Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz dies at 86

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Abakanowicz's work was inspired by the tumultuous times she lived through: Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, the bombing of Warsaw, and Stalinism

Celebrated Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose striking headless figures have been showcased around the world, has died at the age of 86, the culture ministry said Friday.

"She died overnight Thursday to Friday," the ministry's press office told AFP, without elaborating.

Abakanowicz, a descendant of Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan on her father's side and Polish aristocracy through her mother, was born in 1930 in the central village of Falenty.

She lived through Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, the bombing of Warsaw and Stalinism, all of which inspired her to create the imposing clones that evoke the horrors of brainless masses.

"It happened to me to live in times which were extraordinary by their various forms of collective hate and adulation," Abakanowicz said in 2004 when her sculptures were installed at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"Marchers and parades worshipped leaders, great and good, who turned out to be mass murderers," she told the Princeton Weekly Bulletin.

A graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw at a time when the communist regime sought to impose ideological content on all art, she managed to forge her own path.

Her first works were large gouache paintings on paper and canvas, followed by inventive woven sculptures that she eponymously dubbed "Abakans".

The hybrid tapestries, which she suspended from the ceiling rather than along walls, earned her worldwide renown and a gold medal at the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil.

In the 1970s she turned her focus to the human body, the subject of many series over the years -- "Backs," "Heads," "Crowds," "Seated figures," "Dancing figures" and "Skulls".

Using materials such as wood, stone and bronze, Abakanowicz created haunting crowds of dozens -- and even hundreds -- of headless, genderless clones arranged in a predetermined sequence.

Her work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the Art Sonje Museum in Seoul and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The sculptures have also appeared in more unusual places, including on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on the edge of a hill in Jerusalem and in a huge water tank in Warsaw.

Even when fame took her across the globe, she continued to live in Poland, telling the Weranda.pl art website in 2010: "I have a duty to make it known my country exists."

She earned many distinctions, including France's Order of Arts and Letters and a lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Centre in New Jersey.