Exhibition Guide
Magdalena Abakanowicz. Textile Territories
Hommage to Elsi Giauque


The Textile Territories exhibition traces the early stages of the international career of Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), a prominent textile and sculpture artist of the second half of the 20th century. From 1962 a major figure of the Lausanne International Tapestry Biennials, Abakanowicz shaped the landscape of the New Tapestry movement for twenty years, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with her very personal output that focused on the use of organic fibre, that is a living and malleable material.

Her first weavings, relief tapestries, large-scale soft sculptural works, castings, knotted works, and drawings demonstrate the power and originality of the Polish artist’s oeuvre during the key period from 1960 to 1985. In a Poland under communist rule, she seized on the potential of working with fibre (sisal, wool, and linen) to translate into three-dimensions a vision inspired by her observations of nature and humans, and create a new mode of artistic expression.

Exhibited in Europe and around the world, Abakanowicz gained international recognition on the contemporary art scene in the 1980s for her monumental installations and environments made of plant fibre, as well as bronze, stone and steel. Lausanne played a key role in the development of the Polish artist’s career and personal contacts thanks to the Tapestry Biennials, the exhibitions organised by Pierre and Alice Pauli, and local collectors.

In counterpoint to the universe of Abakanowicz, the room featuring the colourful geometric compositions of Elsi Giauque (1900–1989) highlights the Swiss artist’s explorations of space and transparency, illustrating the important innovations brought to textile art during the Lausanne Biennials.

Print version

1st Floor, room 1
Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz studied painting and weaving, and in 1954 graduated from the Warsaw Academy of Plastic Arts. For a few years she worked as a designer of interior decoration projects. Yet the young artist’s real interest lay in the expressive potential of weaving.

This room traces the beginnings of Abakanowicz’s textile-art investigations: paintings on cloth with organic motifs, experimental weavings inspired by the Polish avant-garde (informal art and Constructivism), large-scale compositions displayed at international art biennials, and technical designs and drawings.

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s name was added to the list of artists invited in 1962 to represent Poland at the First Lausanne International Tapestry Biennial. Her weaving style, based on the nature and physical properties of the threads she used and executed without a cartoon (1:1 scale model) as guidance, attracted viewers’ attention with its unusually crafted structure.

In 1965, at the 2nd Lausanne Tapestry Biennial, Abakanowicz exhibited Desdemona. The works of the Polish artists, and in particular hers, sparked a quarrel between the champions of traditional tapestry and the young artists claiming complete creative freedom. That same year, the artist was awarded the Gold Medal in Applied Arts at the 8th São Paulo Art Biennial and was widely commended by professionals and the general public alike.

From 1967, Abakanowicz devised mural works with contours and structural features that further accentuated the organic aspect of her weaving (Assemblage noir). In the summer of 1967, Alice Pauli organized in her own gallery in Lausanne a first solo show for the artist featuring pieces in relief; ten more followed in the period up to 1985

1st Floor, room 2
Magdalena Abakanowicz

In the mid-1970s, after gaining prominence in Lausanne and worldwide, Abakanowicz temporarily abandoned her weavings and assemblages of soft elements such as the Abakans (2nd floor room), to focus on the human figure and its fibrous structure. Her hollowed-out figures, made of bits of sack cloth and stiffened with resin, are a reminder that men, women, and plants all come from the organic world and are composed of the same biological elements. The Backs, Heads, and Embryology series, represented here in ink and gouache drawings, have a special place in the artist’s oeuvre.

For the Alterations cycle, Abakanowicz produced multiple three-dimensional impressions of bodies with truncated heads, arms and legs, that depict the conflicts and horrors of humanity. She crafted fragments – hands, heads, and faces – that evoke images of loss and decay. The artist was inspired by her childhood memories marked by the trauma of war (her wounded mother lost an arm), and also by her observations of the dangers facing a society that was disconnected from the natural world and its origins. In this respect, Abakanowicz was close in her artistic expression to the fundamental issues, still topical today, interpreted by younger generations of artists.

Even though the 1970s saw a proliferation of the artist’s solo exhibitions and the production of numerous installations in Europe and other continents, Abakanowicz nonetheless remained faithful to Lausanne, to the Tapestry Biennials, to the projects organized by the Alice Pauli Gallery as well as to her Lausanne friends and patrons, the collector couple Pierre and Marguerite Magnenat.

The close and profound links that connected Abakanowicz to Lausanne for 25 years led to a series of donations, now grouped in the Fondation Toms Pauli’s 20th-Century Collection, some of which can be seen in this room.

The Lausanne International Tapestry Biennials (1962–1995)

After the Second World War, tapestry art entered a new era. Across Europe, private workshops and national manufactories took an active part in this revival. By organizing the Biennials, Lausanne became the international showcase for contemporary tapestry and an inspirational forum for meeting and sharing ideas. The Biennial provided a platform that stimulated ground-breaking developments in the medium, that ultimately took tapestry away from the wall and on to textile sculpture and Fiber Art.

The Biennial was the brainchild of the art enthusiasts Pierre (1916–1970) and Alice Pauli (1922–2022) and the French artist Jean Lurçat, whose joint efforts on the project morphed into a lasting friendship. With support from the City of Lausanne and the Cantonal Fine Arts Museum, their collaboration gave rise to CITAM (French acronym for International Centre for Ancient and Modern Tapestry). Through to 1995, the 16 editions of the Biennials spurred the transition from traditional tapestry to the New Tapestry movement, a form of free art that flouted established art categories.

Over a period of two decades, Abakanowicz participated in ten Lausanne Biennials, Giauque, in eight. Their artworks were shown at all the major international collective exhibitions devoted to tapestry. The two artists held each other in high esteem.

1st Floor, room 3
Elsi Giauque

Elsi Giauque (1900–1989), the doyenne and leader of the Swiss artists of the New Tapestry movement, completed her studies in Zurich. She was fascinated by the principles of Constructivism, taught by Sophie Taueber-Arp and Otto Morach, which she applied to textiles.

By 1945, she was already questioning traditional tapestry, employing unusual materials such as corn husks and sisal on her loom. She anticipated what 20 years later would be considered a revolution.

Giauque worked as a textile designer in fashion and interior decoration. She handled numerous public commissions, collaborating closely with architects to find ways to incorporate textiles into constructed space. From 1950, her student Käthi Wenger (1922–2017) became a regular assistant.

After 20 years teaching at the Zurich Arts and Crafts School, where she trained many textile artists, Elsi Giauque retired in 1965 to devote herself fully to free creation. It was then that audacious geometric, mural, and spatial compositions started to emerge, reflecting her research into colour and shape combinations and transparency effects.

At the 4th Lausanne Biennial in 1969, Giauque showcased Elément virtuel spatial (Virtual Spatial Element), a variable-configuration installation composed of frames stretched with warp threads. Like Abakanowicz’s Red Abakan exhibited the same year, this work marks a decisive stage in the new spatial conception of tapestry. The artist plays with the different textures and materials and the superposition of colours, which change depending on the viewer’s point of view.

2nd Floor
Magdalena Abakanowicz
Sculpting Space

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, Magdalena Abakanowicz produced impressive woven sculptures suspended in the air, which would change the perceptions of tapestry art and sculpture. In fact, Abakanowicz created a new form of artistic expression that defied categorization.

In 1964, an art critic who was disconcerted by the ambiguity of her work came up with the term Abakan, based on her surname. Abakanowicz adopted the name and used it to designate her large-scale, three-dimensional works. The unclassifiable character of the artist’s production prompted a new awareness of soft woven sculptures as artworks in their own right, outside the scope of arts and crafts, and applied arts.

Abakanowicz did not want her exhibitions to be seen as an alignment of objects. On the contrary, they should depict the tensions between the different elements, between light, shadows, and darkness. These mysterious and reassuring shapes of her creations are rooted in the organic world, beautiful and disturbing, and throbbing with life-giving energy.

These malleable, even transformable Abakans were displayed by the artist in dense arrangements that she first called ‘situations in space’, and then ‘environments’. Abakanowicz considered every exhibition as an artwork in itself. She personally decided the placement of each piece and grouped them according to the space available in galleries and museums, or in the open air as for the film Abakany (Abakans) produced in the sand dunes on the Baltic coast. Abakanowicz always wanted the viewer, the recipient of her work, to experience completely new sensations as they moved around inside her installations.

In this room, large Abakans are assembled alongside several mural works created by the artist specifically for the interiors of some private homes in western Switzerland.

2nd Floor Plan

1. Abakan étroit(Narrow Abakan), 1967–1968
Sisal and wool
Fondation Toms Pauli, Lausanne

2. Abakan rond (Abakan Round), 1967–1968
National Museum, Wrocław

3. Abakan 29, 1967–1968
Sisal and wool
Fondation Toms Pauli, Lausanne

4. Abakan vert (Abakan Green), 1967–1968
Private collection, Warsaw

5. Manteau brun (Brown Coat), 1968
Henie Onstad Collection
Henie Onstad Art Centre, Høvikodden

6. Grande Fleur (Large Flower), 1981
Sisal and linen
Fondation Toms Pauli, Lausanne

7. Abakan orange (Abakan Orange), 1968
National Museum, Stockholm

8. Abakan orange (Abakan Orange), 1971
Tate, London

9. Abakan rouge (Abakan Red), 1969
Tate, London

10. Abakan rouge III (Abakan Red lll), 1970–1971
Fondation Toms Pauli, Lausanne

11. Abakan – Situation variable II (Abakan Variable Situation ll), 1971
Sisal and rope
City of Bienne Art Collection

12. Abakan brun (Abakan Brown), 1969
Röhsska Museum, Göteborg

13. Untitled (mural creation for Mrs Alice Pauli), 1979–1980 Sisal and linen
Fondation Toms Pauli, Lausanne

14. Abakan janvier-février (Abakan January-February) 1972, Sisal
National Museum, Wrocław

15. Boule noire (Black Ball), 1975
Private collection, Warsaw

16. Abakan jaune (Abakan Yellow), 1970
Sisal and rope
National Museum, Poznań