Alina Szapocznikow - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I am convinced that all of the manifestations of the ephemeral, the human body is the most vulnerable – the only source of joy, all suffering, and all truth.”
    —Alina Szapocznikow


    Crowned by three, roughly modelled wings which open to reveal a fragment of a face, lips curled in an enigmatic smile, the long curve of its neck replaced by the splayed toes and exaggerated arch of a lifted left foot, Autoportret II is a strange and seductive work by pioneering Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, a fascinating double self-portrait which places her firmly in the lineage of women working within Surrealism’s visual language. Seen from the front, we first encounter this work as a more alarming assemblage, pieced together from isolated fragments of the body. Walk around the work, and we are confronted with something quite different, the central wing transformed to show the lower portion of her face, smoothly transitioning across the sweep of her throat and upper chest. Casting from her own body, a major breakthrough in her practice that she first hit upon in 1962, Szapocznikow explored ideas related to the commodification of women in the context of mid-century Pop Art, the legacies of Dada assemblage and the Surrealist object, alongside uniquely sculptural questions of form and materiality and the complex intersections of trauma, humour, and sensuality that her close attention to the body enabled.


    On Matter and Metaphor


    Born in Pabianice, Poland to a family of Jewish medical professionals in 1926, Szapocznikow witnessed first-hand some of the most unimaginable horrors committed against the body in the 20th century, she was first ghettoised when Poland was invaded by the Nazis and later transferred to Bergen-Belsen via Auschwitz where she survived her teenage years working in a camp hospital. Separated from her mother in 1944 and assuming that her family had all perished she fled to Czechoslovakia, where she trained as a stonemason and sculptor at the Higher School of Arts and Industry in Prague. Relocating to Paris in 1947, Szapocznikow continued her studies, working in a traditionally classical style, crafting solid, sturdy bodies in stone in defiance of her own direct experience with the vulnerability of human flesh.

    Alina Szapocznikow working on Le Voyage (Journey), 1967, in her studio in Paris, 1967. Image: © Alina Szapocznikow, courtesy the Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/ Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris and Hauser & Wirth / DACS 2023


    Moving amongst a milieu of left-wing expatriate intellectuals, artists, and writers, Szapocznikow identified as a Socialist, returning to communist-controlled Poland in 1950 after contracting Tuberculosis that, although managed effectively with experimental new treatments, nevertheless further damaged her health and body in significant ways, leading, ultimately to her premature death. Working in the sanctioned Soviet Realist style while in Poland, Szapocznikow gradually grew restless, returning to Paris in 1963 to pursue a set of new and radically different sculptural methods and materials including the non-traditional and decidedly visceral polyurethane and polyester resin that she is best known for. Featuring lips, breasts, and other isolated female body parts in bright, Pop colours, her work in this vein is perhaps her most well-known, and was frequently read as flirtatious and provocative. Yet, even as they celebrate a witty sensuality, these arresting sculptural objects still seem to carry the weight of the past with them, sex and death making strange bedfellows in her work.  


    Alina Szapocznikow, Petit Dessert I, 1970–71. Artwork: © Alina Szapocznikow, courtesy the Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/ Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris and Hauser & Wirth / DACS 2023


    While biography should not overshadow the work itself, the exploration of the body in all its disfigurations and frailties is central to Szapocznikow’s sculptural project, the vehicle through which she was able to address key sculptural questions of volume, space, light, and materiality. As the artist herself poetically described: ‘My gesture is addressed to the human body, “that complete erogenous zone”. To its most ephemeral sensations. […] I am convinced that of all of the manifestations of the ephemeral the human body the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering and all truth, because of its essential nudity, as inevitable as it is admissible on any conscious level.’i


    Awkward Objects


    In its isolation and strange rearticulation of disparate body parts, Autoportret II speaks powerfully and poetically to the trauma and violence of war, and of the artist’s role in reclaiming and rebuilding that body. Cast from the lower portion of her own face, the central section of the frontal self-portrait has strong visual resonances with the pioneering experiments in prosthetics that emerged to aid disfigured soldiers returning from the trenches during the First World War. Artworks in their own right, these portrait masks were developed first by English sculptor Captain Derwent Wood, and later by American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd who set up a studio in Paris in 1917, working from older photographs of the subjects and delicately finished in oils to match their pigmentation and recreate certain facial features. Echoing Szapocznikow’s process and selection of materials here, the masks were made first by taking a cast of the soldier’s face, reworked in accordance with older photographs to resemble their original image, and then cast in copper. Like these touching objects, in the inclusion of the more organic elements crowning the facial fragment in the frontal view and their transformation to a second self-portrait on the reverse, Autoportret II seems to sound a more hopeful note about the renewal and rebirth of the self from these shattered pieces.


    [Left] Archival image of a portrait mask, c. 1917
    [Right] René Magritte, Le double secret, 1927, Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Image: Photothèque R. Magritte /Adagp Images, Paris, / SCALA, Florence, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023

    One of the most prevalent and confoundingly powerful tropes deployed by Surrealist artists, the image of the double, or doppelganger has its roots in the Freudian uncanny and was used to powerful effect by artists such as René Magritte, Claude Cahun, and Frida Kahlo to evoke the strange atmosphere of dreams and to explore the dichotomous relationship existing between the conscious and unconscious self. However, while Magritte’s unsettling doubles vividly capture Freud’s own focus on the more troubling aspects of such an encounter, Szapocznikow positions this as a more joyful and transformative discovery. Closer in this respect to Cahun’s captivating double self-portraits which used the trope as a means of searching out a visual language to describe a more fluid notion of sexuality and gender identity, Autoportret II seems to present this ‘double identity’ as a way of articulating the long tradition of positioning of Woman as Other, and of her own, wry appropriation of this as an expression of power and self-affirmation.


    While her strangely compelling sculptural assemblages in resin, with their visceral material qualities that seem to ooze and melt and exceed the boundaries of the body in every direction speak profoundly and poetically to the sensuality of the human body, even in the face of its fragility and impermanence, cast in bronze, Autoportret II articulates a different set of material qualities: stronger, and more defiant. Widely regarded as one of the most important 20th century sculptors in her native Poland, Szapocznikow has only recently received international institutional recognition - a consequence perhaps of being both a woman and coming from outside of the more narrowly defined centres of modernism that traditionally structured the canon. This corrective has in more recent years given rise to major retrospectives, highlighting the profound influence of her practice on a new generation of artists focused on performance, materiality, and the body. As Lusia Heese elegantly put it on the occasion of her first major UK retrospective held at The Hepworth Wakefield, ‘through a deeply personal lens, Szapocznikow tackled universal concerns that continue to resonate today. In her work, the human body, her life-long subject, emerges as a staging ground for an exploration of human experience in all its physical and psychological reality.’ii


     Alina Szapocznikow at the Musée nationale d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou, 2013



    Collector’s Digest

    • Following years of critical neglect following her death in 1973, Alina Szapocznikow is finally receiving the international recognition that her work deserves. In the last decade major retrospectives of her work have been mounted at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Wiels in Brussels, the Musée de l’art modern, Centre Pompidou, and The Hepworth Wakefield. A significant display of her work was also presented as part of Documenta 14 in 2017.

    • Selected to represent Poland at La Biennale di Venezia in 1962, her work was also included in the landmark group show Dreamers Awake held at White Cube, Bermondsey which looked at the legacies of Surrealism and then placed her in direct dialogue with other women artists working in this vein.

    • The influence of her work can be seen in the work of artists working across a wide variety of disciplines: the feminist performance art of Hannah Wilke, Lynda Bengalis’ experimental approach to materials, Sarah Lucas' humorously abject forms, and the visceral work of Paul McCarthy and Paul Thek, amongst others.

    • Examples of the present work have been included in major retrospectives at National Museum, Poland; WIELS Centre d'Art Contemporain, Brussels; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and most recently at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2017.



    i Alina Szapocznikow, quoted in E. Filipovic and J. Mytkowska, Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, exh., cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 2012, p. 28.

    ii Luisa Heese, ‘Material and Metaphor: The Body in the Work of Alina Szapocznikow’, in Human Landscapes, exh. cat., The Hepworth Wakefield, 2017, p. 40.   

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2015

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Florence Houston-Brown, Alina Szapocznikow, 11 April - 6 May 1967, n.p. (illustrated in the artist's studio, n.p.)
      Warsaw, Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Alina Szapocznikow, Rzezba, 7 - 30 July 1967, no. 32, n.p.
      Carrara, V Biennale Internazionale di Scultura, July - August 1967, p. 269 (illustrated)
      Paris, Galerie Philippe Demay, Ni Fleurs, ni Couronnes, 2 - 28 November 1974
      Lodz, Muzeum Sztuki (no. 102, n.p.); Warsaw, National Museum (no. 86, n.p.); Poznan, Salon BWA (no. 91); Krakow, Palac Sztuki i Galeria Pryzmat (no. 77); Bydgoszczy, Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych (no. 80, n.p.); Gdansk, National Museum; Lund Konsthall (no. 40, p. 15), Alina Szapocznikow: 1926-1973, 6 September 1975 – 15 May 1977
      Paris, Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Alina Szapocznikow: From Drawing into Sculpture, 27 February - 20 May 2013, no. G, pp. 96-97,176 (illustrated, pp. 96-97)
      Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Alina Szapocznikow / Body Traces, 6 February - 31 May 2014, pp. 58, 106 (another example exhibited and illustrated, p. 58)
      London, White Cube, Dreamers Awake, 27 June - 17 September 2017 (another example exhibited)
      The Hepworth Wakefield; Saatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes, 21 October 2017 - 7 October 2018, no. 41, pp. 106, 184, 203, 206 (illustrated, p. 106)
      New York, Hauser & Wirth; London, Hauser & Wirth, To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962-1972, 29 October 2019 - 14 August 2020, pp. 60-61 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Lech Grabowski, 'Na przykład Szapocznikow', Przegląd Artystyczny, 1968, no. 2, pp. 48-49 (illustrated, p. 49)
      'Alina Szapocznikow', Przekrój, 8 April 1973, no. 1461 (illustrated)
      Bartlomiej Kurka, 'Alina Szapocznikow', Nurt, 1976, no. 6, p. 32 (illustrated)
      Janusz Zagrodzki, Alina Szapocznikow, Warsaw, 1979, no. 20, n.p. (illustrated, n.p.)
      Jola Gola, Katalog Rzeźb, Aliny Szapocznikow, Krakow, 2001, no. 323, p. 140


Autoportret II

incised with the artist's initials, number, date and stamped with the foundry mark 'A.S. 66 4/7' on the reverse
20 x 24.6 x 10.3 cm (7 7/8 x 9 5/8 x 4 in.)
Conceived in 1966 and cast in 2012, this work is number 4 from an edition of 7.

Full Cataloguing

£250,000 - 350,000 ‡♠

Contact Specialist

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023