The Roses Wilted and Smell: The Letters of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanisławski

Agata Jakubowska, Katarzyna Szotkowska-Beylin, eds., Lovely, human, true, heartfelt: the letters of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanis?awski, 1948–1971 [“Museum Under Construction” series, no. 6], transl. Jennifer Croft, Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2012, 380 PP.

Following the exhibitions Awkward Objects (Warsaw, 2009) and Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972 (Brussels, Los Angeles, New York, 2011-2012) the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw published the meticulously compiled Lovely, Human, True, Heartfelt: The Letters of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanis?awski 1948-1971. The volume comprises letters, postcards and telegrams, accompanied by drawings and photographs of Szapocznikow. Only a few letters of Stanis?awski’s had been found. They were written shortly after Szapocznikow met Stanis?awski in Paris. She came to Paris in the fall of 1947 from Prague, where she ended up after the end of World War II and began studying sculpture. In France she continued her art studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. At that time Stanis?awski was taking preparatory courses in French language and had enrolled in the museum studies program at the École du Louvre. They returned to Poland in 1951, got married a year later and adopted their son Piotr. Following their divorce in 1958, Szapocznikow began a relationship with graphic artist Roman Cie?lewicz, who worked for Ty i Ja, Vogue and Elle magazines; and Stanis?awski began a relationship with art historian and art critic Urszula Czartoryska. Thus Urszula, Roman and Piotr also take part in the correspondence from this period. The feverish tone of the first letters significantly cools down, but they remain friendly and without resentment.

Szapocznikow and Stanis?awski used letters as a form of communication during the time they spent apart because of holidays and individual travels, and during Alina’s period of hospitalization for treatment of ovarian tuberculosis, which she contracted in 1949. The letters were a means of dealing with their domestic matters, sending money, making appointments and sharing their impressions and observations. Szapocznikow easily changes subjects, drifts from one thought to another. She dives into the flow of sensual perception: “I go around half-naked and completely barefoot, caressed by the sun, and the mosquitoes have finally buzzed off […]” [letter 3]. She is enchanted by the simplicity of nature: “Palm trees grow here just as pines would at home, cactuses grow up like great big trees. The sky is sky-blue, and the sea turquoise. Daisies bloom in meadows, even an apple tree I found in bloom” [letter 5]. She is impulsive, even euphoric: “I love the Baltic x 1000000 just like all this” [ibidem]. She experiences every moment deeply and dramatically because, “Life is here, this itself is life” [letter 28].

Dazed by the present, she is also aware of the transitional character of the postwar period and the formation of the new order. This leads to her strong interest in Poland, which she visited at the end of 1948 and beginning of 1949. She spent a few weeks in ?ód? and New Year’s Eve in Zakopane. During this stay she carefully writes down her observations of the prosperity demonstrated by people’s clothes and shop merchandise. She emphasizes the openness of the Polish authorities’ cultural policy. She has strong convictions about the necessity to commit to revolutionary social transformation and take up working for the benefit of the country conducting it. The youthful, sincere fervor of these changes fascinates her. Stanis?awski warns Szapocznikow against unreflective – “senseless” and “cheap” as he writes – enthusiasm for “the new world” [letter 19]. He remains skeptical about the ongoing transformation, giving priority to reason and independent thinking over spontaneous emotionality.

The diversity of their opinions reflects the difference in their characters and temperaments. Szapocznikow is reluctant to submit to prevailing norms of behavior: “It was probably good that the train left a little earlier than scheduled. It saved us a few conventional moments of farewells” [letter 1]. She points out the petit bourgeois habits of her mother, like being overly attentive. With great fury she writes that she would like to strangle her. Stanis?awski defends the authority of tradition, its vitality and value. According to him, the lack of obedience and respect shown by daughter to her mother is a symptom of its demise. He assumes the tone of a mentor,trying to rein in Szapocznikow’s temperament.

The exchange of ideas on transforming reality and more general remarks on the outlook on life are accompanied by reflection on the form of socialist realism. During her treatment for  ovarian tuberculosis Szapocznikow considers the task of representing the nurse at work. Typification requires the depiction of a characteristic pose in movement, which destroys monumental dignity. In social realism, however, “Sculpted people shown at work have to have an exceptionally unschematic form, the artist has to limit himself exceptionally in his means of expression and simplify the composition in order to emphasize the dignity of the work, in order for the activity itself to reach the viewer’s consciousness, and, basically, in order not to mess up the specifics, that is, of the activity” [letter 32]. At the same time the artist notices that this “recipe” can’t be realized in practice, where finding the expression of the individual sense of truth is more important.

Her illness and prolonged treatment brings back the traumatic experience of the ghettos in Pabianice and ?ód? and the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and probably Terezin and Buchenwald as well. These brief passages about the ghettos and camps are particularly absorbing because of the artist’s persistent silence on the subject. She never spoke about what had happened to her, she never revealed what must have been engraved deeply in her memory. The horrifying sounds and howls of a woman dying next to her in the hospital room evoked the nightmare: “I never knew that dying was so difficult. In the camp people dropped like flies. They didn’t have time to be dying for long” [letter 33]. The war experience appears to be formative in a way because it shaped Szapocznikow’s attitude toward reality: “And it occurred to me that the antagonism and misunderstandings that take place between us come primarily from a single source. You simply look at certain things still in such a nice, cultured, polite way, as it ought to be, in fact, and maybe sometimes I envy you that. But the difference lies in the fact that during your formative years, over the last ten years, you did not go through that baptism of despair, all of that, all of that did not vanish all those times without a trace, as happened for me in the ghettos and the camps” [letter 23]. Thus the resistance toward socially accepted norms revealed in her behavior results from the consciousness of their destruction, and of the inversion of all notions. “Nice, cultured, polite” was replaced by “lovely, human, true, heartfelt” [ibidem].

It seems that there is a connection between the traumatic experience of the concentration camps and the frenzy of life that the artist manifested. It’s as if the permanent threat to life triggered by war provoked the necessity to unwaveringly affirm every tiny detail, every evanescent moment. This resulted in the need for immersion in the overflowing stream of events, for exploiting every opportunity that arises and in the need for extreme individuality: “Of your own free will and for your own joy and happiness is how we must fulfill every work and create every thing, in order that it have (and only then will it have) true value for others” [letter 33]. Confronted with the importance that Szapocznikow bestowed upon the present and also with her will to participate in it, her enthusiasm toward social and political changes becomes clearer.

This vague entanglement of emotions and motivations had an influence on Szapocznikow’s and Stanis?awski’s decision to return to Poland in 1951. They settled down in Warsaw. Through the fragmentary tissue of their letters runs a thread of public engagement as well as a gradually developing disappointment with “the new world.” During Szapocznikow’s work on reconstructing the sculptures in Gdańsk’s Old Town in 1953, she complains of the harsh working conditions and dull everyday monotony. Comparing herself to the others, she quickly realizes her unique talent and sensitivity. Szapocznikow and Stanis?awski are also exhausted by the difficulties of traveling abroad, applying for passports and visas, and the limited supplies in stores. During their journeys they buy clothes, shoes, souvenirs and accessories for each other that cannot be found in Poland. Eventually, in 1963, Szapocznikow, then together with Cie?lewicz, decides to move to Paris.

The letters also reveal a story of passion and its slow burning out. These are first of all love letters filled with the figures of a lover’s discourse, which “is not dialectical; it turns like a perpetual calendar, an encyclopedia of affective culture […]”Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, New York 1996, p. 7.  The figures utter the affect, then break off, their role is filled. There is Longing: “I miss you physically, sensuously, with every nerve and every cell, so much so that it is becoming unbearable” [letter 23]; “I miss you to madness” [letter 63]; the Scene: “All of the ‘scenes’ between us issue from the most ordinary thing in the world […]” [letter 40]; Tenderness, Silence, Union, Jealousy, Madness… Scraps of language circulate endlessly, and they cannot be fully controlled by the subject. Yet the unconditional affirmation of love is the performative speech act “I love you,” which repeatedly appears in the letters like a tautology.

The preliminary condition for writing is the absence of the other, “writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not – this is the beginning of writing.”Ibidem, p. 100.  The object of desire evades proper naming because language is disfiguring mediation belonging to the symbolic order. Szapocznikow and Stanis?awski are aware of it when they complain of the impossibility of accurate expression of their own feelings: “this letter makes no sense” [letter 4]; “Because after all that’s the most important thing, that it’s not visibly written, but that it’s always nagging at your brain, heart, and all of your nerves” [letter 14]; “I tore open the envelope of my letter of yesterday and am slipping in this sheet of paper, for it doesn’t matter if it’s small or large – what I want to write wouldn’t fit on even the largest paper” [letter 20]; “It is so strong that it’s impossible to capture in words” [letter 24].

The loving subject seeks his place in language, fails to find it, but keeps dreaming about absolute unity. Szapocznikow and Stanis?awski repeat that desire for merging into one. This is the utopia of straightforward communication that can not be fulfilled, at least because “I” is divided into body and mind. It’s not clear whether the emotion is caused by the gut or the heart [letter 1]. The physical experience, though, seems to come to the fore: “Sometimes this life here seems unreal. And unreal precisely because it’s purely corporeal. As though a human contained only flesh and organs. Then how is it possible that I am and you” [letter 26]. The body suffers pain, which permeates the work of art: “From the pus and blood from a shattered heart one must shape art” [letter 36]. But the vulnerable body is also a source of pleasure because the senses are “delicate elves” [letter 23].

These letters show an image of everyday life several decades ago, in an epoch dead and gone from the present point of view. They can serve as a complement to the interpretation of Szapocznikow’s oeuvre. At the same time they reveal the touching story of a relationship between two individuals who in times of transition, on the ruins of the old world, pass one another and are not able to communicate, not only because the letters are delayed and their contents become out-of-date before reaching the addressee’s hands.

Ewa Skolimowska is an art historian and art critic living in Warsaw. She studied art history and Polish philology at Warsaw University. She works at the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts.