The body is the raw material from which Alina Szapocznikow wrenches her sculptures. She is not the only artist who made the body and its suffering the subject matter of an entire oeuvre. Frida Kahlo painted herself, almost exclusively, and her struggle with crippling pain that imbues all her works, was her constant companion and muse, on par with her beloved Diego.

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.” She wrote in here diary. Her paintings are straightforward, unrelenting depictions of a wrecked body, of broken bones, of metal rods pushed into flesh, of blood oozing from wounds onto green grass.

American photo realist, Chuck Close created a completely new way of painting to counter Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, which made it impossible for him to recognize faces. He took to painting portraits as a means of remembering them.

Canadian artist Laurie Kader uses her art as therapy, a liberating force from the disease that racks her body. She is living with painful and visible manifestations of a rare physical ailment, and struggles valiantly to understand her relationship to her body, and to the outside world. Art is the language she chose, painting beautiful abstract images so incongruous with the terrible source they come from. Some of her drawings are those of the body at a cellular level, enigmatic visual notations of great delicacy and beauty.

But Polish-born Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973) is in a category all of her own. The body is central to her art, but it is a body in fragments, a body torn by illness and suffering, a body so tender and fragile as to make the viewer recoil. The unseen wounds hiding behind these apparitions scream in silence. Her story is one of endless tragedy. Born in 1926 to a Jewish intellectual family in Kalisz, Poland, at sixteen she was sent to the camp of Bergen-Belsen via Auschwitz. Miraculously she survived, thanks to her mother, a doctor. She did not return to Poland first, but went to Prague to study sculpture, and in 1948 left for Paris and the École des Beaux Arts. She was summoned back to Poland, and already suffering with tuberculosis, she returned there in 1951. Szapocznikow became well know in a short time, and had numerous important exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in 1962. In 1963, riding on her popularity, she moved to Paris where she would live the rest of her life. It was there that she was also diagnosed with breast cancer.

A sculptor emerging from the post-war period, she first produced works in the classical manner only to see her style change drastically, leaving behind, in the words of the MoMA catalogue introduction by Elena Filipovic and Joanna Mytkowska, “a legacy of provocative objects – at once sexualized, fragmented, vulnerable, humorous, and political – that sit uneasily between Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme, and Pop art.” Nearly forty years after her death, this is the first large-scale survey of the artist in the United States, featuring her “restlessly experimental” pieces. Szapocznikow was one of the first, for example, to use polyurethane, a material that lend itself particularly well to her vision.

Unlike Mueck’s giant unnervingly realistic babies and sleeping women, Szapocznikow’s body parts are far more disturbing. Visceral, often funny, they can also be devastating, and sensual.

Petit dessert 1 (Small Dessert 1) 1970-71, features just the lower part of a face with provocatively parted pink lips sitting in a glass bowl with some custard spilling from it. It is beautiful and macabre, and impossible to ignore. Her Autoportrait (Self Portrait), 1966, is a bust made of marble and polyester resin with what look like the same lips, although this time closed. They are the only feature in the translucent head growing out like a halo. The chunky bust contrasts with the delicate transparency of the resin to create wonderful tension, a meeting of two worlds.

In Torse noyé (Headless Torso) naked arms and breasts “sit” in black polyurethane foam; the lips on wobbly stalks in Bouches en marche (Marching Lips) 1966, look like some surreal sprouts, and the strange shapeless bulbous masses scattered on the ground on closer inspection reveal faces in them—these are Szapocznikow’s famous Tumeurs personnifiée (Tumours Personified), 1971.

No, this is not an easy show, and yet it is a wondrous one. Amid all of this horror is unbearable beauty. The “tumour faces” are lovely, gentle, and yes, suffering. And then there are the Fotorzezby (Photosculptures), 1971, twenty photographs made of different permutations of chewing gum that the artist pulled from her mouth and placed on a stone ledge. It stretches and droops, creating an unusual tension; she called it ”tension between the result both immanent (in a sculptural sense) and impermanent.” Regardless of the concept behind this black and white series, the works continue the painful dialogue of the body. They made this writer recall the horrific plane crash so long ago, where the survivors were forced to subsist on the bodies of their dead colleagues. They sliced off miniscule pieces of flesh and laid them on the fuselage of the broken plane, and each person partook of it alone, in prayer, like accepting a holy wafer.

That is how one should look at the art of Alina Szapocznikow. With reverence and a prayer. Reverence for a great, uniquely original artist, and a prayer for a woman who endured so much.

MoMA, New York
On till January 28, 2013