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Color photographic portrait of Magdalena Abakanowicz resting on a burlap and resin sculpture

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) was born into a landed family of rich, Polish gentry. The family’s fortunes were transformed by the Second World War, with the Abakanowiczes forced to flee their country estate once Communist rule was imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union. They took with them only the coins they could sew into their clothing.

The family settled in a tiny apartment in Warsaw, the city where Magdalena would enrol in the Academy of Fine Arts aged 20. Discouraged by her professors from pursuing painting, she turned to weaving instead — then deemed a more appropriate practice for women.

In later life, Abakanowicz reflected that this had actually been a positive thing. The state-approved painting style, Socialist Realism, would have been limiting for her artistically, demanding as it did scenes glorifying Communist life. Works in fabric, by contrast, came under little scrutiny, meaning she had considerable creative freedom.

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