Janina Ładnowska: A Puff and the Edge of the Sky. Maria Pinińska-Bereś Sculpture (1997)

 (Text was published in exhibition catalogue: Maria Pinińska-Bereś, 1931-1999, Bunkier Sztuki Gallery, Kraków 1999)


One of (the traits) which is considered dominating in the repertoire of feminine behaviour is Sanftmut (gentleness). It is a feature unavoidably ambivalent. On the one hand it is the symbol of female subordination and carries features of persistent dependence and passivity. On the other hand it contains utopian moments and conveys the idea of behaviour higher than oppression, rivalization and the pinnacle of success. At first glance it appears the promise of the future. For women were brought up and had to live in a patriarchal world as well as ensure for themselves the possibility of survival, their real existence was unavoidably contrary to these ideas. If the essentially positive indication of the socialization of a woman is that she leads to a reduction of aggression (in which I increasingly doubt), women must learn daily the mobilization of increasingly strong aggression in order to fight the limitation of the patriarchal organization in the family, professional life, or as in the present context in the field of art.

Silvia Bovenschen, Does Female Aesthetics Exist? (in:)

The Imaginary of Actual Decline of Aesthetics. Vol. II, Warsaw, 1987, p. 138.


The skin of Maria Pinińska-Bereś’ sculptures was not always of pink satin, and the body of the sculptures was not always the elasticity and softness of sponge. She studied under Xawery Dunikowski in the 1950s, during the period of the severe customs and threatening repressions of Socialist Realism, but – as Dunikowski’s pupils admit accordingly –the master successfully protected them against the limitation of creative freedom. At least those students considered to be promising, among whom was to be found Maria Pinińska. She took on a “male” current in art, as if forgetting about the limitations. We should recall here Camille Claudel, as talented as Auguste Rodin’s accomplice, faithful and loyal. Maria Pinińska-Bereś wrote later that brought up among conventions, in a deeply religious family whose head due to war deaths was a patriarchal senior educated still by the nineteenth century she sought freedom in art, not a false projection of personality.

In making her debut in 1955 at the Warsaw Arsenal her sculpture had to be in accordance with the spirit of the time and convictions; figurative, expressive and relating to the pain of existence, experienced in the way a young girl could experience it – intensively, yet contrastingly. I believe that under Xawery Dunikowski, Maria Pinińska-Bereś possessed an extremely ambivalent attitude towards monuments – if we recall that in the 1960s an awful lot were created in Poland–devoted chiefly to the martyrdom of the occupation. There exists equally evidence to consider that the Maria Pinińska up until the “post-Arsenal” expression had equally an attitude full of reserve. In the place of exhumed figures, crippled, repelled, deformed, fragmentary, suffering, barely discernible – Rotundas are created. Rotundas, as one can see, are circular constructions crowned with a dome, in remote ages a lot of them were created – this especially concerns Romanesque architecture. Yet it is also known that rotunda is an outer woman’s garment, floor length, round in shape, widening towards the bottom, finished usually by the sewing of a small collar with small vertical cuts in the arm, buttoned from top to bottom; they were sewn most often of black velvet or padded woolen cloth; wide spread in the nineteenth century. Out of fashion by the start of the twentieth century.1A Dictionary of Fine Art Terms, Warsaw 1969, p. 306. Her Rotundas, created during the 1960s, were made of conglomerate stone and were given round tops. Sometimes she introduced a religious symbol: a heart or a hand that was miraculously healed, or a chained bust. Such symbols can be viewed at cemeteries enshrined with candles. Inscriptions accompany some of the sculptures: “Fight rats”, “Keep clean”, etc. The rotundas are placed on padded throws, or napkins. Equally part of this family of cult places are Lady with Bird out of cement or concrete with prepared facial features, covered in a pink apron with openings on the chest decorated with coral votive objects. Do Rotundas guard therefore the taboo, forbidden, hidden places, yet does it seriously guard? or rather letting the secret out and that with a wink? After a maximum of thirty years Maria Pinińska-Bereś returned to the Rotundas. Infanta 1993/1996 has a sky-blue, shinning foam skirt (Rotunda with a Bell), white satin body, yet devoid of head. There on the Rotunda is an opening with a bell. The Infanta is transported on a specially constructed skateboard. Tadeusz Kantor’s Infantas were reservations of memory. Maria Pinińska-Bereś’ Infanta-Rotunda is a substratum of limitation and seclusion emitting from within the sound of a call to freedom – yet the question “what is freedom for?” is left unanswered.

In 1965 the artist wrote: Real Corsets / Mental Corsets / Through the centuries accompany a woman / Limiting / Deforming / the body, psyche / bodies go / pass / corsets remain / granny’s corset / great grandmother’s / great great grandmother’s / the cages of young bodies / the cages of burning hearts / mind / imagination / through the centuries of imprisonment / the corset / cry from the shadows. Corsets / Bodices – is intimate underwear, brazenly maintaining the body’s shape and its infirmity. Maria Pinińska’s Corsets indecently flutter in the air hung like standards (1967), at times recalling a dolls torso, sometimes helplessly supported on little legs and further supported with a chain, sometimes something slips out of them (e.g., a breast), sometimes they are like snake sloughs, sometimes they happen to be nailed to the board (like a butterfly) on which the drawing and footprints suggest an old presence. Is a Woman a Human Being? 1972 seems to belong to the Corset series. The corset here is a fashionable bathing costume covered in pink kisses with the label complete with the annotation Date of production / Sell by Date…?…  – the new consciousness of restraints as old as the hills. Corsets appear to finish the stage of accounting with childhood and youth in the artist’s creativity – paradoxically, for this time is reputed to be the period of freedom, liberty and unstilted play. From the point of view of form essential is their shell like structure – negative and positive. In an important way the creation of Corsets went along with Valie Eksport’s performances expressing her femininity (the end of the 1960s).

Pink as a colour appears earlier in the artist’s work – as we have observed in the padded quilts sewn for Rotundas. Today it is a distinctive sign. In Louise Bourgeois’ output red is interpreted as blood and the fervour of passion. Maria Pinińska-Bereś’ pink for that would be a tame colour, childish-feminine, the colour of underwear, the purity of the bride (undressed, however, by their grooms)? I consider this colour, that the artist is loyal to all her life, to be one of the interpretative traps, we will succeed in unravelling it later.

At the end of the 1960s a fragmentary body appears in the artist’s work, like a fetish, like a dish at a feast seasoned with black-pink humour. On the wooden Raft are men’s legs along with the lower part of the torso – a shadow is drawn on the grass, yet it is a female figure, a white flag signifies reconciliation (or submission). Raft is one of the last “real” sculptures formed in hard “masculine” material.

In America some artists have produced edible, multi-coloured ladies’ panties or various parts of the body in various flavours, these being chiefly cakes and sweets. Nobody, however, has ever heard of women collecting men’s shoes or underwear. Feminine beauty can be liberated from the celebration of consumerism, destroying the principles of its objectivization through the fetishization of particular parts of the body or shape of the nose. {later we can decide whether we shall continue to use the word beautiful, or whether we need to find some new word). We have not carried out a simple reversal of values here, for the fetishism of the body never has been a woman’s work2Silvia Bovenschen, Does Female Aestheticism Exist? (in:) The Decline of Aestheticism – Imagined or Authentic, vol. II, Warsaw 1987, p. 144. – writes Silvia Bovenschen in the already quoted text. At the end of the 1960s Maria Pinińska-Bereś with her own tendency for ambiguity prepares dishes and organises a do from papier-mâché similar to the surrealists’ “cannibal feasts”. On the table we discover the drawing of a girl’s face with the smile of a bacchante, sculptured breasts, thighs, a fragment of tablecloth, cutlery (Table II – The Feast, 1968), a head with a flower in its mouth, dressed in a draped frill (are these the remains of sewing baskets or the decoration of Easter yeast cakes?), “a ham” decorated with a bow and promotional flag with the slogan I’m Sexy, the outline of men’s hands chained to another part of the body (Table, 1969).

The feasts give the impression of ritual ceremonies, cruelty mixed with humour. Somewhat later Louise Bourgeois prepared The Father’s Destruction (another title Evening Repast) in which the accumulation of the part of the body symbolizes the father’s betrayal with the childhood governess. And what about Maria Pinińska? Is it an attempt to answer the question whether we are beautiful and female enough and “Would you still love me if I wasn’t beautiful? – about which the heroines of film romances ask their partners.3Silvia Bovenschen, op. cit. p. 145. For turning a handle in a specially (although without technical complications) constructed table one may find breasts and set plump legs in rotation (Love Machine 1969), while in a fetishist’s cupboard one comes across enormous pink lips (Drawer, 1970). Although Erna Rosenstein may presuppose that She went to the mirror. The smile she put in the drawer.4Erna Rosenstein, Event (in:) Still from the Archive, Warsaw 1994, p. 30. Breasts, a woman’s torso is preserved with care in the Pink Mirror, 1970. Are we sufficiently maternal asks Maria Pinińska-Bereś locating in a kitchen cupboard full-plastic breasts placing a bowl (Cupboard I, 1970). A pair of strong legs hollowed from above fulfil the function of a Wash Basin (1973). The ritual feasts and ritual ablutions, shameful fetishes, machines for mechanical love appear to be the thinking of a male route, yet one leading in a female direction. Maria Pinińska’s fetishes are not placed on the altars of masculinity. They are a revolt against the stereotypes of beauty, stereotypes not to be overcome, mastering mass imagination. Possibly a similar revolt accompanied Hannie Höch in her photomontage devoted to Marlene Dietrich (1932) who placed her famous legs (turned upside down) on a pedestal in the shape of a fluted pilaster. Constantly alive is the memory of Marylin Monroe and her premature death. Maria Pinińska-Bereś’ revolt is clearly in secret and ironic. For soon severe, kitchen equipment will have its place taken by feminine Psycho Furniture. Whispers (1973) a shapely screen conceals and padded swaddling muffles, only the distinct lips are disobedient. Cry (1975) reveals the twisted knot of the feather bed laid with care on the padded quilt and stuffed into the corner of the screen. These are Bergman’s whispers and cries. The dramas contained in these soft recesses and that lose force in them, dissipate into passivity, though are not entirely submissive, although the feathers of domestic feather beds can scatter. Because as Erna Rosenstein says: Everything will vanish /…down… bones… linen… / will fly away.5Erna Rosenstein, The Pillow Speaks, op. cit. p. 58. The Screen which is good for everything blocks the unsightly pillow, and the colour pink, from then compulsory, laps over it gently. A female piece of furniture is also Mangle (1974/ 96) – a piece of spongy, and therefore unbendable, foam is given to be pressed – it remains exactly as it was, soft and untouched. Imprisoned in the delicate folds of pink satin a body of sponge frees itself with strong throws, reminding one of the body of a caterpillar (again the motto of the corset now not hard but silky?) in the Erotic Swaddle (1974). The pieces of furniture become all the more delicate and endearing. A spongy body squeezed by a whip hangs helplessly, though over it triumphantly there rises softly, and gently, the back of Bed (1975) hiding all discreetly. Bed with Rabbit (1975) has decidedly erotic connotations – the rabbit patronizing the soft hill of the bed clothes. The beds from the 1980s are different e.g. My Bed on the Island (1985) – triumphs with the contrast of the post, and the soft though decided form of the spongy body. Couch, 1985, is in the dynamism of scattered, hard, though spongy, pillows like a landscape after a battle, though we do not know the victors or the vanquished. A definite victor is Mme Recamier (1991) – one of the few “figure sculptures” of an articulated body with a straightened out, shinning head. Its spongy body sits softly and decoratively, and next to it stiffens a pink, pointed standard, neither inviting nor forbidding entrance.

We come across furniture with erotic motifs, taking on human forms (at times disturbing) in the late 1930s with the surrealists – we can recall Ultra Furniture – a stool with woman’s legs shoed in Kurt Seligman’s fashionable slippers (1938), Andre Masson’s misogynist Furniture Conversation, Oscar Dominguez’s sedate Machine for Electro-Sexual Shocks, or the chair sprouting live hair in Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait with cut hair (1940). Maria Pinińska-Bereś’ Psycho Furniture belongs to that self-same family (surrealism did not extinguish) enlivened through insinuation, allusion, touch, her sense of humour.

Marks, signs of presence, limitation, constriction are the motifs of Maria Pinińska-Bereś art probably until the end of the 1970s. This theme relates equally to the activities of performance which then started to be important for the artist. In 1967 she took part in Tadeusz Kantor’s Sea Happening, she independently acted on the beach, in the 1970s she was the author of performance in galleries, but later (in the 1980s) she symbolically struck out the word performance. There remained from them material objects. Fallen Woman (1972) falling leaves a mark – an outline on the sackcloth material, the gesture of the Fallen One is dynamic, joyfully triumphanting. The equivalent is the standard Farewell to Apollo (1976) with traces of the armless sculpture of a pagan divinity. There remains the joyous Fallen. And I have my small intimate world –  the artist inscribes on the fragile fence and plants in the Garden (1974) paper flowers. She equally marked her territory in performance activity with the pink Banner (1980) strengthened with a soft, snake’s body. We find the motif of confinement in the box in which Maria Pinińska-Bereś places two soft sacks linked to each other – pillows and says that they are the treasure of Sesame (1975). She hides in My Enchanting Little Room (1975) additionally separated from the surroundings by a rope, with walls safeguarded (against madness) with padded quilts and with a guarded spyhole additionally stuffed with a soft cushion. The place for rest in the room is a long pouf encouraging many prisoners imprisoned by the pink, warm peace (female and male) to sit down. Yet real peace a woman is to experience only in Tent (1976), for If you dampen/the voice too much/if you incorrectly/enter/the Tent and scream/PS. Leave you shoes outside. The Tent is of course one-man, one can shut it up, at the top it has a chimney for disposing of violent cries. The tent is a shelter with which you can travel, in Maria Pinińska-Bereś mythology it is frail, passing, fragile, subject to destruction or relocation, yet sheltering. Fifth Corner (1983) is the asylum of feminine intimacy crowned with a delicate coquettish outline. Asylum for the springy cushioned bodies can be equally dangerous, where the body is squeezed between the wall and the door and tied with a chain – Door (1980). A soft body fastened with a chain – sounds pompous yet if the body is only a pillow – lets move to intimacy and there is no pathos, then there is just ordinary pain.

In 1970 the water animalcule cultivated by my child died. There remained the glass cube. It was strange how I felt my own existence as similar to that which had inhabited the cube. I placed inside three women’s lips, full and pink, sucked on to the glass walls like snails. That was how the first Existentiarium came aboutwrites the artist. Each body inhabits its habitat, the author normally puts them in pairs, there arises then a configuration of spongy bodies. For example, the double Existentiarium of Big α and Small π (1988) suggests the existence of feeders/ mothers and the being born. Singularly the Conciliated Beast (1987) burst, shattering the glass walls. The double Existentiarium of Big β and Small π (1991) talks of the inseparability of two beings, although isolated (fortunately) by a glass barrier – great and heavy and winding, prepared as if to invade afresh the maternal womb. Existentiariums constitute as if the archetype of motherhood, childhood, aggression, love and isolation. They are a very personal utterance on the part of Maria Pinińska-Bereś which is perhaps why so few have been created.

Water is the element constantly present in the artist’s world Water… / at the beginning of life / feeds and bathes / passes in a dream / caresses the body / captivates and envelopes / in ecstasy carries / towards the end – she writes and recalls the water “female connotations”. In a wooden pail filled with pink satin waves she takes a Cruise across the Seas and Oceans around the Table (1974) identifying with the soft form. The well fuses the natural elements with chemical elements connected with the symbolism of the earth. From Well of Pink (1977) an excavatory windlass pulls out a ten-meters long ribbon of padded pink “quilts”. The pink circle The Returning Wave (1978) is crossed with a scattered smear of sand. A soft, stuffed roll flows out in a Stream (1979) from a wooden trough and snakes among the stones. A roll of sand and a stone go round the pink circle of water with outwardly flowing concentric ripples Stone into the Water (1981). A hard form made of wood covered with shinny pink, bearing female features emerges like an oar from the soft wave Maiden on a Wave (1989). There is also “The Setting of the Sun on the Lake”, a quiet and nostalgic piece. The atmosphere is interrupted only by a black pendant with a little wave coming out from the place into which the pole is inserted. We ask what has happened here. Only the date could give us a clue. / Also the “Injured Boat” glides and stands alone. “My Bed on the Island” lapped by the pink depths. / Water seduces, water calms, awakes passions. Also terrifies and annihilates adds Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Water is artificial, waves are pink and spongy, the maiden is a board. Water is silent, does not murmur, does not flow, does not surge, does not pretend it is wet. The only category to which it refers is imagination. Perhaps it is the same imagination that inspires the creators of Japanese gardens. In a stone is enclosed the entire world.

Female figures of mythological, fabulous, biblical and literary providence people the artist’s world with creations neither picabian, mechanistic, nor naturally soft like those of Arp; they do not resemble human forms. Some of the pieces of Psycho Furniture sometimes assume human shapes – and figures of spongy pulp construct and destroy imagination. Leda’s Dressing Table 1974 (Leda was the wife of the Spartan king Tyndareus. By Zeus, who came to her in the form of a swan, she was the mother of Castor and Pollux. In another story she was the mother by Zeus of Pollux and Helen (of Troy), and by Tyndareus of Castor and Clytemnestra) a mirror crowns a long leg, soft bedding folds out, al l is watched over by a coiling snake. Venus of the Sea Froth (1977) emerges as knotted bed linen from the pink, wooden waves. A special place in this family is occupied by King and Queen (1986) – neither pieces of furniture, nor chess pieces – they can be moved, they possess features of their sex, but not majesty, while the regal apple rolls like a pink ball. The King in Maria Pinińska-Bereś’ mythology is probably the only decidedly masculine figure. That said many figures with female connotations have a phallic shape, as if the artist wanted to tell us, like Louise Bourgeois, that we are hermaphroditic. The figure The Odalisque and the Slave Girl (1990) has clearly bisexual traits (duality) – the words meaning the same (odalisque being a slave or concubine in a Turkish harem). Flaming Giraffe (1989), in a way similar to Salvador Dali’s painting, are two essences of a dynamic spiralling construction, pink at the top, the larger with a hard drawer sticking out, the smaller with a flaming opening. The dynamics of the flame links the Giraffe with the archetype. The figures are moveable – The Great Bareback Rider (1987) overcomes a diagonal bar. Witches fly on their brooms towards the window (sometimes only a breast flashes) – Sabbath (1987). Princess Y (1987) spins with hair a flow, while at her feet suggestively crawls the figure of a snake. Princess Z (1987) sneeringly shows a fig tree, towering from the knot with a strong, straight pall. Beauty and the Beast (1990) is metamorphosis of an abstract figure, as usual vertical and negating the sense of equilibrium, into a human figure suggested by the outline of the head, knee, hand, the symbol of passion is an apple. Dancing Salome (1992) according to tradition is the archetype of the femme fatal, felonious and free willed – in Maria Pinińska it confuses, for it is gentle, pink joyfulness – only the dynamically developing piece of material, the autonomic lips and hand can be a sign of madness, of hallucination, of a short clash. This state of insanity is of sponge-like softness. Two Graces Commenting on the Departure of the Third, 1990 (Hera and Pallas Athens comment on the departure of the victorious Aphrodite) increase the form of two poles – every convexity has its equivalent in the other figure – Two are therefore the explanation of unity, harmony, reconciliation.

The politics of men is in principle totally alien to Maria Pinińska-Bereś art, yet the suddenness of events forces one to a reaction – a coiled (for the moment) whip approaches – Situations I and II (1981), there appears a table with the legs thickly wrapped in pink material, and on it a pile of stones edged with satin, a militiaman’s truncheon and a heavy roller lie – Throws (1982).

Maria Pinińska submits objects and concepts, by their nature inclined to changes, to metamorphosis and the action of imagination. Here one must mention S-cores (1974, 1994, 1995) – exuding from themselves carnality enlivened by the slow rhythm of the tome in which the music is incarcerated. Beyond the Windows (1992) are depicted swollen clouds, huge intrusive insects, spiralling coiled shapes moving around their own axis. Two De-constructions of the Leaning Tower (1994 and 1995) oppose the crooked equilibrium and lead in a whirling motion towards the symbolism of the conch.

It is very easy to compare Maria Pinińska’s soft objects with the smoky air of cigarette stubs, hamburgers, electric plugs , lavatory toilets and other real objects on the huge scale of Claes Oldenburg. Rosalind E. Krauss writes about them that they lie in space, like gloomy obstacles, dramatising their surroundings, they are the participants, or actors in dramas presented by themselves. Their colossal proportions impose themselves on the natural scale of things and the viewer becomes forced to accept two parallel attitudes: that they are objects used every day, therefore “mine”, yet their bodies bending like pulp avert simple association. Breton saw transference in the external world as the objective confirmation of the elements “I” the author, his internal needs and desires.6Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, The MIT Press 1988, p. 229. The carnality of Maria Pinińska-Bereś sculpture is neither gigantic nor gloomy. In a way similar, however, to the objects of Oldenburg the sculptures are relocated in relation to reality. They repeal, they reproach principles and norms with the process (pink and soft). They are the praise of destruction and decomposition, performed not in the name of techno-ecstatic speed, but as a result of the oneiric slowing down, of the sudden glance. They meet in the private space of The Puff and the Edge of the Sky (1986).

translated by “Inter-text translations”

  • 1
    A Dictionary of Fine Art Terms, Warsaw 1969, p. 306.
  • 2
    Silvia Bovenschen, Does Female Aestheticism Exist? (in:) The Decline of Aestheticism – Imagined or Authentic, vol. II, Warsaw 1987, p. 144.
  • 3
    Silvia Bovenschen, op. cit. p. 145.
  • 4
    Erna Rosenstein, Event (in:) Still from the Archive, Warsaw 1994, p. 30.
  • 5
    Erna Rosenstein, The Pillow Speaks, op. cit. p. 58.
  • 6
    Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, The MIT Press 1988, p. 229.
copyright Fundacja im. Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś i Jerzego Beresia, 2022 | made by studio widok