Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s sculptures are deceptively frivolous. Their soft, pastel pink forms belie their political power. The sculptor and performance artist was well known in her native Poland for drawing on tropes and cliches of femininity to critique patriarchal structures. Despite the fact that Pinińska-Bereś’ work has graced the collections of many of Poland’s major museums (including the National Gallery of Art in Warsaw and the National Museum in Wrocław among many others), and has been featured in major solo and group exhibitions in her home country, it’s had less visibility abroad.
Gender Check at the Museum of Modern Art, or MUMOK, in Vienna (2009) and The World Goes Pop at the Tate Modern in London (2015-16) are two influential exhibitions to have featured her sculptures. Living Pink, on display at London’s The Approach Gallery until 20 October, is the first posthumous show in the UK to give an overview of her witty and subversive creations from the 1970s to 1990s.
The artist was born into an aristocratic family in Poznan in 1931. During the Second World War, her father, a member of the Polish cavalry who had fought for Polish independence, was imprisoned and then murdered by the NKVD, leaving Pinińska-Bereś in the care of her grandfather. She described being raised in “a very specific environment which was supervised by a patriarchal senior, who had 19th-century views on a woman’s place in the household”.
Pinińska-Bereś chose an artistic career, believing art alone would allow her the freedom to challenge the patriarchal society. She studied first at the School of Art in Katowice and then at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, where she received a degree in sculpture in 1962. At the Academy, Pinińska-Bereś studied with the famed sculptor Xawery Dunikowski, who is best known for his radically simple figurative sculptures made of wood, marble, and bronze. While Pinińska-Bereś’s early figurative works were greatly inspired by her professor, in the mid-1960s the artist began to move away from the sculpting techniques she’d learned at school.
It was during this time that Pinińska-Bereś first began experimenting with sewing and quilting. She was drawn to techniques and materials associated with domestic labour and would often incorporate sponges, cotton wool, and other household objects into her work. Made of soft and lightweight materials, her artworks became fleshy and sexually charged. Pinińska-Bereś would combine the domestic and the erotic to show the absurd objectification of women. Love Machine (1969), for example, features legs and breasts dismembered and reassembled into a device which the viewer can activate by turning a handle: a visual representation of the way patriarchy reduces women to childbearing machines. In another series My Tables, breasts and legs appear on a table as dishes to be consumed.
The earliest work at the The Approach Gallery is Window in Spring (1976), a plywood structure resembling an open window with a pillow at the very centre. The erotic connotations of this work are plentiful: the open shutters are suggestive of splayed legs, with the pink centerpiece as female genitalia. As the gallery text suggests, “the window itself is also a symbol of breaking free from traditional patriarchal conventions.”
Pinińska-Bereś’s oeuvre not only predates the work of major feminist artists in Poland, such as Natalia LL and Ewa Partum, but also influential female artists working on the other side of the Iron Curtain, including Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, and Evelyne Axell. This surprised Pinińska-Bereś herself after noticing similarities between her early work, My Tables, and an installation by Judy Chicago.
She said during a 1993 conference of feminist art in Vienna: “We were familiarised with the achievements of women in the field of art from the period when their self-awareness was still developing. We learned about the old works which already faded away and noted down names of women who used to be prominent figures in female art. At that moment, I felt a bit strange and started to count. My Tables with parts of the female body as the dish served were shown to the public in 1968, whereas one of the most prominent works of the feminist art movement, Dinner Party by Judy Chicago dates back to 1974-1979!”
Pinińska-Bereś’ own relationship with feminism was complex: she did not describe herself as a “feminist” — a term she believed to be reductive and superficial. Neither did she want her art to be seen as “women’s art”, likening it to the damaging notion of a “woman’s place”.
In the 1970s, Pinińska-Bereś expanded her work to include performance, using the remnants of her performances to create installations. At The Approach Gallery, the installation Passage Beyond the Quilt (1979) is exhibited alongside photographs of the performance. For this performance, Pinińska-Bereś made a path of stones across a large white quilt. Stepping only on the stones, the artist challenged herself to cross the quilt while carrying a number of her own sculptures and a pink flag. By the time she reaches the end of the path, she has accidentally dropped all her objects but the flag. The performance was intended as a comment on the precarious balance between embracing femininity and being defined by it.
Remarkably, many of the colorful and seemingly playful works on view at The Approach Gallery were produced in the early 1980s, during one of the darkest periods of Polish communism, when the government introduced martial law between 13 December 1981 and 22 July 1983. The impact of Pinińska-Bereś’ work lies precisely in the contradiction between her delicate, soft, and playful forms and the heavy hand of the authoritarian regime. Pinińska-Bereś’ works were increasingly censored in the 1980s, and her work End of the Feast (1983) includes a scrunched-up napkin on the side of the table as an illusion to the artist’s exclusion from exhibitions during this time.
Pinińska-Bereś’ political artworks continue to resonate today. Under the ruling of the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS), which just won a second term in power, women’s rights in Poland have been under constant threat as traditional family values regain precedence. Since entering power in 2015, PiS has reduced access to sexual healthcare, tried several times to restrict cases which allow women the right to abortion, and threatened women’s rights activists and organisations. Just this week, it was announced that lawmakers in Poland have begun to work on a bill designed to criminalise schools who offer sex education classes. In this context, Pinińska-Bereś’s legacy is more relevant now than ever.
At The Approach Gallery, Pinińska-Bereś’s sculptures appear not only indoors but on the outside of the building. In a nod to the her often tongue-in-cheek and playful performances, the gallery has hung a pink flag on the façade of the building. The gesture signals the long overdue arrival of Pinińska-Bereś’s works in London, and could be interpreted as a symbol of solidarity to women across the world.