Walking figures – Three monumental sculptures by the artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017), Walking Figures, have joined the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) thanks to two generous donors, Marcel and Caroline Elefant. Art lovers first discovered the work in the summer of 2017 as part of the MMFA’s exhibition La Balade pour la Paix: An Open-air Museum. These impressive figures now “stride along” the Path of Peace in the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, on the Level 3 terrace, which will now be named for Marcel and Caroline Elefant. This is the first acquisition of this Polish artist’s work by a Canadian museum.
A high-flying installation
The installation of the three sculptures on the terrace was an impressive technical feat. Each “walker,” whose individual weight is nearly a ton, was solidly anchored in preparation to be lifted 17 metres in the air with a crane. Once they were hoisted to the rooftop, a half-dozen workers built a system of pulleys to fasten each sculpture to the others and to a metal base.
The three silhouettes of Walking Figures symbolize democracy and one of its tenets, freedom of individual expression. They are taken from a group of 16 figures, a special commission for the Vancouver Sculpture Biennale (2005-2007). They were produced between 2004 and 2006 at the Śrem foundry (near Poznań) in Poland, under the direction of Magdalena Abakanowicz, who was 76 at the time. Each figure is different, having been carefully designed as a single work.
Often censored in the past, Abakanowicz created the headless, asexual humanoid figures to evoke a vision of people queuing for hours to obtain food, indeed to survive. As described by Nathalie Bondil, the Museum’s Director General and Chief Curator, “With both legs firmly planted on the urban ground, they follow in the footsteps of ancient Greek sculptures – the kouroi – as well as The Walking Man – the work of Rodin and Giacometti. Each of these monumental figures has its own expressionist texture, resembling wrinkled skin or tree bark. The choice of the raw material – corroded cast iron – evokes the fragile human condition as its telluric force.”
The acquisition of these three sculptures was made possible by the generosity and unwavering support of two committed donors and collectors, Marcel and Caroline Elefant. “I’m an eclectic collector. I often look at a work of art and try to imagine what the artist was thinking when he or she created it; it gives me something to ponder. When Nathalie Bondil told me the story behind this powerful work, I was convinced it needed to be included in the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. Art is a strong and positive influence in my life. In art, there’s always something to be learned; it’s a journey that never ends. Caroline and I sincerely believe that art is meant to be shared, which is why we have donated this and other works to the MMFA: it’s more than a city’s museum, it’s the people’s museum. My commitment to the Museum is the culmination of my love and my passion for art,” said Marcel Elefant at the installation of Walking Figures.
Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) was born on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland, to an aristocratic Russian-Polish family that was stripped of the privileges of its social class and exiled after the 1917 Russian Revolution. She was nine years old when World War Two broke out. The post-war political instability in her country under Soviet domination was difficult for the people. After growing up in a country battered by the Nazi invasion and the subsequent Soviet occupation, Abakanowicz questioned the status of the individual swallowed up by the masses.
A controversial artist, Abakanowicz transformed the practice of sculpture, often using simple materials such as burlap and wire mesh. Her celebrated installations of busts and silhouettes of the human body − Abakans (1966), Alterations (1974-2000) and Hurma (1994-2002) with its 250 figures − brought her worldwide fame. Her works can be found in the collections of more than 70 museums, from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.