Barbara Falender: Politics/Erotics


The series of sculptures Erotic Pillows I-VI (1973-1976) show the inter-penetrating male and female sexual organs in an almost abstract sculptural form; the coalescing phallic and vaginal shapes portray the primal scene of total desire and fulfillment. Executed in many versions in marmur, epoxide, porcelain and bronze. the small Erotic Pillows by Polish sculptress Barbara Falender depict the six close up scenes of sexual intercourse. The bodies are attached only by the lovers’ genitalia and reduced to them. The sculptures are not at all naturalistic, but classical and precious, shining with the perfection of the polished surface.

These unique erotic works carry a charge from the unconscious and a strange political undertone. The Erotic Pillows were executed in Poland under Communism, against the erotic prudery and censorship aimed at sexually explicit art. Banned in the 70s behind the Iron Curtain, they are now a hidden treasure from the other history of late modernism. It is the otherness of feminine art and Eastern Europe; gender meets geography, history and great sculptural tradition.

In Barbara Falender’s sculptures one finds something that is rare in Polish art of the 1960s and 1970s, yet strongly present in Western art of this period: it is the artistic evidence for the cultural and sexual revolution that has transformed and liberated contemporary culture. Whereas this revolution has completely changed the Western culture, in Poland and the Eastern Block it played a marginal role, once suppressed, and today requiring the work of discovery and reconstruction. The art of Barbara Falender constitutes one of the unique traces of the breakthrough and, thus, belongs to the not yet discovered developments in the history of European art.

It is no coincidence that the first works by Barbara Falender bear the date of the famous revolutionary year of 1968, when she was still a student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz’s studio. Her diploma was a figurative hyperrealistic sculpture entitled People from Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street commemorating the students riot on the street of Warsaw in March 68. Since then, the spirit of the 60s permeated her art and was combined with the fragmented neoclassical sculpture and pagan sensuality.

Barbara Falender’s entire work is devoted to the human body, which she materializes in fragments or combinations of figures. Her sculptures of the 1970s and 1980s are beautiful marbles and bronzes, yielding sensuous male and female bodies represented as fragments and emerging from the stones. They have an erotic bliss of living and loving. As the artist herself states she just “happened to say something about two bodies”! The quality of the sculptures results from the artist’s virtuoso handling and transforming of traditional techniques and materials. She makes use of structures and colours of multifarious stones, sometimes combining them with bronze casts. The artists works with traditional materials – marble, alabaster, granite and polished bronze. She employs the effect of polish of a smooth, glimmering surface.

There are two major interpretations of Barbara Falender’s art, dating from the 1970s. Firstly, the artist is identified with erotic art and working from a model whom she draws, photographs and then sculpts. Secondly, her work is identified with the figurative, even academic tradition and materials.

Let us begin with the erotic. The originality of Falender’s eroticism consists in her ability to fully and openly express the complexity of sexuality. In the socialist Poland of the 1970s and 1980s and the Catholic Poland of today, there has been a marginal ideology around sex, and not many artists have dared depict sexuality that admits different expressions of male and female eroticism. The sculptures of Barbara Falender told diverse stories of love and erotic relationships. The liberating potential of the artist’s eroticism was based not only on the sensuality of male and female bodies, but, above all, on a vision of pluralistic sexuality. In a sense, her sculptures tell psychosexual stories.

It is striking to see how this liberal philosophy of eroticism, stemming from humanist ideas and the spirit of freedom of love in the 1960s and 1970s is connected with traditional skills, for which the artist is famous. It is not only the masterly manual handling of traditional materials and sculpting techniques, including the most noble and difficult one of cutting in marble. It is, above all, drawing from the great history of sculpture and psychology of the senses in line with the tradition of Auguste Rodin’s merging embraces unifying two figures and Michelangelo’s sensuous male nudes emerging from blocks of stone.

Barbara Falender found her own way of transforming the figuration in modern sculpture, similar to the 1970s biomorphic erotic sculptures of Louise Bourgeois.

The bodily and hermaphroditic sculptures of Bourgeois from the 1960s and 1970s suggest sexual organs turning into one another; breasts becoming penises, penises becoming mouths or vaginas, or whole groups of organs. This is the filed of part-objects and sex drives that we encountered in Falender’s Erotic Pillows.

Falender’s sculptures are extraordinarily aesthetic and sensual. When touched, their smooth surface sends a thrill down the spectator’s spine. The precision and quality of their execution are truly intriguing.

Dream, marble

This sense of touch plays a crucial role in these sculptures that have come into being as the result of creative touch. The sensual feel of gloss invites the spectator to touch. Falender makes the surface so sensuous that the whole sculpture becomes a sensitive epidermis inviting to be caressed. Dream (1976), made of white and black marble, is quite telling in this respect: a pair of female legs straddles a pedestal of white undulating marble, while an elongated shiny black marble form, almost an autonomous sculpture, suggests a female torso. The sensuality of the marble surface, the fragmented body and phallic overtones create the atmosphere of an erotic dream. The piece, as a whole, resembles the female erogenous zone.

The role of the erotic body fragments can be understood in the context of a certain sexual unconscious, defined as a field of part-objects, where the body is an infinitely complicated and divided phenomenon, torn apart and then reconstituted by contradictory drives, a space where male and female elements coalesce. This art is not only corporeal, but also psychosexual, as the matter and form of the sculptures bears the impression of desire itself.

With this kind of work, Barbara Falender, together with her famous predecessor the Polish sculptress Alina Szapocznikow, has created the feminine and feminist tradition in late modern European sculpture. These artists have developed a unique idiom of organic, corporeal, erotic sculptures, which allow the viewer to trace, not only the history of transformed figuration, but also that of the modern mentality. Ultimately, the subject matter of the work of these female sculptors is the psychic processes that mark it.

The body, and in particular the female body, is transfigured or crushed by both pleasure and pain, subjected to extreme sensual and existential experience. The sculptures of Alina Szapocznikow and Barbara Falender provide an excellent example of the material and sensual idiom of gendered sculpture. The feminist work intervenes, as it were, in the male tradition of the nude, and, by the same token, into the patriarchal culture, especially in the communist and, now, fundamentalist Poland.

In Falender’s art, the sensual combines the mythological and classical tradition. Yet, there is another important erotic track leading back to Michelangelo. Falender, a female artist in Poland, behind the iron curtain, created a homoerotic male nude. Her many versions of Narcissus (1979) and Ganymede (1984-2002) introduce this Mediterranean aesthetic, as well as the new liberated look on masculinity. Ganymede is a portrait of the two male figures merged in loving embrace. She put the emphasis on the sensual beauty of the male body, including genitals, and it is in this respect that she is one of the pioneers of the trend of representation of the male nude in contemporary art.

Ganymede II, marble, 1987

The break of the representation of the male body took place in Western art at the turn of the sixties and seventies; at that point, for the first time in the history of art, women artists started – on a bigger scale – to boldly create erotic male nudes. Until that time, the sensual male nude was part of the tradition of the homoerotic art created by men. Now women started to take part in the creation of masculinity, drawing as much as they could from the homosexual conventions of representation rooted in classical art and looking for their own, new ways of representation. The works of Barbara Falender have played a crucial role in this process taking place in European art. The emblematic, full male nudes of the American feminist painters who were discarding the fig leaf in a programmatic way, come from the early 1970s. The shockingly phallic He of the Polish artist was made in 1973/74. It is the sculpture of a crude, muscular male torso which bears a swollen glans penis where his head was supposed to be standing! The sculpture is a pair with the vaginal form She.

One should remember that the representation of a male nude in full view was a taboo in the art of communist Poland. Representing male genitals was considered pornography, thus being censored. The officially accepted convention of the male nude was formed then, derived not from the antiquity but rather from the Middle Ages and the Christian tradition of the deformation, humiliation and embarrassment of the body. The few male nudes in Polish art of the time were purposefully ugly and deprived of their sexuality. The admiration for eroticism and the beauty of the male body present in Falender’s art was entirely foreign to the communist decorum, making it her private act of artistic revolt.

Krzystof Jung, the Polish gay performance artist from the 1970s and 1980s, who was using the beauty of his body as an art material, was posing for the homoerotic mythological sculptures by Barbara Falender. He was her nude model for such erotic carvings as Narcissus and Ganymede. Falender was inspired by the energy and beauty of her model’s body, thus immortalizing it in her sculpture as well as photographs and preliminary drawings she took and made for her work.

There are several versions of Narcissus (1979) made in plaster, bronze and marble, all based on the same photographs of the naked body of Krzysztof Jung, crouching with half-opened thighs and a dropping head. One sculpture in bronze represents the whole figure realistically; an other version, cast in bronze and carved in marble, shows a partial figure, expressively emerging from stone. The muscles of the thorax, thighs and the back of Narcissus were sculpted in pink marble, the head is still imprisoned in the rough surface of the stone. To this mass of marble made flesh, the other leg of the figure is added, perfectly cast in bronze, its surface as smooth as a mirror. Thus the myth has been converted into form and the viewer can see his/her shape reflected in the bronze body of the young man. This experience of the narcissistic reflection has also been enhanced with one bronze foot leaning on the other, which is its mirror reflection. Between the opening thighs of the legs – one in marble and one in bronze – a massive penis emerges out of the stone.

Narcissus, marble/bronze, 1979

Krzystof Jung used performance to express homoerotic relations between men, himself being the main actor. In this very way the artist “entered” one of the most important series of Barbara Falender’s sculptures, Ganymede (1984-2002). Jung was posing for the sculpture embracing with his lover, both naked.

Ganymede is a mysterious and complex sculpture that evolved in the course of time. Ganymede I (1984) was cast in bronze, Ganymede II (1987) carved in white marble, Ganymede III (2002) was made in marble and chromium plated bronze. The height and the size of the sculptures vary in the subsequent versions, ranging between 29 and 62 cm. Falender’s sculptures dealing with intimate subjects are of intimate scale, the representations of the human body are smaller than the real body itself.

All the Ganymedes revolve around a similar ambiguous form. It is a figure of a naked man, passing through a massive curtain, or emerging from the mass. The man, however, is not alone, he seems to be embraced by arms that emerge from the surrounding undulating mass. When we notice a third leg between the legs of the standing man it becomes clear that what we see is a group representing the embrace of two male figures. Again, Falender has represented the act of embracing, almost to the point of merging, of becoming one. This time in the place of the genitals from Erotic Pillows we see two fragmentary male bodies.

Like the best erotic sculptures of the artist, Ganymede borders on abstraction and figuration and works its way through the dynamic tension between them. We are slowly discovering the shapes of the bodies, they reveal themselves in the process of being watched, released from the sculpted matter. The sexuality of the male figure is clearly marked; in the front there are clearly realistic genitals, at the back the ideal roundness of the bottoms – the representation of a violent love relationship.

Barbara Falender was fascinated by the homosexual relationship between Krzysztof Jung and his lover, and she converted this feeling into sculpture by commemorating real bodies in stone and bronze. Yet, choosing the titles and subjects, both for Narcissus and Ganymede, she reached for Greek myths and characters which for centuries have been charged with homoerotic symbolism. In the same way in which, through fragmentation and strong expression, she transforms the classical figuration of the body, she also manages to use the Greek idealization to express and cherish the contemporary reality of the gay couple in the homophobic Poland. The language of the Mediterranean culture was the only one, in those repressive times, in which it was possible to speak about such a relationship in an affirmative manner. In these sculptures, the subject of homosexual relations in Polish art emerges like a figure freeing itself from a block of stone. This is art that emancipates sexuality in a repressive political system. Thus, the whole series is so important not only for the history of sculpture but, also, the history of sexuality.

In Polish art, the male nudes of Barbara Falender are unique and groundbreaking, not only in regard to the discovery of eroticism and the aesthetics of male body, but, above all, because they have brought out the manifold expressions of masculinity, including its excluded homoerotic dimension.

Even though the language of her work was very traditional in the context of the artistic neo-avant-garde, one may say almost academic, she was, nonetheless censored in the 1970s because of the expression of sexuality. However, the sensual feminine ecstasy and homoerotic beauty which she sought in her work shattered the initial neoclassical form and resulted in the experimental and, basically, contemporary partial figure and subversive politics. If on the other hand, we look from another perspective, it will turn out that the artist’s exploration of the body and sexuality ran parallel to the most radical developments in performance art and feminist art, initiating a cultural and social change.

Using her chisel, Falender defied the oppressive canon of representing sexuality and masculinity, and paved the way for the next generations of artists. This is her greatest contribution, placing Polish art in the international culture on a deeper level of freedom than the patriarchal neo-avant-garde and conceptualism predominant at that time. What is more, the experimental exploration of women’s eroticism locates her sculpture in the mainstream of feminist art. Her position as a Polish artist out from the centre, deepens the otherness by marginal geographic context and political borders. That is the way we deal here with the other in the other history of late modernism, still waiting to be discovered.

  • About

    Pawel Leszkowicz is an art historian and a lecturer specializing in contemporary art/visual culture and sexuality studies. He is a lecturer at the Department of Art History, Adam Mickiewicz University, and Department of Intermedia of the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland.

    His essay 'Barbara Falender: Politics/Erotics' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Nature & Culture, available here for purchase.