The daughter of Jewish physician parents, Alina Szapocznikow had witnessed the horrors of war firsthand: as a teenager during the German occupation of Poland, her family was sent to the ghettos at Pabianice and Łódź. They were later assigned to different concentration camps, and these unspeakable experiences are reflected in her work. After the war, Szapocznikow studied in Prague and Paris, then returned to her native Poland in 1951, where she received several prestigious commissions for works executed in a more conventional socialist realist style. As a programmatic approach to public art became less stringent after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Szapocznikow began to challenge the affirmative, heroic language of socialist realist art by incorporating new materials and sculptural techniques into her work and by experimenting with new ways of representing the body with an expressive handling of surface and texture.
In the late 1950s, Szapocznikow began exploring the concept of the distorted and fragmented body. Emblematic of her work during this period is Hand: Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto II (1957), a sculpture of a massive, grasping hand reaching out from a wiry plinth. It suggests the battered remains of an excavated artifact, or the last cry for help by a tormented victim. This sculpture – her submission to a competition for a monument commemorating the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1953 – captures the Ghetto’s role as a symbol of both resistance and tragedy in a city that had been virtually leveled by wartime bombing.
Sculptor Alina Szapocznikow once explained that she was "searching for form, searching for the greatest expression of sensuality or dramatic quality." After spending several years in ghettos and prisons during World War II, she moved to Prague in 1945 to study art. From 1946 to 1948 she studied with Otokar Velímsky and then at the Vysoká Škola Uměleckoprůmyslová (Academy of Applied Arts), in the studio of Joseph Wagner. She attended the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts), Paris, from 1948 to 1951, and returned to Poland, where she immersed herself in contemporary art and participated in several competitions for public monuments. Szapocznikow worked in many traditional mediums, but was noted for pioneering in new materials, namely polyester and polyurethane. Her distinct artistic approach was linked to her wartime incarceration and chronic illness, and her sculptures evoke Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme, and Pop art. Szapocznikow unremittingly explored the human body (especially her own), its impermanence and fragility, by casting, fragmenting, reassembling, and transforming it. Although the components were modeled on real bodies (often her own), the resulting sculptures approached the abstract, because she decontextualized and rearranged disembodied parts (limbs, lips, breasts, etc.). She was represented in the Venice Biennale in 1962 and finally relocated to Paris the following year.