How Magdalena Abakanowicz Wove Her Way into Art History


Magdalena Abakanowicz was a Polish sculptor and fiber artist who revolutionized the use of textiles as a sculptural medium. She created monumental works that explored themes such as identity, memory, war and nature. She was also a professor and a mentor to many young artists. She died in 2017 at the age of 86.

Who was Magdalena Abakanowicz?

Magdalena Abakanowicz was born in 1930 in Falenty, a village near Warsaw, to a noble family of Polish and Tatar origin. Her father was a landowner and a cavalry officer, and her mother was a painter and a writer. She had two brothers and a sister. She grew up in a rural environment, surrounded by nature and animals. She developed an early interest in art and learned to draw and paint from her mother.
She experienced the horrors of the Second World War when she was nine years old. She witnessed the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland, the Warsaw Uprising, and the destruction of her city. She also saw her mother being shot in the hands by German soldiers who stormed their home. She later said that the war had a profound impact on her art and her view of humanity. She said: “I felt an overwhelming fear for the fragility of human existence.”
She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where she graduated in 1954. At that time, Poland was under the communist regime, which imposed socialist realism as the official art style. Socialist realism was a form of propaganda that glorified the achievements of communism and depicted workers, peasants and soldiers in heroic poses. Abakanowicz rebelled against this doctrine and pursued her own artistic vision. She said: “I did not want to make things that were beautiful or pleasing to anyone.”
She began working with textiles in the 1950s, creating abstract works that she called “Abakans”. These were large-scale hanging sculptures made of woven fabrics that she dyed and shaped by hand. They were inspired by her childhood memories of carpets, tapestries and rugs that decorated her home. They also reflected her interest in organic forms and textures, such as tree bark, animal skin and human flesh. They challenged the conventional notions of textile art as feminine, domestic and decorative. They also defied the expectations of sculpture as solid, rigid and static. They were soft, flexible and dynamic. They functioned as both objects and spaces, inviting the viewers to touch them, walk around them or enter them.
In the 1970s, she turned to figurative sculpture, creating headless and fragmented human forms out of burlap, resin, wood and metal. These works expressed her concern with the loss of individuality and dignity in the modern world. She said: “I am obsessed with the image of an anonymous crowd.” She often arranged them in groups or rows, creating a sense of mass and movement. Some of her most famous series include “Crowds”, “Backs”, “War Games” and “Seated Figures”. These works evoked themes such as alienation, violence, oppression and resistance. They also suggested the vulnerability and resilience of the human body and spirit.
She also created outdoor installations using natural materials such as stone, wood and clay. She explored themes such as the relationship between humans and nature, the cycle of life and death, and the mystery of creation. Some of her notable works include “Agora” in Chicago, “Birds of Knowledge of Good and Evil” in Milwaukee, “Space of Stone” in Italy and “Space of Dragon” in Japan. These works blended with their surroundings or contrasted with them, creating visual harmony or tension. They also invited interaction or contemplation from the viewers.
She was also a teacher and a mentor to many young artists. She taught at the University of Fine Arts in Poznań from 1965 to 1990 and was a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1984. She shared her knowledge and experience with her students, encouraging them to develop their own artistic language and vision. She said: “I do not teach how to make things but how to think about things.” She received many awards and honors for her work, including the Herder Prize in 1979, the Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts in 1999 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2005. She also participated in many exhibitions and biennials around the world, such as the Venice Biennale, the São Paulo Biennial and the Documenta.
She died on April 20/21, 2017 in Warsaw after a long illness. She left behind a legacy of powerful and original works that have influenced generations of artists and viewers around the world.

Why is Magdalena Abakanowicz important?

Magdalena Abakanowicz is important because she was one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. She pioneered the use of textiles as a sculptural medium, expanding its expressive potential and challenging its stereotypes. She also created works that addressed universal issues such as identity, memory, war and nature, using forms that were both abstract and figurative.
She was also an inspiration for many artists who followed her footsteps, especially women artists who worked with textiles or fiber art. Some examples are Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and Doris Salcedo. They continued to explore the possibilities of textiles as a material and a metaphor, creating works that combined aesthetic and political dimensions.
She was also a role model for many artists who came from countries that faced political oppression or social turmoil. She showed that art can be a way of resisting conformity and expressing one’s voice. She also showed that art can be a way of healing and transforming one’s trauma. She said: “Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind born out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind.”

How can I learn more about Magdalena Abakanowicz?

If you want to learn more about Magdalena Abakanowicz, you can:

  • Visit her official website:
  • Read her biography: Magdalena Abakanowicz: Art Stations by Joanna Inglot
  • Watch her documentary: Magdalena Abakanowicz: The Creative Process by Maria Anna Potocka
  • See her works in person: Her works are in many museums and public spaces around the world, such as the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Grant Park in Chicago.


Magdalena Abakanowicz was a Polish sculptor and fiber artist who transformed textiles into powerful sculptures. She created works that explored themes such as identity, memory, war and nature, using forms that were both abstract and figurative. She was also a teacher and a mentor to many young artists. She died in 2017 at the age of 86, leaving behind a legacy of influential and original works. She was one of the most important artists of our time.

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