Jerzy Hanusek: Maria Pinińska-Bereś (1994)

(The text was published in exhibition catalogue: Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Sculptures, Manhattan Gallery, Łódź 1996)


Having graduated in 1955 from the studio of Xawery Dunikowski, the most outstanding Polish Modernist sculptor, Maria Pinińska Bereś abandoned figuration for the sake of abstract forms, then, some years later, she gave up the traditional sculptor’s workshop, fully perfected as it had been by that time, eventually to cast off the traditional sculptor’s materials altogether.




Pinińska has gone a long way to her present position. Today we can view her achievement from the forty years’ perspective of artistic effort, forty years of artistic researches. The distance assumed lets us observe that it was already at the beginning of Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s career that her activity betrayed the features that were later to develop in such an extraordinary way to constitute her art.

The intimacy of the psychological truth, emanating from the earliest – still realistic – portraits of a tired, old woman and a young girl, seems to prove that the artist has always referred to womanhood as a dimension of the human existence, with utmost tenderness and care. These are her student works, executed in 1955.

Her still bashful, though explicit, attempts to manifest the “woman’s point of view” towards the surrounding reality were included in her Rotundas, the works from the years 1960-1964. The large architectural sculptures made of concrete and resembling the Romanesque rotundas, were deposited by Pinińska upon the soft quilts. For the first time the artist made use of textile as well as the ready-mades: chains, bells, female ornaments. In her Lady With a Little Bird from 1964, upon a concrete board, beneath a carved sketch of the human face there is a padded waistcoat with two openings, the two breasts sticking out of them daringly. The activity with clearly erotic innuendos was there juxtaposed with an equally explicit reference to the religious tradition of the dressing up of the holy paintings. The female breasts are not only parts of the woman’s body. They stand for a banner of womanhood; they serve as the woman’s weapon and her way of communication with the world. It is them, rather than the numb face, that provoke our sense of touch.

The years 1964-68 brought the artist’s final parting with the traditional sculpture materials. The papier-mâché works were made then. These were, e.g., empty shells, female torsos-bodices hung upon a swing, put on a wooden stand. There are breasts, fingerprints painted upon the bodices. While stimulating the viewer’s imagination the artist reduces the woman’s body and the woman herself to a strictly external dimension. She reveals that aspect of the woman’s existence in which she resembles – and recognizes herself as – a disembowelled shell. This is an acute evidence of the woman’s objectivization, of her exploitation, dehumanization.




Since 1968 objects called Psycho-Furniture were made, in which the artist voiced her opinion about the situation of the woman in the context of the social roles ascribed to her – with biting criticism, yet not without a touch of self-irony. There are fragments of the woman’s body laid upon the table, ready for consumption. A small pennant with the inscription I Am Sexy is stuck in one of them, next to it there is a contour of man’s hands (Table II, 1969). In Table I (The Feast), made in 1968, some fragments of the body are drawn directly upon the table, the others are modelled in papier-mâché, next to them there are metal cutlery pieces: a fork and a knife. Still another work depicts the lower part of man’s trunk deposited on the grass, with the contour of a woman’s body, this time its top part, drawn in its shadow (Raft, 1969). In Little Love Machine from the year 1969 love is reduced to mechanical gesture. When turning a crank, we can watch a pink machinery against the spinning tiny female legs: there is a screw-like revolving pivot between two fleshy shells. The work Keep Smiling (1972) is an expression of the artist’s bitter solidarity with the abandoned women. When pressed down the dustbin’s foot pedal makes its lid raise and a female’s smiling face, made from papier-mâché, pops up out of it. Finally, in the work Is the Woman a Human Being? (1973) a fragment of a hollow female torso, in the shape of a bathing suit, with traces of kisses stamped upon it, is placed in a glass cube with a label, some gaps left there for entering its manufacturing date and its expiry date. These are just a few examples of the works from that period.

I have surveyed a fairly large number of the early works by the artist, as I would like to pose a question about the links of Maria Pinińska’s activity with the feminist art movement. First of all, one ought to realize the artist’s posture was formed quite independently of it. This was not only due to Poland’s isolation from the Western world, but simply because her activity was ahead of its time. Although the beginnings of the feminist art can be traced back to 1969 when the Women Artists in Revolution group was formed in the United States, yet the true and visible development of the feminist art took place in the 70’s. The first feminist exhibition in Europe was held in 1971. Woman’s Art, a manifesto by Valie Export, an outstanding figure of the movement, was published in 1973. In Poland the first exhibition of the feminist art – organized by Natalia LL – was held in 1978. Let us add that unlike the group statements of the Western artists, Pinińska acted alone and was not aided by anyone in the society where the strong religious prudishness was further aggravated by moral ascetism, then preached by the communist regime.

Towards the end of 1960’s and in the following years the works of Pinińska could have had a meaningful impact upon the feminist art in general. It never happened though; the barriers put up before her having been of the political nature. Throughout the whole decade of the 70’s the artist was absent from many women’s shows. Her works first appeared at the International Feminist Art in the Hague in 1979. The exhibition is believed to have been the summing up and the closing up of the period of the feminist struggle in the field of art.

I once formulated and then tried to prove the following statement: if the feminist movement is to be understood as a social movement endowed with the ideology which is characterized by some definite interpretations of reality, or some clearly recognized reasons for the unsatisfactory state of affairs, or some clearly defined aims and methods, I think the art of Pinińska is not feminist. And further on: It is not without reason that the activity of Maria Pinińska is eagerly encroached upon by the advocates of sexual liberation. It is a par excellence existentialist activity; it expresses the truth about life; particularly about the woman’s life and condition. Yet considering the needs of feminism – it expresses too much of it and thus it breaks up the very ideology one tries to force it into.1Jerzy Hanusek, On the Track of Burning Giraffe, in exhibition catalogue Maria Pinińska-Bereś, BWA Gallery, Koszalin, 1991. I still maintain the above statements without repeating their justification, though. However, it seems to me, they need some further commentary.

The artist’s life outlook, her historical and sociological interpretation of the present and past reality – all certify of the fact the basic ideas of the feminist movement were fully accepted by Pinińska. Yet one’s artistic activity is generated by one’s intimate, own experience – as if too concrete to be fully homogeneous – rather than by some abstract theories. The ambiguity of experience finds its reflection in the artist’s works. Pinińska instinctively defends her art against its subjugation to any ideology, even that of her own. The primary value of art above all other life spheres is undisputable for the artist. I think she would share my view that the good art has a more successful appeal than the committed art. The struggle against the discrimination of women’s art cannot turn into the defence of the ideologically correct, though weak works. Despite the above reservations, I think the activity of Maria Pinińska-Bereś is close to the feminists in its message.

The works created from 1968 up to the mid-70’s show that the main source of inspiration for Pinińska became the everyday woman’s surroundings: as ascribed to her in a cultural pattern: a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom. It is there that she finds the objects and situations that – when transformed artistically – let her express her own existential experience. The most often used material is the painted plywood board, papier-mâché, textile. Her objects often imitate pieces of furniture or other accessories, yet their form is always meticulously worked out by the artist. The message is rendered through a provoking juxtaposition of elements that stirs up our imagination. The artist endows her objects-accessories with female emblems, attributes or elements of the female body. She looks at herself in the objects around her as if in the mirrors. The inscriptions appear, beautifully handwritten in a young girl’s fashion. The pink colour, which first appeared in the sculpture Birth in 1957 as the body colour, now becomes the colour expressing femininity, in the following years to become the author’s own colour, her identification mark. Eroticism, if it does appear at all, is more of a commercial rather than sensual character.




Since the mid-1970’s an ever-growing role in the building of a message is granted to material and the individually moulded form, only sometimes referring to real objects. This tendency has been maintained up till the present day. A considerable shift of accentuation takes place: the artist transfers her interest from the sphere of the social facts into the sphere of psychological and emotional truths. The message acquires a more personal character, the erotic elements grow in sensuality. In the works Love Bed (1975), My Lovely Room (1975), Erotic Swaddle (1975), Tent (1977), Passage Beyond the Quilt (1979) the artist describes the inner situation of the woman: she gives an account of her losses and gains, she calculates how much has remained of her former plans and dreams. In this period also works inspired by nature appear. A daring form of those objects catches attention. A long, pink hose made of stuffed cloth, slides down a wooden trough and winds itself up all around and across the gallery, avoiding but the river stones deposited every two or three metres (Stream, 1979). A pink quilt is wound up round a well case, then descending to the floor and dissecting the gallery as a pink path (The Well of Pink, 1977) A multi-aspect message of these works includes, among others, references to the artist’s own activity: its sources, its potential and dynamics. The other works from this period are: Returning Wave (1978), Stone into the Water (1980). The artist also started making spatial arrangements.

In 1976 Pinińska executed her first performance, entitled Letter – Kite. Her actions are of the ephemeral character, they are filled up with the poetics of simple activities that the author gives a new, multi-aspect sense to. She does the washing, blows soap bubbles, washes her hands, colours the stones in a meadow pink, plants a rose. The actions by Pinińska can be divided into two groups. The first group comprises those inspired by nature, with clear ecological innuendos: Prayer for Rain (1977), Annexation of the Landscape (1981), Live Pink (1981). It is worth noting the realization of Portable Monument entitledThe Place (1979) expressing the idea of affirmation of the beloved places without any intervention in the nature’s tissue. Maybe it was in this way that the ecological contents entered Pinińska’s sculptures, nature having always been her second fascination, next to art. The other group comprises the works-comments referring to art, particularly to her own art: Author’s Standart (1979), Soap Bubbles (1979), Laundry (1980), Washing Hands (1986).

The year 1981 constituted a sad ceasure: the martial law was introduced in Poland. Politics, which had never been of any interest for the artist, burst into her life violating her most cherished values. Galleries were being closed down. Most artists would take part in large exhibitions organized in the churches. Pinińska was not invited to join in, considering the character of her works. The martial law period attached a painful stigma to her activity. The artist observed downcastedly reality had left her no room for her pink colour (Fifth Corner, 1983). In the work And I Have Painted the World Pink (1982/83) the author’s banner, which had been hoisted high in the past, now has to be taken in. In her work Blind (1982) the pink inscription No, No, Unreconciled embroidered upon grey canvas, emerges from behind the layer of white paint. Many works from this period can be listed here: Hot Tears (1982), The Last Little Ray (1983), End of a Feast (1983). All of them reveal the inner drama of the artist, her growing unbelief and pessimism




The shock caused by the martial law passed away slowly in the late 1980’s. A clear eruption of the artist’s imagination followed. One might say that – despite all her disquiet – her feast had just started. Form and material become her chief concerns. The artist makes use of textiles, mattresses, sponges. She turns them into biomorphic forms of a strong sensual appeal, which turn on our imagination making the works enter some sensuous erotic game or emanate biological vitality. The seemingly innocent forms are traps for the viewer, who asserts with surprise he has been provoked to uncover some demoniac or animalistic parts of his own self. What is it due to? To those objects of ethereal beauty: subtle and refined. Their form becomes abstract, lofty, boldly and originally executed in space. The white colour and various shades of pink predominate. The intellectual dimension of the message is clearly reduced for the sake of the emotional one. The verbal description never being fully adequate to the real, physical appeal of the works I will mention but a few cycles only.

In the glass cuboids of the Existentiaria some body-like strange creatures are stuck without any chance for liberation. The fleshy lips, made of papier-mâché, suck at their glass walls. Existentiarium – a Monster Pacified, from 1987, is filled up with a pink, biological form, swelling up between the glass walls. Since 1991 the cycle of Windows has followed. Behind the glass panes, between the old window frames the artist has created emotional landscapes, which can be peeped at by the viewer. The soft, flattened architectural-biological forms, made of the stuffed cloth, have been complemented by means of the painted background and the painted frame.

Since 1986 Pinińska has also made the works referring to the grand art works of the past: King and Queen (1986), Princess Y (1987), Flaming Giraffe (1989), Odalisque and the Slave Girl (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1990), Mme Recamier (1991). The artist gives expression to her fascination with the works of Moore, Brancusi, Ingres, Dali, Ernst, David. Against some interpretations, however, I do not think those references have had any post-modernist character. The artist does not like quotations, she neither uses, nor juxtaposes or borrows anything. The works of the old masters are for her but the food for imagination, just as they were for, e.g., Magritte, Picasso, and others. Pinińska has created a new, totally original sculptor’s language. At the beginning she would use it to create the contents which could be in some way verbalized. Enriched and perfected throughout the years she liberated it from the functions formerly imposed upon it. Its logic, grammar and semantics started living their own life. The above process could be defined as the maturing of the form. At its best its form does not already need any external contents to render itself as an autonomous content. It escapes the artist’s control: it starts expressing the contents that are a mystery for her.

Let us stress all the artist’s works are characterized by some extremely refined formal solutions, a result of a carefully and wholistically worked out concept of her work. A work’s realization is often preceded by numerous drawings and sketches. We must not be misled by the pink colour associated with cheap sloppiness and the mundane character of the accessories. There are artists who consciously refer to the kitsch in their works. Pinińska is miles away from that approach. Her early objects, which could be called assemblages from the formal point of view – since they are composed of different objects – are not such as a matter of fact. When becoming elements of her work her objects do not retain their former identity, like the assemblages. They form clusters, and not wholes.

Never acting as a reporter, combining her biting criticism with a self-mocking distance, giving her serious tone a tinge of irony and humour, throughout all these years Pinińska used to vivisect her own self, in order to define the phenomenon of her femininity: first in terms of her social entanglement, then in terms of the intimate spheres of her consciousness, finally in terms of biological vitality. The artist’s activity would develop for decades outside the main current of any prestigious promotion. It remained beyond the sphere of interest of those in authority who used to determine the model of the Polish art in Poland and abroad. The value of her art started to be higher appreciated only recently. Its expression could be the fact of Pinińska’s works being included in the exhibition The Classics of Modernity, 1994, organized by the National Museum in Warsaw. I think the significance of her achievement will be ever growing in the future.

translated by Małgorzata Musiał

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    Jerzy Hanusek, On the Track of Burning Giraffe, in exhibition catalogue Maria Pinińska-Bereś, BWA Gallery, Koszalin, 1991.
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