The French sculptor Henri Laurens (1885-1954) was one of the first artists to find an equivalency in sculpture for Cubist painting.
In this century of mobility, Henri Laurens was an exception in that he was born, lived his life, and died in one city—Paris. Despite his humble family background and his extremely limited academic and artistic training, he distinguished himself as one of France's most outstanding sculptors of modern times and was a close friend of many of the important artists and intellectuals of his time.
After several years of primary schooling, he entered the workshop of an ornamental sculptor where Laurens modelled figurines and did tracings of architectural decorations. This experience led him to his next occupation as a sculptor of architectural embellishments, often working on the scaffolding of buildings under construction. In the evenings he attended drawing classes in the studio of "Pere Perrin," where he became lifelong friends with a number of his fellow students.
In 1911 Laurens met the painter Georges Braque— certainly the most important event in Laurens' career. Braque and his Spanish friend, Pablo Picasso, starting five years earlier, had evolved a revolutionary style, Cubism, based on dual influences of the work of Paul Cezanne and of African sculpture. The faceted strokes of Cezanne and the expressive distortions of African sculpture coalesced into a style in which planes, freed from purely representational connotations, interpenetrated and interlocked as a dynamic surface. Figure and ground, the subject and its environment, unite in a measureless depth.
Art critics and theoreticians, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, interpreted this to convey a new multi-faceted artistic reality. An object and its environment were perceived from many viewpoints, in effect as a totality that divorced the viewer from the Western tradition of illusionism in which the moment and the viewer's location were fixed in time and space. A more formal training of Laurens might have inhibited his adoption of this stylistic innovation. In addition, his background as a craftsman concerned with his materials and tools may have facilitated his becoming a Cubist artist.
Laurens and Braque were close friends for the remainder of their lives. Through Braque, he met Picasso, Gris, Leger, and other artists associated with Cubism as well as with other revolutionary movements. Initially, Laurens was an artistic disciple of Braque and worked in two-dimensional media, but by 1912 he started to explore the sculptural potentialities of Cubism. The collages of Picasso and Braque plus Picasso's constructions quickly influenced him. Both media were novel in that they employed the principle of assembling materials into two or three dimensional works of art, in contrast to the traditional definitions of painting and sculpture. Laurens' constructions are distinctive in that they are extensively, if not entirely, painted. The beauty of their shapes, rhythms, and color has made Laurens' constructions remarkable in a medium that is generally more sober and less colorful and decorative in effect. During this period he even painted his stone sculptures. In the spirit of artistic revolution of that time, Laurens produced a body of work that combined painting and sculpture.
His polychromed reliefs of 1919 to 1920 are considered some of the best examples of Cubist sculpture. However, many writers have considered them painted relief transcriptions of the style of Braque and Picasso paintings of 1913 to 1914. During the 1920s, following a tendency of the time, Laurens' sculpture evolved from being characterized by the sharp geometric planes of Cubism to a decorative sensuosity of curving lines and massive forms and volumes. Then, as throughout his career, his work remained playfully representational and never became abstract. Appropriate to this stylistic change, there was an increasing preference for the female form in his sculpture.
By the late 1930s his massive, undulating forms had acquired an organic quality suggesting growing or swelling energies; or, in the manner of the English sculptor Henry Moore, it suggested forms evolving with the forces of time and nature. This occurred with the final renunciation of geometric shapes (1938) and adoption of a more lyrical and poetic tone in his themes and their interpretation.
Laurens was a kind and patient person who lived quite modestly. His success, recognition, and financial reward were never great until the last years of his life. During World War I Leonce Rosenberg became his art dealer, followed by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. They were two of the most respected dealers in avant-garde art. Laurens' inclusion in a major New York art exhibit, "Cubism and Abstract Art," in 1936 clearly established his place in the development of modern sculpture and his place in the history of art. The following year two of his high relief sandstone panels were displayed in the Sevres Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale in Paris. His greatest triumph was winning the grand prize at the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1953.
Laurens illustrated nine books over the period 1917 to 1953, among which were Paul Eluard's The Last Night (1942) and Tristan Tsara's Entre Temps (1946). In 1924 he did the stage settings for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes' performance of Darius Milhoud's The Blue Train.
As he had lived, Laurens died quietly in 1954. During the next decade he was posthumously honored in many retrospective shows as an artist of importance and as a pivotal figure in the development of modern sculpture.
Further Reading on Henri Laurens
Laurens is usually discussed in the literature on his fellow pioneer Cubist sculptors Alexander Archipenko, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and Jacques Lipchitz. Most of the writings on Laurens are in French. For background and illustrations, as well as an excellent review of modern sculpture and Laurens' place in it, see C. Gidion-Welcker, Contemporary Sculpture: An Evolution in Volume and Space (1955; rev. ed. 1961), and Michel Seuphor, The Sculpture of This Century (1960). The sole monograph in English—Cecile Goldscheider, Laurens (1959)—reviews this artist's place in the development of modern sculpture and his career and is well illustrated.