assault made on art by the Soviet leadership. By utilizing the doctrine of 'Socialist Realism', all art forms in Soviet occupied nations were forced to adhere to strict guidelines and limitations that subordinated the arts to the needs and demands of the State. Realist artistic depictions based on the national nineteenth-century academic tradition was the only the form of artistic expression advocated by in Poland at the time. The Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, being the most important artistic institution in Poland, came under special scrutiny from the Ministry of Art and Culture, which administered all major decisions in the field at the time.

Abakanowicz found the climate at the Academy to be highly “rigid” and overly “conservative”. She recalled:

I liked to draw, seeking the form by placing lines, one next to the other. The professor would come with an eraser in his hand and rub out every unnecessary line on my drawing, leaving a thin, dry contour. I hated him for it.

While studying at the University she was required to take several textile design classes, learning the art of weaving, screen printing, and fibre design from instructors such as Anna Sledziewska, Eleonora Plutymska, and Maria Urbanowicz. These instructors and skills would greatly influence Abakanowicz's work, as well as other prominent Polish artists at the time.

First Artworks

Following her education at the Academy, Abakanowicz's began to produce her first artistic works. Due to the fact that she spent most of her academic life moving from place to place, much of her earlier artwork was lost or damaged, with only a few, delicate plant drawings surviving. Between 1956 to 1959, she produced some of her earliest known works; a series of series of large gouaches and watercolors on paper and sewn-together linen sheets. These works, described as being 'biomorphic” in composition, depicted imaginary plants, birds, exotic fish, and seashells,among other biomorphic shapes and forms. Joanna Inglot wrote in the The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz about these early works: “[they] pointed to Abakanowicz’s early fascination with the natural world and its processes of germination, growth, blooming, and sprouting. They seem to capture the very energy of life, a quality that would become a constant feature of her art.” Abakanowicz said:

My gouaches were as large as the wall permitted. Depressed by years of study, I was fighting back by making my gouaches for myself. For so long it had been repeated that I could not do it; my response had to be on a big scale. I wanted to take a walk among imaginary plants.

It was also during this time that Poland began to lift some of the heavy political pressures imposed by the Soviet Union, mainly due to the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953. In 1956, under the new party leadership of Władysław Gomułka, Poland experienced a dramatic social and cultural shift. The shift resulted in the liberalization of the forms and content of art, with the Stalinistic methods of art form being openly criticized by the Gomulka government.

A major freedom granted to Polish artists was the permission to travel to several Western cities, such as Paris, Venice, Munich, and New York, to experience artistic developments outside the Eastern bloc. This liberalization of the arts in Poland and injection of other art forms into the Polish art world greatly influenced Abakanowicz's early works, as she began to consider much of her early work as being “ too flamboyant and lacking in structure." Constructivism began to influence her work in the late 1950s as she adopted more a more geometric and structured approach. Never fully accepting Constructivism, she searched for her own “artistic language and for a way to make her art more tactile, intuitive, and personal.” As a result, she soon adopted weaving as another avenue of artistic exploration.

In her first one-person exhibit at the Kordegarda Gallery in Warsaw in the spring of 1960, she included a series of four weavings along with a collection of gouaches and watercolors. Though her first exhibit received minimal critical notice, it helped advance her position within the Polish textile and fibre design movement and resulted in her inclusion into the the first Biennale Internationale de le Tapisserie in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1962. The event opened the way to her international success.

Abakanowicz's Work


The 1960s saw some of the most important works produced during Abakanowicz's career. In 1967, she began procuring gigantic three-dimensional fibre works called Abakans. These works would secure her place in the art world as one of the great artists of the time and influence all of her work she has produced since.

Each Abakan is made out of woven material using Abakanowicz's own technique. The material used for many of these pieces was found, often collecting sisal robes from harbors, untwining them into threads and dying them. Hung from the ceiling, Abakans reach sizes as large as thirteen feet with sometimes only a few inch clearance from the ground.

Humanoid Sculptures

During the 1970s, and into the 1980s, Abakanowicz changed medium and scale; 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 representation than previous sculptures but still retain 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 call Backs, which was a series of eighty slightly differing sculptures of the human trunk.

In 1986-87 she created a series of fifty standing figures called The Crowd I. She also began to once again work around organic structures, such as her Embriology series, which consisted of several dozen soft egg-like lumps varying in size. These were dispersed round an exhibition room at the Vienna Biennial in 1980.

These humanoid works of the 1970s and 1980s were centered around human society and nature as a whole and its condition and position in modern world. The multiplicity of the human forms represents confusion and anonymity, analyzing an individual's presence in a mass of humanity. These works have close connections to Abakanowicz's life living in a Communist regime which repressed individually creativity and intellect in favour of the collective interest. These works also contrast her earlier Abakan series, which were individually powerful pieces where as the figurative sculptures lost their individuality in favour of multiplicity.

In the late 1980s to 1990s Abakanowicz began to use metals, such as bronze, for her sculptures, as well as wood, stone, and clay. She continue the subject matter of human condition but changed her medium; her berlap and resin human figure sculptures were now being made out of bronze, such as Bronze Crowd (1990-91) and Puellae (1992). She stated in a speech given at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź:

Nierozpoznani (Polish for: Unrecogniseds) (2002) in Poznań (whole installation)
Nierozpoznani (Polish for: Unrecogniseds) (2002) in Poznań ( whole installation)
“In consequence, the expression of art saturated with history, deformed by modernity, diverging from the direction of art in the free world. Perhaps the experience of the crowd, waiting passively in line, but ready to trample, destroy or adore on command like a headless creature, became the core of my analysis. And maybe it was a fascination with the scale of the human body. Or a desire to determine the minimal amount necessary to express the whole.”

War Games

One of Abakanowicz's most unique works is titled War Games, which 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. Also during the 1990s Abakanowicz was commissioned to design a model of an ecologically-oriented city. She has also choreographed dances.


Abakanowicz's most recent work included a project called Agora, which is a permanent project for the Chicago Grant Park. It consists of 106 iron cast figures, each about nine feet tall, making it the largest figurative sculpture of the current time.

Selected Solo Exhibits

  • Xavier Fourcade Gallery, New York City (1985)
  • Turske a. Turske Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland (1988)
  • Mucsarnok Palace of Exhibitions, Budapest, Hungary (1988)
  • Stadel Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany (1989)
  • Sezon Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan (1991)
  • Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, Minnesota (1992)
  • Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan (1993)
  • P.S.1 Museum, New York (1993)
  • Fundacio Miro, Mallorca, Spain (1994)
  • Marlborough Gallery, Madrid, Spain (1994)
  • Kordegarda Gallery, Warsaw, Poland (1994)
  • Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England (1995)
  • Manchester City Art Galleries, England (1995)
  • Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall, Denmark (1996)
  • Oriel Mostyn, Wales (1996)
  • Gallerie Marwan Hoss, Paris (1996)

Permanent works avaible in public space

  • Nierozpoznani, Poznan, Poland (2002)


  • Grand Prix of Sao Paolo Biennale, Sao Paolo, Brazil (1965)
  • Gottfried von Herder Prize, Vienna, Austria (1979)
  • Alfred Jurzykowski Prize, New York (1982)
  • Award for Distinction in Sculpture, granted by the Sculpture Centre, New York (1993)
  • Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts, Mexico (1997)
  • Commander Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (1998)
  • Officier de L' Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Paris, France (1999)
  • Cavaliere nell Ordine Al Merito della Repubblica Italiana (2000)
  • Visionaries! Award granted by American Craft Museum (2000)
  • Award for the entire Creative Activity granted by the Polish Minister of Culture Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the International Sculpture Centre in New York (2005)

Doctorates and Honours

  • Honoris Causa doctorate from the Royal College of Art, London, England (1974)
  • Honoris Causa doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island (1992)
  • Honorary member of the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin (1994)
  • Honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City (1996)
  • Honorary member of the Sachsische Akademie der Kunste, Dresden, Germany (1998)
  • Honoris Causa doctorate from the Academy of Fine Arts, Lodz, Poland (1998)
  • Orden Pour le merite fur Wissenschaften und Kunste, Berlin, Germany (2000)
  • Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree, Pratt Institute, New York (2000)
  • Honoris Causa doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, Massachusetts (2001)
  • Honoris Causa doctorate from the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland (2002)
  • Honoris Causa doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (2002)


“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.”

“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.”

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