Igor Mitoraj, who has died aged 70, was a monumental sculptor who kept his brand of classicism in fashion by combining technical ability with a certain postmodern malaise. His fractured anatomies and immense bandaged heads, exemplified by Testa Addormentata (Head Lulled to Sleep, 1983, now on display at Canary Wharf, London), were both accessible and enigmatic. Rupture and fragmentation became metaphors for the passing of antiquity, but could also stand for the nature of time itself, and indeed the whole human condition. A viewer of these broken forms might recall Shelley’s lines: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” The sculptures also look fabulous.
Despite working on a large scale, Mitoraj had an epigrammatic skill, finding just the right vocabulary, or rather the right anatomical parts, to make his visual statement. As he put it, “I feel that a piece of arm or a leg speak far more strongly than a whole body.” This was particularly true when he placed his creations in spaces that became part of the sculpture. He achieved this famously in the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento in Sicily, where in 2011 he installed a collection of idealised figures and busts, but more cramped urban locations were also exploited successfully, as with Luci di Nara (Lights of Nara), installed outside the British Museum in 2002.
Mitoraj was born to a Polish mother and French father in the German town of Oederan but, having survived the bombardment of Dresden, he was brought up in southern Poland. After studying art in Bielsko-Biała, at the age of 19 he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Initially a painter, Mitoraj trained for three years under the avant-garde artist and theatre director Tadeusz Kantor, then in 1967 took part in a group show at the Krzysztofory Gallery in Kraków.
Kantor advised Mitoraj to broaden his experience by going abroad, and in 1968 he left Poland for Paris, enrolling at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. At first he continued to paint but, after experiencing pre-Columbian carving on a trip to Mexico in the early 70s, began to devote himself to the plastic arts. This development was encouraged in 1976 by a solo exhibition at La Hune gallery in Paris. At first he worked in bronze and terracotta but three years later, following a trip to Carrara, Italy, he began to use marble.
Although he did not sever his links with Paris, Mitoraj set up a studio in 1983 at Pietrasanta, near Carrara, an area he loved for its landscape as much as for the quality of its stone. Italy was to become an important source of public commissions, both secular and religious, and an invitation to appear at the Venice Biennale of 1986 helped Mitoraj to consolidate his international reputation.
Igor Mitoraj with one of his white marble sculptures, in Paris in 2002.
During the 1990s, he began a fruitful collaboration with the independent curator James Putnam, who in 1994 arranged the display of his bronze Tsuki-No-Hikari (Moonlight) in the British Museum show Time Machine. Two years earlier, Mitoraj had exhibited at both the Economist Plaza in London and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield. Perhaps his most evocative British project was a more recent installation, the Eros Bendato Screpolato (Eros Blindfolded and Cracked), laid on its side in the autumnal landscape of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, in 2009. This four-metre bronze head could be seen as a comment on the suffering that Mitoraj saw all around him.
symbolic potential of Mitoraj’s art made it ideal for religious commissions, which included two sets of bronze doors – at the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome in 2006 and, three years later, at the Jesuit church of Matka Boża Łaskawa in Warsaw. Towards the end of his life, Mitoraj divided his time between Italy and Poland, where he was laden with awards, from the Vittorio De Sica prize of 2001 to an honorary degree from the Kraków Academy in 2007 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, conferred two years ago.
Mitoraj’s latest work was extremely varied, including set and costume designs in 2012 for a production of Aida in Doha, Qatar, to the exhibition Traces of Time, held earlier this year at Contini Art UK in London. With its disembodied heads and limbless torsos, often punctured or splintered, Traces of Time represented Mitoraj’s overriding conviction: “The idea of beauty is ambiguous, a double-edged sword that can easily hurt you, causing pain and torture. My art is an example of this dichotomy: mesmerising perfection attached to corrupted imperfection.”
• Igor Mitoraj, sculptor, born 26 March 1944; died 6 October 2014