© Anka Ptaszkowska and Paulina Krasińska, the negatives are the property of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

7 Polish Female Sculptors To Know Kobro, Abakanowicz, Więcek, Czełkowska, Szapocznikow, Ślesińska, Rostkowska

Kobro, Abakanowicz, Więcek, Czełkowska, Szapocznikow, Ślesińska, and Rostkowska – all these surnames are inscribed in the Polish art history. The women lived unique lives for the art’s sake, spending long hours in the drudgery of sculpture creation, which resulted in either triumphs or lack of recognition. 

Portrait of Katarzyna Kobro, ca. 1930-1931, Archives of Museum of Art in Łódź
Portrait of Katarzyna Kobro, ca. 1930-1931, Archives of Museum of Art in Łódź

Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951) was an artist who enriched the Polish avant-garde movement with the new forms of spatial sculpture and constant, active participation in the school of constructivism. In her lifetime, Katarzyna stayed in the shadows of Władysław Strzemiński, her fellow artist and husband. It was much later when other biographers and art historians shed light on Kobro’s private and artistic life, parts of which were vague or inaccurate to others. Born and having spent her formative years in Russia, Kobro entered the Russian art scene when she enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1917. The School’s revolutionary spirits had a major influence on Kobro’s artistry where she created her first sculpture titled “ToS 75 – Struktura” (ToS 75 – Structure). This artwork, as well as eight other sculptures, a painting, and two architectural projects were demolished in the turbulent times. To the surprise of many, there were stored photos that helped Janusz Zagrodzki, the first monographer of Kobro’s artworks, restore such works as “Konstrukcje wiszące” (Hanging Constructions), “Rzeźby abstrakcyjne” (Abstract Sculptures), and others. 

It was the Moscow Painters’ Union, where Kobro became an active member and got acquainted with Rozanova, Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin, and many others. Kobro had to relocate to different towns such as Smolensk, Riga, and Łódź because of the uncertain and haunting historical times: the October Revolution, two World Wars, and those brief peaceful moments in-between. In the meantime, she organized various art collectives among which were UNOWIS, Blok, Praesens, and the a.r. group. Together with her husband, she assembled influential theoretical writing titled “Kompozycja przestrzeni. Obliczenia rytmu czasoprzestrzennego” (Spatial Composition. Calculations of the Spacetime Rhythm). In 2021, to emphasize the significance of Kobro’s legacy, a street-art group 3Fala painted the murals in the streets of Łódź. 

Magdalena Abakanowicz in her Studio
Magdalena Abakanowicz in her Studio

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) impressed the art world with her physically grand and thematically significant artworks. They are scattered across the countries and continents. For instance, the three-dimensional fiber art pieces that even gained its proper name, “Abakany” (Abakans), paved the path to the international art arena. The sculptor earned her first renown in the international biennials in Lausanne and Sao Paulo in the mid and late 60s; however,“Abakans” were ahead of their time because of their intangibility perceived by some.

Prior to the worldwide acclaim, Abakanowicz attended the Art School in Gdynia; then, she continued her higher education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sopot.  A few years later, the artist transferred to the AFA in Warsaw. She remembered her last alma mater as a place with imposed constraints of the Socialist Realism existing under rigid scrutiny of the Ministry of Art and Culture. However, even then and there, Abakanowicz was inspired by the female teachers and instructors who taught the young artist weaving and fiber design. Another major influence were her trips to the Western countries, where she experienced the artistic life behind the Iron Curtain. 

Abakanowicz continued creating sets of art objects, for she preferred them to the individual pieces. In the vast series of humanoid sculptures, she conversed her vision of human culture and a place of an individual among the crowds. In the first installations, she used coarse sackcloth and synthetic resin to produce the sculptures titled “Alteracje” (Alterations), “Plecy” (Backs), “Tłum” (A Crowd), and many more. Later, Abakanowicz introduced new sculptures – “Puellae” or “Brązowy tłum” (A Bronze Crowd) – made of such materials as bronze, wood, stone, or clay. 

Abakanowicz spread her artistic legacy in other forms and media than sculptures. She shared her expertise at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań; also, she was a guest lecturer in Berkeley, New York, Sydney, and Tokyo. After her passing in 2017, many art spaces have displayed the artist’s oeuvre. Continuously and actively, the Polish scene shows, talks, remembers their renowned artist; the National Museum in Wrocław curates “Abakanowicz. Total,” which will last till August 2022. 

Magdalena Więcek , Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elblag, 60s, photo Sławek Biegański, courtesy of Magdalena Więcek Estate
Magdalena Więcek , Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elblag, 60s, photo Sławek Biegański, courtesy of Magdalena Więcek Estate

Magdalena Więcek (1924-2008) is regarded as one of the most significant figures in post-war Polish art. The woman created small and large-scale sculptures and worked within the realms of the neo avant-garde movement. She began her traditional artistic training at the State Higher School of Visual Arts in Sopot; later, she transferred to the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw to be taught by the prominent professors Marian Wnuk and Franciszek Strynkiewicz. Więcek had never left the Polish art scene but remained there for another sixty years. 

Soon after completing her studies, the young sculptor received awards for two important works “Górnicy” (Miners) and “Matka” (The Mother), which belonged to the Socialist Realism school. However, Więcek dared to introduce some changes into her style. She started with applying and using various materials. Gradually, she shifted from clay and plaster to wire mash reinforced with cement and, later, to aluminum, which made her installations appear to be enormous but light. With time, Więcek would create more abstract objects, for example the “Sacrum” series was considered to be an apogee in the history of sculpture. 

The artist absorbed different styles and was inspired by various artists and movements. Więcek admired classical art and ethnic cultures of Neolithic and Eskimo origins; she was immensely influenced by Xawery Dunikowski, as well as Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński. Nevertheless, Więcek never strived to imitate but was driven to contribute her own vision. Such aspiration and desire resulted in introducing Poland into the European avant-garde. 

Wanda Czełkowska, photo by Tadeusz Rolke
Wanda Czełkowska, photo by Tadeusz Rolke

Wanda Czełkowska (1930-2021) created sculptures, for she believed it was the finest medium of her artistic expression and an intellectual exercise. Art historians and theorists framed Czełkowska’s works into the avant-garde movement, mainly in line with conceptualism, expressionism, and primitivism. Even though the experts appraised her artistic legacy, Czełkowska was not a frequent participant in exhibitions. Perhaps the reason was her disinterest in belonging to any particular kind. Being a student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, the young artist expressed her individualism via cultivating her own style in sculpture and not sticking to Socialist Realism, which was prevalent in the 50s. 

Through the 70s and the 80s, Czełkowska was a member of the Second Kraków Group, which gathered the prewar predecessors Tadeusz Kantor’s experimental theatre. She admitted that the contribution of her fellow artists transformed her perception. However, it would be important to mention that the major influence of her choice to study and create sculptures was Xawery Dunikowski. 

The sculptor delved into different themes of self-discovery, as displayed for example in the artwork “Autoportret” (A Self-Portrait). The topics of space and infinity perplexed Czełkowska, too; therefore, she created such sculptures as “Ściana” (A Wall) or “Koniec wieku, czyli prosta nieskończona. Kwadrat, koło + prosta” (The End of the Century, or an Infinite Straight Line. A Square, a Circle + a Straight Line). In 2021, the lucky ones had an opportunity to observe Czełkowska’s artistic legacy in her atelier in Warsaw where every sculpture, every object, and installation were arranged and placed according to the particular vision of the woman herself. 

Alina Szapocznikow with her work ‘Tors (Torso)’, 1966, Photographer: Marek Holzman
Alina Szapocznikow with her work ‘Tors (Torso)’, 1966, Photographer: Marek Holzman

Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973) engaged in sculpture creation in Prague after the inhumane and drastic events of the World War II and the imprisonment in the Nazi camps. Being a Holocaust survivor, the woman rarely reminisced about those years. However, she did return to Poland in 1951 to restore the country’s artistic life; she resided there until 1963. Prior to that, Szapocznikow trained in Otokar Velimski’s studio and studied at the Academy of Art and Industry. Later, the artist mastered her skills at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Paul Niclausse’s tutelage. 

In 1963, Alina Szapocznikow returned to Paris where she got acquainted with Pierre Restany, who introduced her to the Nouveau Réalisme movement. Since then, Szapocznikow expressed her vision of beauty, femininity, but also the fragility of the human body attacked by war or diseases. She created casts of the body parts, which she assembled into various sculptures, among which were “Brzuchy” (Bellies), “Nowotwory” (Tumors), or “Portret zwielokrotniony” (A Multiplied Portrait). The woman was brave to use uncommon materials such as patinated plaster, despite their delicateness. Moreover, she honed her technique by using polyester and polyurethane – which was considered an innovation – to display the infinite metamorphosis of the human body. Possibly, her work helped her reconcile with illnesses that invaded her own body, too. 

Much of her oeuvre was shown in different posthumous exhibitions organized to commemorate Szapocznikow’s artwork. For instance, the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels provided space for the Polish EU Presidency that curated a vast exhibition of her artistic legacy. Also, Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw, the National Museum in Kraków, the Art Museum in Łódź, and the National Museum in Wrocław gathered a complete catalogue of the 1998-1999 exhibition in Poland. 

Alina Ślesińska (1922-1994) is considered to be “great, but absent” from the Polish art discourse according to art historians and experts. They are concerned with the notion that Ślesińska had been left on the outskirts of the art scene. Ślesińska appeared as an artist in the 50s and created artworks referring to Socialist Realism. Also, her artistry has been compared to Szapocznikow’s output quite often. After an exhibition titled “Warsaw Sculpture ’46-‘58”, reviewers designated both women as the main sculptors of their time.  

The artist began her formal education in sculpture at the School of Sculpture and Graphics in Bielsko-Biała, where Ślesińska was appraised for her skills. Later, she was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and was taken under the supervision of Dunikowski. Once again, the board of professors recognized her diligence and performance. After her first solo exhibition, art experts welcomed Ślesińska’s works with positive reviews. Consequently, the sculptor was invited to showcase her art objects in Paris and London. Both cities were certain milestones in her career; in France, she met and befriended Jeanne Cassou, the first director of the National Museum of Modern Art, whereas the exhibition in England was the first event for Polish artists outside the Iron Curtain. 

Ślesińska vigorously tried to marry sculpture and architecture. She was one of the two female participants of the III Biennial in Paris (1963), exhibiting her project “Rzeźba architektoniczna i architektura rzeźbiarska” (Architectural Sculpture and Sculptural Architecture). Later, the project inspired some architectural experiments in France as having loosened the constraints of modernist rationalism present in the 50s and 60s. Also, the artist created such projects as “Most” (A Bridge), “Kościół” (A Church), or “Dwupoziomowe miasto” (A Two-Level City) where she visualized her utopian and fictional ideas of the urban space. Among other interesting projects were monuments of Marie and Pierre Currie and Bolesław Prus, or “Macierzyństwo” (Motherhood). 

Her popularity started fading after the sculptor produced a monument of the dictator in Ghana. Although the two events were not directly connected, on one continent people destroyed her obelisk, while in another part of the world critics simply lost interest in Ślesińska’s work. The woman struggled get used to a new reality: she migrated to the United Kingdom but returned to Poland. She did not have an atelier to continue her work, but she managed to do so in a small apartment, where she carried on expanding the topic of futuristic architecture. 

Maria Papa Rostkowska, towards 1970 © Bossi, Carrara, Archives of Rostkowski family
Maria Papa Rostkowska, towards 1970 © Bossi, Carrara, Archives of Rostkowski family

Maria Papa Rostkowska (1923-2008) played a vital role in the history of Poland. She was born in Warsaw where she studied architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts. There she was taken aback by World War II, which she survived and helped others survive, too. Rostowska participated in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. After the end of those horrendous events, she had her chance to start a family and, finally, to continue her artistic path. In 1947, Rostowska moved to Paris and the French government offered her a grant. 

In the 50s, she spent time in Poland because of her professional duties. From 1950 to 1953, Rostowska worked as an assistant professor in the Fine Arts Department of the Sopot University. Later, she was an associate professor at her alma mater. Meanwhile, the artist exhibited her artworks and created murals in the streets of Lublin, which brought her the Poland State Award. In the late 50s, Rostowska decided to move and settle in France and Italy. There, the sculptor participated in the art shows that acknowledged her work. Also, she discovered Carrara marble to be her favourite material to create with. Art experts admired Rostowska’s bravery to use such material, for she could be distinguished from her contemporaries who mostly used plaster. Most of her works have been stored by private collectors.

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About The Author


Anna Shostak holds a BA in English Philology from USWPS in Warsaw. She's a life-long admirer of languages, European art and culture. Anna is an English teacher who frequently introduces a piece of a literary text or fine art in her class.

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