Maria Pinińska-Bereś (1931–1999) was a Polish sculptress and performance artist. Counted among the pioneers of feminist art, she had learned from the prominent Xawery Dunikowski. In the early sixties Pinińska embarked on the quest for new, original forms suited to a woman’s message.
In the series titled Rotundas (1960–1963) she combined heavy concrete shapes with soft fabrics. Her objects known as Corsets (1965–1967) were made from papier mâché; the corset would become a symbol of not only a woman’s body but also her soul being oppressed. Feminist ideas were evident in the work of Pinińska – ‘enough with the mental corset already’ came to serve as her motto. In Table I’m Sexy (1969), parts of the female body were lying around on the tabletop, waiting to be consumed by males; the issue of women’s subjectification was further dealt with in the series Psycho-furniture (1969–1973). The mid-seventies saw her begin employing fabrics stuffed with cotton wool and flexible PUR foam and painted pink – Pinińska’s signature colour from then on; the sculptures, refined in formal terms, were light, supple, and erotically charged. Starting in 1976, she also performed actions concerned with feminism, with her own art, and affirming nature too – it was in natural surroundings that these, conceived as site-specific events, took place most often. All in all she produced more than 150 sculptures and authored nearly 20 actions; her works, not acclaimed widely during her lifetime, are now held in numerous museum collections both in Poland and abroad.
Maria Pinińska was born in Poznań on August 17, 1931. The mother, Lya Heincel, came from the family of a wealthy construction entrepreneur; the father, Piotr Piniński, a cavalry captain of aristocratic descent, was proud to have fought for Poland’s independence. Maria’s memory of her childhood was one of living in a ‘golden cage’, surrounded by servants and raised by a governess but isolated from the outside world, which she could only watch from a distance. The outbreak of war in 1939 put an abrupt and violent end to that period. Father was captured by the Soviets, and never heard from again; many years later it was ascertained he’d been murdered along with thousands of other prisoners of war. Together with her mother, grandfather, and little brothers, Maria fled Poznań for Kraków – like any family of a Polish officer, they were facing threats of incarceration, or even execution. After the German occupation ended, they came to live in Katowice, where Maria would finish secondary art school. But Poland had not regained sovereignty – the country found itself under Communist rule, with the Soviet Union involved politically and militarily.
Between 1950 and 1956 Maria pursued her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. In Poland it was a time of Stalinist terror in its most cruel disposition: indoctrination permeated all spheres of life, the secret police identified any signs of opposition to the Communist rulers, and lots of people were being imprisoned. The Academia, too, was not free from ideological pressure: by decree, the only acceptable style in the arts was socialist realism – artists were expected to employ realistic means and praise the achievements of the new authorities. Nevertheless, Pinińska always described her academic years as delightful. She was fortunate to develop in the studio of Xawery Dunikowski, an acclaimed sculptor who gained international recognition in Europe. During wartime Dunikowski spent five years in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, an after the war he let the rulers take advantage of his reputation in their propaganda. This secured him a position high enough to protect his students from ideological pressure – and socialist realism was not something he would tolerate. Dunikowski considered Maria the most talented student of his. In 1957, one year after graduation, Pinińska married Jerzy Bereś, a sculptor she had met when taking entrance examinations to the Academy, and in the following year their daughter Bettina was born. The 1957–1960 period was a transitory one as the young family were seeking opportunities to live and work in Kraków.
As soon as she completed her studies, Maria started looking for her own place in the arts. She was soon to dismiss everything she had learned at the Academy; in the first years after graduating she kept producing plaster pieces, to no significant satisfaction. With the Birth, produced in 1956, she decided to paint the sculpture pink, which met with quite an astonishment at the exhibition. This was to be the first sign of a breakthrough in her pursuits.
Pinińska embarked upon a wholly self-determining course in 1960 – it was then that the first Rotundas materialised. These were heavy, made of concrete, and formally closed, as opposed to the then-trending style introduced by Henry Moore. They were to be placed on the floor, while everyone else at the time exhibited sculptures on pedestals. Additionally, Maria arranged quilts beneath, an entirely unusual, stunning combination. In 1964 she produced the Lady with a Little Bird: a concrete slab bearing an outline of a woman’s face and dressed in a quilted vest, with naked breasts protruding through the latter. Working in concrete was arduous, however, therefore Maria turned to a new technique of her own invention, somewhat resembling papier mâché. Later she would reminisce:
In my beginnings I felt the urge to redefine sculpture. Freeing the form from statuesqueness became my goal. It was a dramatic struggle. By giving up the perfect traditional sculpting skills I had acquired and by imposing an unconvensional mode on myself I have made a radical breakthrough … I got rid of weight in my works. For I had always dreamed of being able to carry my sculptures without anyone’s (any man’s) help.
(Maria Pinińska-Bereś, ‘About M.’, manuscript, 1996)
The output of 1965 to 1967 were the Corsets. These were light, made from papier mâché. To Pinińska, the corset became a metaphor of a woman’s fate, as well as a trace of particular women who wore it. One of the pieces in the series was even titled the Standard-Corset (1967). She wrote:
‘Although I do rely on my intuitions, one guiding idea of mine was that I had to dismiss all my perfectionisms, acquired skills, and practical norms. That I should draw on myself, because everything else was either done or in the making already. I never looked for Western catalogues or magazines, as many others did.
Drawing on myself meant to draw on my own experiences – and the “I” was a woman. That young girl and then woman had been raised in the characteristic circumstances of a decidedly Catholic family, one whose head, on account of wartime losses, was a patriarchal senior brought up back in the 19th century. I had not been spared any one feature of a woman’s fate, that which the feminist movement challenged eventually. Especially the binding of religion and gender phobias had been petrifying. If I was to keep what was mine, I had to be defiant. And art appeared free to me, freed from proprieties or compulsions – a domain of creative, undistorted projection of personality.
Through the Corsets I discovered a form corresponding to the body, and at the same instance not being one. Furthermore, the items in question were a kind of propriety imposed on a woman and shaping her in line with the expectations of a patriarchal society. They were designed to shape the body as well as the soul, making women obedient, making them behave characteristically, damaging them both physically and mentally.
And there was something else I perceived about the Corsets: entire generations of women – that is, the so shaped contents of Corsets – were fading into oblivion, leaving those shells, which had been very close to these bodies, and at the same time a torment to the victims. Did they rebel? Were they aware of their enslavement?’
(Maria Pinińska-Bereś, ‘Corsets and Towers’, manuscript, August 1994)
Pinińska insisted: enough with the mental corsets already! This call of hers correlated, in both temporal and conceptual terms, with the rise of the so-called second-wave feminism – with which she could not, of course, be familiar, Poland being mostly isolated from the Western world; the second wave is considered to having originated with Betty Friedan’s book ‘The Feminine Mystique’, published in the United States in 1963.
In her works Table II – The Feast and Table I’m Sexy Pinińska dealt, and notably so, with the issue of women being subjectified as bodies to be consumed by males. On the tabletop, parts of the female body were lying around, accompanied by consumption utensils; note that Judy Chicago’s celebrated Dinner Party was not around until the late seventies. In 1983 the critic Andrzej Kostołowski wrote:
‘Looking at recent years’ international highlights of feminist art, one becomes strikingly aware that the Polish artist had anticipated this movement of female criticism, with results no less significant artistically than those brought about by feminist alt-enclaves.
(Andrzej Kostołowski, ‘Maria Pinińska-Bereś’ [exhibition catalogue], Stowarzyszenie Artystyczne Grupa Krakowska, Kraków 1983)
The Love Machine, in turn, dated 1969, is a participatory piece: turning its hand crank, the viewer rotates a couple of female legs cut out from chipboard and makes a phallus spin inside a vagina-like cavity in a trough.
In 1970 Pinińska initiated her best-known series, one titled Psycho-furniture. These are plywood cabinets, drawers, chests, and folding screens, with inserted parts of the female body made from painted papier mâché. The items of furniture so become their female users’ confidantes to share one’s most intimate experiences with. In these sculptures, perfect and captivating form combines with subtle content. And more feminist works followed: an aquarium with female lips clinging to its walls like snails (Existentiarium, 1971); a pink blanket with an outline of a woman’s body, such as those the police make at the scenes of murder (Fallen Woman, 1972); a display case containing a part of the female body – shaped like a bathing suit, covered in pink lip marks, and hung on a peg – with a plate above it saying: ‘Produced … Best Before … ?’ (Is a Woman a Human Being, 1972). The colours white and pink predominated, with the latter raised by Pinińska to the status of her signature – precisely because it had been rejected in the arts, as the colour of boudoirs, synonymous with flippancy and infantility.
From 1973 the art of Pinińska included soft shapes, effected by stuffing various textile covers with cotton wool, and later with flexible PUR foam: pillows, bolsters, cushions, quilts, and snake-like objects. In My Enchanting Little Room (1975) the window opening was sealed with a rolled pillow, quilts bearing signs of a beating were hung on the walls, and on the floor, alongside, a large stuffed pink snake was lying. The elastic foam allowed the artist a novel way of shaping her sculptures, as in Bed (A Duvet’s Love for the Sheet) (1975).
The year 1976 saw Pinińska include performance art again in her practice – she had performed her first action back in 1967, featured with an independent act in the famous Panoramic Sea Happening of Tadeusz Kantor, and had planned on arranging further events, but miscellaneous circumstances delayed her return to the field by as much as nine years. Her actions were very personal. One consisted in flying a kite, its tail displaying the words ‘I am sorry I have been, I am sorry I am’ (Kite-Letter, 1976). Others (Praying for Rain, 1977; Author’s Standard, 1979; Banner, 1980) would take place without an audience, or in the presence of only a few fellow artists. Invariably, the actions were closely connected with nature, for which Pinińska had always held a deep fascination. On most occasions she appeared with a pink standard, meant as a symbol of her art and her attitude. Her most spectacular acts were those performed as part of plein-air sessions in Miastko, which attracted the avant-garde from all of Poland as well as abroad. In 1979 she erected the Place. A Portable Monument, conceived as a means for the admiration of beautiful spots. In the Landscape Annexation (1980) she would paint rocks pink on a grass-covered hill; the paint used was impermanent, though. In Soap Bubbles (1979) she would lie down in the hills, wearing a white dress, on a white duvet pierced by the pole of her pink standard, and blow bubbles – a metaphor of ephemeral art. All of her performances can be considered site-specific art.
Pinińska’s plein-air activity eventually translated into sculptures annexing the gallery space. From the wooden Well of Pink a long strip of pink duvet flow down, meandering on the floor. In the Stream (1979), a pink streamlet, originating from a wooden trough, snakes between rocks.
In 1980, at the ON Gallery, Pinińska performed the celebrated Laundry. First, carrying an armful of white cloths, she approached two metal washtubs, to wash the items in one and rinse them in the other. Then she began to peg out the washing on a line surrounding the tubs; as it turned out, each canvas had a pink letter painted on it, so that all of them combined to form the word ‘feminism’. Pinińska had not encountered the feminist art of the West at all until 1979, when she was invited to take part in the ‘Feministische Kunst Internationaal’ exhibition, taking place that year in The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum. Up to that point – especially in the sixties and the early seventies – she had been working in an almost total isolation, neither interacting with female artists from across the Iron Curtain nor having any feminist company in the domestic art world.
The eighties were a harrowing time in Pinińska’s life. Martial law was introduced in Poland, in order to make it easier for the Communist rulers to counter the social unrest sparked by Solidarity. Thousands of people were interned, and there were fatal casualties. In protest, the art circles announced a boycott of state galleries; an independent culture movement began to take shape, based in church spaces. But the exhibitions held there were no place for the pink art of Pinińska, even though her output at that time reacted to the tragic circumstances: she used the colour black and voiced disapproval of how politics dominated the arts.
In the late eighties Pinińska managed to shake off the trauma of martial law; another splendid period unfolded in her activity. Feminist ideas receded as she employed her own, highly original language to enter a dialogue with older masterpieces and let the individual finesse process them. First in the new series was the sculpture King and Queen, alluding to Henry Moore’s famous piece by the same title: hers consisted of two lofty thrones, each with marked sexual attributes, and a pink ball placed in between. What followed were Princess Y (1987), Princess Z (1987), The Burning Giraffe (1989), Two Graces Commenting on the Departure of the Third (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1990), Odalisque and the Slave Girl (1990), Mme Récamier (1991), and Infanta. Rotunda with a Bell (1993/1996). This entire output is one of a kind in world art.
In her late years Pinińska worked to extend three of her series: Windows, Scores, and Existentiariums, building upon the ideas she had originated in the early seventies. In old window frames she would install mental landscapes – constructs allowing to look not outwards but inside one’s personality. On the metal stands of Scores she would place supple tomes with features related to human sexuality. Into the glass containers of Existentiariums she would stuff animalic forms shaped by filling fabrics with foam or cotton.
In her final period the sculptress made use of new means altogether, working with wire. In doing so she intended to complement the wire-made Infanta, which was a piece articulating a human being’s confinement in circumstances beyond her control. The Infanta’s Bestiarium was supposed to feature animals made from wire; cage-like, that is. The Infanta’s Parrot and the Infanta’s Dog had been completed, with subsequent components drawn – but a sudden illness in 1998 thwarted the plan. Maria Pinińska passed away on April 20, 1999, bereft of physical strength but artistically powerful.
It was not until the late seventies that Pinińska met with recognition in Kraków, receiving her first prizes at the annual ‘Sculpture of the Year’ show – an event she herself, with Jerzy Bereś, had instituted back in 1962. These exhibitions featured the most impressive works of hers for over twenty years. Late in 1979 she was admitted to Grupa Krakowska, the artists’ association running the Krzysztofory Gallery; these were her circles after all, for she had always accompanied her husband Jerzy Bereś there, him being a member since 1966. Before Pinińska had fallen ill, a decision was made to hold a large retrospective exhibition at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery in Kraków. The artist made intensive preparations, wrote texts, planned the arrangement – but did not live to see the thing happen. The work of Pinińska had not been acclaimed widely during her lifetime; it has been duly recognised on a national scale only after her passing.
The œuvre of Maria Pinińska is spread across museum collections in Poland and abroad, including those of the National Museums in Kraków, Wrocław, Poznań, and Warsaw, of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the Masovian Centre for Contemporary Art in Radom, the Silesian Museum in Katowice, the Bochum Museum, the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art in Zürich, and Museum Jerke in Recklinghausen, the Kulczyk Collection, as well as smaller collections, both private and public.