Magdalena Abakanowicz, Figure on a Trunk

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 2000. Bronze, 96 × 103 × 24 inches. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Purchase Fund 2000 (2000.348a, b). Photo by Ben Aqua.

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Valerie Fletcher: Magdalena Abakanowicz is a contrarian. When she was growing up in communist Poland where so much was oppressed, repressed, forbidden, and controlled, she wanted to become an artist. The only way an artist could work in communist Poland in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s was to work in a style known as socialist realism; that is the style that we often associate with propaganda. In other words, stylized heroic workers marching forward in unison and that sort of thing. Magdalena, however, decided that she would make giant weaving, some of them 10 and 12 and 14 feet tall that were just organic abstractions that would hang from the ceiling or floor and trail onto the ground in a kind of way that was quite creepy and remarkably beautiful.


Then when the communist regime was overthrown and socialist realism no longer had to be practiced, artists rushed to abstraction. Magdalena, however, did the opposite. She then decided to move into figural representation in sculpture. And so she started making casts of real people. These could be adults, professional models, sometimes even her growing children. The piece that we have here, Figure on a Trunk, from the year 2000 is characteristic of what she did in the 80s and 90s and still to the present day. The figure is standing in a frontal pose seen ideally really only from the front. If you walk around the piece, you realize that it’s completely hollow; it is backless, and without substance, without an interior reality whatsoever. It is also of course headless. It is standing on a broad plank of wood but that wood itself is not on the ground; instead, it is resting on two logs, which look as if they might be able to roll away at any moment. In other words, this figure is standing on a platform that is precarious. This is a figure that has no substance, no backing, and no head. It is not a far leap to realize that this is a reminder or a gentle nudge at us to realize that we have to work at being more than just another identical person stamped out as if by some automated process, and that we as individuals have to struggle to develop our individuality and our personality, our minds, our bodies, and our spirits.

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Magdalena Abakanovicz, Figure on a Trunk, 2000.

Polish, 1930-2017


Profoundly affected by both her solitary childhood and the devastation of World War II, Magdalena Abakanowicz learned to escape loneliness and cruelty by taking refuge in her imagination. During the 1950s, she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland. Although the official style at that time was socialist realism, Abakanowicz preferred to paint huge gouaches of abstract plants and natural forms. In the 1960s she began working with natural fibers, creating weavings of flax, hemp, horsehair, sisal, and wool. Unlike many women weavers of the time, Abakanowicz rejected utilitarian concerns to create large reliefs and freestanding forms called Abakans: bulbous, flowing, organic, abstract forms that are hung from a wall or ceiling. These works, with their densely textured surfaces, are haunting and ominous.


As other artists in Poland turned from socialist realism to abstraction, Abakanowicz became interested in the evocative power of human imagery. For example, the works in her Garments series suggest standing figures by means of their empty clothes. From the 1970s through the 1990s, she glued burlap sacking and other rough fabrics over metal frames and plaster casts of nude bodies to create figural sculptures that are meditations on aspects of collective life and conformity.


As demand for her sculptures increased, Abakanowicz cast her burlap pieces in bronze editions. Her largest works consist of regimented forms, from as few as four to more than ninety identical figures. Their repetition in rows evokes the dehumanization and anonymity of totalitarian societies. In contrast, Figure on a Trunk features a lone human form presented on a stage of sorts, as if for our approval, judgment, or condemnation. The headless personage appears to be a hollowed-out husk—a mere shell, emptied of life and energy. The bench on which the figure stands seems stable, yet it rests on two logs that could roll out from underneath, suggesting a precarious balance. A powerful expression of the human condition, Abakanowicz’s sculpture is at once personal and universal, an effigy waiting passively for change and completion.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Figure on a Trunk, 2000. Photo by Robert Boland.
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Figure on a Trunk, 2000. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Location: Bass Concert Hall Plaza

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