Figure on a Trunk Audio Guide

Magdalena Abakanowicz

Polish, 1930-2017

Figure on a Trunk

96 × 103 × 24 inches

Photography not permitted
Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Purchase Fund 2000
2000.348a, b

Location: Bass Concert Hall Plaza
GPS: 30.285686,-97.731299
Audio file

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.