Izabela Kowalczyk: The Space Embodied (2012)

(The text was published in exhibition catalogue: Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Imaginarium of Corporeality, State Galley of Art in Sopot, 27.01-04.03.2012)


A Czech critic, Jindřich Chalupecký, when defining the art of women wrote that it derives from a profound knowledge of the body and the carnal space:

The interest in bodily space and the inspiration with personal fate is obviously not an exclusive province of female art, yet it is in this art that it receives particular emphasis.1J. Chalupecky, Duse androgynova (1976), Situace. Ceske a Slovenske vytravne umeni w 70. a 80. Letach na Ostravsku, Ceski Tesin 1991, after: Grzegorz Dziamski, Sztuka kobiet: od outsidera do innego, Format, 8-9, 1992, p. 35.

Still, the art of women is a construct which originates from specific cultural requirements associated with femininity, the qualities ascribed to women by the society, or the cultural identification of femininity with the body. Individual subjects relate to these criteria, quote it, modifying them or at times contradicting them. Because no such thing as the essence of femininity, which could be rendered in art, does not exist. There is no doubt however, that in the work of many female artists the motif and issues of the body predominate.

These words apply in particular to the art of Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Nevertheless, in her case not only the bodily space is analysed; here, the external space as well as objects of everyday use become embodied.

The corporeality of her art follows from the yielding, rounded shapes which fill it, and from the use of pink, which appeared in her art already in 1958 and functions virtually as a trademark. It is a colour which the convention ascribes to women since the very birth. Its symbolic is also associated with the body, the boudoir, sex. By virtue of their softness, the curved shapes and the pink colour, Pinińska-Bereś’ artwork is suffused with a layer of sexuality. These are accompanied by ironic commentaries written out in careful, schoolbook handwriting, calling to mind the intimacy of the confessions contained in a teenage diary.2J. Hanusek, Na tropie płonącej żyrafy, in: Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Figura w indywidualnej poetyce, Orońsko 1993, p. 4. The art in its entirety refers to the conventional world of women.



In her earlier work, Maria Piniriska-Bere6 drew on the representation of a specific female figure and its sections; later the figure disappears, replaced by barely identifiable rounded forms. Moreover, the artist also made use of household objects such as a table, a bed, a screen. Thus, she quoted the interior of a boudoir or a kitchen, and hence the spaces traditionally assigned to women. Therefore the art of Maria Pinińska-Bereś may be considered as an analysis of the female space. This art draws attention to the entanglement of women in the world of objects, there appear: corsets, aprons, duvets, nappies, mirrors, there is also a washtub, a dustpan and ironing board. These objects point to the female entrapment in the realm of the household; to the closed circled where, in accordance with the traditional division of roles, they should spend their time; to the cultural model which equals this space with femininity. The artist also made references to the activities such as washing or cleaning, which are held to be reserved for women. One of the last performances of Maria Pinińska-Bereś was entitled Woman with a Ladder [Kobieta z drabiną]. It was presented in 1995 during art shows taking place in the Poznań Fractale Gallery. The artist, dressed in a white attire and a straw hat strolled around with a wooden ladder and an over two-metre long broom in a large hall of the club where the gallery had its premises. The ladder and the broom had pink ribbons and pieces of cloth attached. Meanwhile, the artist herself simply swept. Swept the dust, the cobwebs from the less accessible corners, swept the crumbs from under the legs of the audience. It would be hard not to quote the notion of “bustlingness” suggested by Jolanta Brach-Czaina. The authoress of the “Szczeliny istnienia” demonstrated that “bustlingness” entails everyday chores, seemingly insignificant and performed as a matter of routine, tedious ones and, one should add, most often done by women. Indeed, the female everyday reality often includes cleaning, food preparation, laying the table, collecting dirty dishes, washing up, doing the laundry etc.

The everyday life is the foundation of our existence. And since we experience the fact of existence as thing of paramount importance, we are astonished whenever we realize that it passes on petty matters. The daily life which acts as an existential background of extraordinary events which we expect to happen — often in vain — may therefore decide about everything. Its dimension is negligible. The frequency is high. It is imperceptible.3J. Brach-Czaina, Szczeliny istnienia, Krakow 1998, p. 55.

After all, without the daily life there can be nothing, without it we would not be able to comprehend things which are extraordinary, unique, and great — Brach-Czaina explains. Perhaps this is why this world of things and the mundane everyday bustle was appreciated in Pinińska’s art. It pointed to the significance of things — commonplace objects which fill our surroundings and become the containers of our histories. It is said that women decorate and embellish their surroundings taming it at the same time, imparting a feature of their own individuality to it. The everyday objects obtain traces of our own bodies all the time: fingerprints, fragment of epidermis, falling hair, sweat. The mysterious dents, evidence of presence whose signs may be embarrassing, disclosure of sensitive and erogenous spots […] may arouse, as Anna Król writes, anxiety and shame.4A. Król, Skok w próżnię, Art & Business, no. 3, 2000, p. 50. There is no doubt that through these objects we are ushered into the intimate world of the artist. In Pinińska’s art, objects gain on peculiarity, they become curious, fanciful and at the same time very corporeal — by means of the pink colour, and the soft, rounds forms. The spaces of objects and the space of corporeality are mutually conditioned here.


Still, the art of Maria Pinińska-Bereś drawing on the conventional world of women, shows it as a world of masquerade, a world of artificial divisions and limitations imposed on women. One might say that exactly this female bustling around brought forth the feminism of Pinińska-Bereś. Here, her notorious 1980 performance entitled Laundry [Pranie] should be recalled, during which the artist washed the nappies while the audience looked on, and when she hung them out to dry, a sign reading “Feminism” was revealed to the viewers. Pinińska-Bereś was of the opinion that the burdens associated with rearing a child and taking care of the household stood in the way of her career. She described the years devoted to being a mother as the time taken away from art, and she never managed to make up for it in her artistic path.5D. Buczak, Różowa rewolta, Wysokie obcasy, 03.03.2008, http://kobieta.gazeta.pl/wysokie-obcasy/1,53662,4972303.html.

Hence, the artistic feminism of Pinińska-Bereś arose from a rebellion against the constraints associated with the strict division of genders, where woman is assigned such activities as doing the laundry, cleaning, cooking, where her body counts inasmuch as it meets the conditions of being an object of desire. Pinińska’s art is therefore rebellious but it also demonstrates how easily women conform to the roles imposed upon them. After the entire world is presented in the hues of pink, and living in it appears easy, uncomplicated and pleasant.

This reference to the convention of femininity influenced the perception of the artist as a precursor of feminism in Poland. Andrzej Kostołowski wrote that feminist themes had been present in her artwork already at the turn of the 1960s and the 1970s, before they appeared in the West.6A. Kostołowski, Żywy Róż, in: Nurt Intelektualny w sztuce polskiej po drugiej wojnie światowej, Galeria BWA Lublin 1985. The issue in question is above all the critical analysis of roles assigned to woman that one finds in Pinińska’s art. One of the works which addresses the problem is a 1972 sculpture Is Woman a Human Being? [Czy kobieta jest człowiekiem?]. A fragment of a female nude, covered with marks of kisses was cut out and hollowed to resemble a bathing suit. The whole is provided with a tag where a production date and best before may be written in. This ironic commentary characterizes female body as an object serving to satisfy male needs, and simultaneously denotes its treatment as useful only when it is capable to satisfy those needs. Anna Borzeskowska, drawing attention to the cramped crate in which the female torso is placed, interprets the work, just as the later Infantas [Infantki] (1997 ) in the context of female enslavement within the bounds of their gender and the roles they are entrusted.

What is then the task of an infanta and also a woman? Showing herself, representing, growing up to the carefully directed role. The infantas possess a little bell ‘within’. To me it is a symbol of femininity enclosed somewhere inside the body, usually hidden, and revealed here.7A. Borzeskowska, Kobieta bez różowych okularów, Arteon, no. 7, 2002, p. 15.

The analysis of the feminine space leads Pinińska to interesting formal solutions. In Raft [Tratwa] (1969) a male torso cut in half was placed on a slanting plank, and the shade it produced was given a female silhouette. Again, the irony typical of the artist appears here, since in this arrangement the woman is admittedly a shadow, but one which possess a countenance, while the man is a reality which is nevertheless reduced to its lower half.8J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 2. Despite all appearances, Pinińska art was never received as anti-male and, what is more, it was willingly described by male critics, who never concealed their admiration for her. One could say, therefore, that her art was a kind of flirtation with the environment. On top of that, it w full of contradictions as on the one hand it expressed criticism of the culture which granted women secondary roles, or reduced them to being objects of desire, but on the other it seduced, became an object of desire itself. The seduction occurred by means of references to the tempting carnality, sometimes only implied, sometimes appearing in a mirror reflection — as in the work Poetic Place [Miejsce poetyckie] from 1974, and at other times limited only to the erogenous fragments, to bodily areas associated with pleasure



The artist used unorthodox materials in her work: plywood, stuffed covers, quilted fabrics, sponge, glass, cotton wool, papier-mâché or field stones. The reason for such interest in the materials this kind was trite: the artist wanted to be free from the dependence on her husband and the continual asking for assistance in transporting the works. She also wrote that abandoning traditional sculpting materials, which she did in 1965, was also associated with the need to speak with her own voice and to resort to techniques which were immemorially female.9After: A. Król, op. cit., p. 49. Consequently, her art is impermanent; the works are difficult to store, susceptible to becoming dirty, torn and crumpled. This fragility may connote the body which is hypersensitive to injury. Indeed, the works are not infrequently described as if they did not present dead matter but living body tissue. Tomasz Szczuka wrote:

The astonishing softness of her sculptures makes one want to take them into one’s mouth, to savour them and eventually to tear it with one’s teeth, to relieve the sexual tension they seem to pulsate with from inside.10T. Szczuka, text in the catalogue Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Figura w indywidualnej poetyce, op.cit.

On the one hand the words of the critic may be construed as a desire to master these works, to take them in possession and make them into an object of individual pleasure, on the other, however — they may rather attest to having engaged into flirtation proposed by the artist. This is where the ambivalence of Pinińska-Bereś works lies — one does not fully know whether she exposes a defenceless body to view, or whether she wants to give it to others for their own, or perhaps, through temptation and seduction, becomes the mistress of pleasure herself. As Ewa Malgorzata Tatar writes:

(…) the theme undertaken by the artist is very interesting: the theme of female body in the context of producing individual space, but also the space of eroticism, erotic experience as something which is culturally alien to a woman.11E. M. Tatar, O produkowaniu przestrzeni, in: 3 kobiety. Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Natalia Lach -Lachowicz, Ewa Partum, Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warszawa 2011, s. 15.

The sexual pleasure of women in times when Maria Pinińska-Bereś created was not something obvious. In Poland at the time the help books concerning sexuality began to appear (a revolution came with “Sztuka kochania” by Michalina Wisłocka published in parts in “Perspektywy” and “Tygodnik Kulturalny” in 1973-74, published in book form for the first time in 1978), still, whoever heard of the G-point then, about multiple orgasm, about sex without commitments and consequences? The female pleasure was therefore not a subject of deliberation whereas feminist theories paid attention to the pleasure experienced by men. The latter was stigmatized since according to those theories it was connected with treating women as objects or even humiliation of women. In the art of Pinińska -Bereś the male viewer is not condemned; at most, the artist sets successive traps for him, which might be seen as a sort of erotic game which she plays. Meanwhile the pleasure is transferred to the domain of corporeal objects. At times it is concealed as the curious, curved pink object hidden behind Screen [Parawan] (1973). On other occasion it is manifested by whispering lips which appear on various objects which consequently become personified, yet every time their ‘I’ is feminine and corporeal. One could hardly speak of a soul of these objects here, opting rather for discussing their libido. The pleasure also evokes the association with autoeroticism, as in the aforementioned Poetic Place [Miejsce poetyckie], where a fragment of a female torso is reflected in the mirror. Both the image of the female body and the mirror are placed within a half-closed form, which resembles a shell or ornamental box. In this work only the woman facing the mirror, whose fragment of torso we are given to see, could contemplate her own reflection. For the others, it is virtually inaccessible; if they wish to see more they have to take the position of a peeping torn. Thus, one might say that it is the woman who delights herself with the image of her body; it is she who takes the greatest satisfaction in it. It is also the pleasure of the sexual act, as in the Bed (Love of the Quilt for the Sheet) [Łoże (miłość kołdry do prześcieradła)] from 1975, where from under a folded bedding some obscene tongue issues, or in Scream [Krzyk] of the same year, in which the word “scream” written above a fragment which resembles a bed with a tousled, twisted bedding, may only be associated with the spasm of pleasure. Everything here comes in excess; the corporeal form does not fit the pre-arranged framework, as in Door [Drzwi] of 1980, or suggest outpouring as in Window II—the Pink’s Departure [Okno II — odejście różu] from 1982. Pinińska-Bereś later works are even bolder, more and more sexual references appear. The 1990 Odalisque and the Slave-Girl [Odaliska i niewolnica] may be read as a representation of vagina and the vulva emerging out of it This is why her works go beyond the limits of art, do not fit it. Ewa Tatar writes about them in a similar vein:

(…) although passion does not yet gush out from the charming room, it has been disclosed, shown, and by the same token her frame-breaking potential has been accentuated, a potential which swells and will certainly burst.12Ibidem, p. 19.



The works do not yield easily to appropriation; their reading is not easy, while a male viewer who is tempted by these works is exposed. This happens in The Corsets [Gorsety] and The Psycho-Furniture series [Psychomebelki] or tables set with fragments of a female body: legs, busts, the pubes areas. These items are served on plates and encourage consumption. Jerzy Hanusek writes about the 1969 Table [Stół]

On a copiously laden, festive table, there lie — like Easter cakes — the fragments of body of a girl lost in reverie (made from papier-mâché). In one of these a small flag reading “I’m sexy” is stuck. Next to it, the outlines of male hands may be found. Here, the woman is obviously inserted — as a dish — into a situation of consumption.13J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 2.

However, the artist surprises the viewer, compromising his presence and his voyeuristic eye. The male voyeurism concerns the body of a woman, which may be contemplated while remaining hidden. Here, the viewer encounters a female body cut into pieces, with its emblems, while the marked traces of the presence of a male consumer, e.g. the hands outlined on a table or such objects as a knife and fork make his presence a fact proclaimed. The artists also used other means to set traps for the habits of the viewer. In one of the works, which also featured bits of a female body, the viewer who wishes to take a closer look has to stoop over the table. Then, however, they will see themselves because a mirror is used in the work. It appears in other objects created by Maria Pinińska-Bereś, functioning as an element which gives away the watching, who are caught in a trap as they look on, so as to be consumed by the artwork, in essence becoming its constituent part. This also confirms that the pleasure belongs to the object, not the viewer who observes it. According to Paweł Mościcki, the crucial questions which are hidden in Pinińska’s art are:

Since when a body exposed is a body of its own, a body completed and fully developed? Aren’t we, by exhibiting it to view and touch of others, forced to abandon the thought of its coherence, to consent to a fragmentation which sends one back to the moment preceding its birth?14P. Mościcki, Gracje początków, in: 3 kobiety. Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Ewa Partum, Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warszawa 2011, p. 49.

Nonetheless, it seems that the artist was not concerned about the bodily exposure; she did not experience embarrassment and even took pleasure in it. Perhaps there was a touch of exhibitionism in it, and certainly her creative effort was accompanied by the awareness of the effect she might accomplish, which may be compared with the awareness but also the pleasure of a woman on whom others look, a woman who is admired and desired. Although the concept might sound like a feminist heresy, in fact it results from the query which appeared in feminist theories — to whom pleasure belongs and who manages it? It is then the pleasure of watching (oneself) and of being an object of observation of the others. The feminist deliberations, which follow the concepts of Luce Irigaray, attempt to demonstrate that body had always been subjected to the dominion of the eye, while such senses as taste, smell or touch were undervalued. About the significance of the latter sense with regard to the artist’s work Mościcki writes thus:

Bodies, or to put it more precisely, quasi-bodies of Pinińskiej-Bereś also seem to oppose the optical power, but not because they depart from visuality in a simple gesture, heading towards the realm of touch. The bodies in her works, especially in the Existentiarium series, are bodies without a face. It is a kind of a world which is somehow sensual, sensualized, but which has not yet become a solid portion of a body, it can still flow like water (…) or fall inertly out of a closed space (…).15Ibidem, p. 50 Ibidem, p. 50.

The author points to the fact that it is a non-differentiated corporeality, which contains an element of monstrosity. And yet there is a pitfall in this thinking, as despite the fact that Pinińska’s works are exceedingly haptic indeed, the desire to touch is awoken by looking at it. Hence they are not a monstrosity, arouse desire and promise pleasure, although again, on closer inspection it appears that the pleasure is turned inwards, that the viewer cannot access it. The quoted Irigaray attempted to define female sexuality in opposition to the definition proposed by Freud and Lacan, for whom femininity was associated with an absence; it was a negative of the male subject. The woman in the writings of Freud and his continuators was a kind of “castrated man”. This is why Irigaray indicated the need to discover the specificity of female body and sexuality. There is, after all, the female libido, the female sexuality and its separate development which Freud and Lacan failed to notice. Irigaray’s theories might have led to essentialism, dangerously approaching the attempts to find the “essence of femininity”, although the psychoanalyst herself discussed the morphology of the body, the symbolic interpretation of anatomy. It is worth noticing that her description of sexuality seems unusually close to what Pinińska-Bereś showed in her works. According to Irigaray, lips are very important in the female symbolic, being simultaneously oneness and dichotomy, they touch upon each other all the time; they are something in between the inside and the outside. One cannot help but notice how often the effigy of lips appears in the artist’s art, it is a mark left on the body, as in the work Is Woman a Human Being? [Czy kobieta jest człowiekiem?] but lips also appear as an autonomous objects, as in the Cruise Across the Seas and Oceans Around the Table [Rejs przez morza i oceany dookoła stołu] (1974), where they were placed in a washing tub. Also, we will find here a representation of the labia, as in the aforementioned Odalisque and the Slave-Girl [Odaliska i niewolnica]. One may mention the whole imaginarium of maria Pinińska-Bereś:

(…) exotic flowers with sensuously parted lips, ambiguous cakes, lascivious bedding compositions, objects rotund and writhing.16J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 4.

In Irigaray’s view, the symbol of the lips is an expression of female sexuality:

(…) fluid, ambiguous, based on multiplicity, non-hierarchical, the clear distinctions and binary oppositions are alien to it. Thus, the female imaginarium would be fluctuating, mutable amorphous as the bosom.17L. Irigaray, Ta płeć, która nie jest jednością, przeł. K. Kłosińska, „FA-art”, nr 4,1996, s. 44-47.

Here, the pleasure concerns the entire body; it also results to a large extent from the experience of one’s own body, which touches itself.



In her entire artwork, Maria Pinińska-Bereś played a game with conventions — the body she showed or the space of the female bustlingness may be interpreted as a cultural convention imposed on women. Pinińska not so much defied them (after all, pink is not rejected but adopted as a trademark colour), but rather exposed them, demonstrating their artificiality. She demonstrated that traditionally comprehended femininity is something which is supposed to reciprocate the needs of men; it is a masquerade of sorts, a disguise and a performance of culturally enforced roles. Nonetheless, she attempted to create a space for herself where she would be able to cut herself off from social obligations. As Jerzy Hanusek wrote, she created a space of autonomy and sovereignty where her own subjectivity could be realized. The critic mentions works which highlight this severance from the external world:

Garden [Ogródek] from 1974, where a bed of paper flowers is surrounded by a high fence which bears an inscription “And I have my own intimate little world”, the 1972 Screen [Parawan] from 1972, My Bed on the Island [Moje łoże na wyspie] of 1985.18J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 3.

Naturally this also includes the 1975 My Little Enchanting Room [Mój uroczy pokoik]. Hence, a specific space arrangement appears, about which the artist wrote in 1996:

Initially, I used to arrange the pieces of furniture separately, then I combined them into certain neighbourhoods and systems, which brought me to works playing the space, which annexed the gallery, such as e.g. Well of Pink [Studnia różu] or Stream [Struga].19Quoted after: A. Król, op. cit., p. 50.

Ewa Tatar, indicating the erotic dimension of architecture, writes that she perceives the works as a narration about space conducted from the perspective of masochistic ambivalence, a space which is the source of oppression, of power exercised over a woman.20E. M. Tatar, op. cit., p. 16. One cannot agree with the statement, as the spaces created by Pinińska are safe. The physical obstacles, the screen, shut out what is internal with regard to the outside world and provides protection. One might say that admittedly the artist creates the external world, with a strict division of roles and oppression which is present there, but escapes from this world into the space of fantasy of their own making, yet fantasy which is given a body. The art of Maria Pinińska is light and ironic, attests to the artist’s distance towards the everyday life and the limitations she had to confront. It is in the space of art that she sought for inspiration, and most of all found in it her own areas of pleasure. In escaping the outside world, she found herself an asylum that was art. It is art that permitted her to transform the space of daily life into something extraordinary, to conjure up a fairy-tale world featuring princesses, crooked towers, while commonplace shapes assume disquieting and often erotic connotations. Thus the realm of fantasy (and at the same time art) became the flight from the world of the everyday. It was precisely fantasy that the authoress wanted to equip with corporeal shapes, creating such mysterious and realistically unfeasible objects as e.g. Fifth Corner [Kąt piąty] (1983). For this reason, the work of the artist is not so much an analysis of the space of corporeality, but an embodiment of the space of fantasy, a penetration under the bodily shell and a disclosure of the pleasures concealed in the body, simultaneously unmasking the construction of femininity.


Translated by Szymon Nowak


  • 1
    J. Chalupecky, Duse androgynova (1976), Situace. Ceske a Slovenske vytravne umeni w 70. a 80. Letach na Ostravsku, Ceski Tesin 1991, after: Grzegorz Dziamski, Sztuka kobiet: od outsidera do innego, Format, 8-9, 1992, p. 35.
  • 2
    J. Hanusek, Na tropie płonącej żyrafy, in: Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Figura w indywidualnej poetyce, Orońsko 1993, p. 4.
  • 3
    J. Brach-Czaina, Szczeliny istnienia, Krakow 1998, p. 55.
  • 4
    A. Król, Skok w próżnię, Art & Business, no. 3, 2000, p. 50.
  • 5
    D. Buczak, Różowa rewolta, Wysokie obcasy, 03.03.2008, http://kobieta.gazeta.pl/wysokie-obcasy/1,53662,4972303.html.
  • 6
    A. Kostołowski, Żywy Róż, in: Nurt Intelektualny w sztuce polskiej po drugiej wojnie światowej, Galeria BWA Lublin 1985.
  • 7
    A. Borzeskowska, Kobieta bez różowych okularów, Arteon, no. 7, 2002, p. 15.
  • 8
    J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 2.
  • 9
    After: A. Król, op. cit., p. 49.
  • 10
    T. Szczuka, text in the catalogue Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Figura w indywidualnej poetyce, op.cit.
  • 11
    E. M. Tatar, O produkowaniu przestrzeni, in: 3 kobiety. Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Natalia Lach -Lachowicz, Ewa Partum, Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warszawa 2011, s. 15.
  • 12
    Ibidem, p. 19.
  • 13
    J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 2.
  • 14
    P. Mościcki, Gracje początków, in: 3 kobiety. Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Ewa Partum, Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warszawa 2011, p. 49.
  • 15
    Ibidem, p. 50 Ibidem, p. 50.
  • 16
    J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 4.
  • 17
    L. Irigaray, Ta płeć, która nie jest jednością, przeł. K. Kłosińska, „FA-art”, nr 4,1996, s. 44-47.
  • 18
    J. Hanusek, op. cit., p. 3.
  • 19
    Quoted after: A. Król, op. cit., p. 50.
  • 20
    E. M. Tatar, op. cit., p. 16.
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