The Lithuanian-born American sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) was in the vanguard in translating Cubist pictorial motif and order into sculptural terms. In time, he modified this idiom to develop a highly personal expressionistic style. Christopher Sweet, in Art News described him as, "the most accomplished of the Cubist sculptors."
Jacques Lipchitz was born in Druskienski, Lithuania, on 22 August 1891. His father, a Jewish building contractor, came from a rich banking family. As a boy, Lipchitz was encouraged to draw. After he graduated from high school, his father expected him to go to engineering school, but Lipchitz opposed him and went to Paris in 1909 to study sculpture. His father, realizing the son's determination, relented and provided him with an allowance.
Studied in Paris
Lipchitz briefly studied at the école des Beaux-Arts and then at the Académie Julian and the Académie Collarossi. As a student, he won prizes for drafting and sculpture. He haunted the Louvre and studied art history; the periods he favored most were the Archaic Greek, Egyptian, and Gothic. A visit to St. Petersburg in 1911 stimulated his interest in Scythian sculpture and he remained enamored of non-European, particularly African, art.
Adopted Cubist Style
In 1912 Lipchitz established his own studio in the Montparnasse district of Paris. It happened to be alongside that of Constantin Brancusi, who helped to expose him to many avant-garde artists, including Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera, and Max Jacob. During the same year, he executed his large and accomplished Woman and Gazelles in the prevailing neoclassical manner. Influenced by Picasso, Lipchitz adopted Cubism and rejected his earlier style, which stressed curvilinear refinements and svelte contours. Picasso had shown the way toward three-dimensional Cubism with his constructions and sculptures, and Lipchitz fully exploited the style sculpturally. Rather than sculpt from nature, he produced his Cubist work from his imagination, creating abstracted and simple forms with surfaces reduced to simple planes. Horsewoman with a Fan (1913), The Matador (1914), and Sailor with Guitar (1914), are representative of his transitional phase to Cubism. In Sailor with a Guitar he retained the basic proportions of the human body, but he transformed it into angular facets which produce sharp contrasts in shadow and light. This jaunty piece recalls the Cubism of Juan Gris, a friend of Lipchitz, rather than that of Picasso or Georges Braque.
Lipchitz began producing purely Cubist sculptures around 1915; Headis a typical Lipchitz sculpture from this era. In certain works, such as Man with a Guitar (1916), he prefigured the two versions of Picasso's 1921 Three Musicians. Although the Cubists heavily influenced Lipchitz, his powerful works also influenced them, including Picasso. He produced his Cubist sculptures in clay or plaster, then oversaw some worked into stone. Not until the 1960s did Lipchitz cast many of these works in bronze. The change for Lipchitz had been a radical one. In a sense, he had sacrificed his hard-earned skills as an academician to work in a style which at that time was little more than an eccentric fashion. Perhaps this conscious sacrifice explains the profundity of Lipchitz' commitment to Cubism.
In 1916 Lipchitz received support from the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, which permitted him to engage assistants and to launch more ambitious projects. He began to change his angular style, fearing that his work had become too abstract and devoid of humanity. His sculptures became more complex, but he never lost control of his medium. Lipchitz opened up forms and pierced the material to reveal spaces which function as totalities in vital contrast with the surrounding mass. In 1920 Lipchitz had his first important one-man show at the Léonce Rosenberg Gallery in Paris. Two years later the American collector Dr. Albert Barnes commissioned Lipchitz to execute bas-reliefs for the exterior of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania.
Altered Sculptural Style
In 1924 Lipchitz became a French citizen and married Berthe Kitrosser, whom he had known since 1915. About this time his style began to change again. Cubist elements were phased out, although vestiges of cubism persisted. He made several small sculptures, which he called "transparents, " in search of new forms of expression. Some of these were made in cardboard and then cast in bronze. Two important pieces are La Joie de Vivre (1927) and the powerful, totemic Figure (1926-1930), a 7-foot bronze of compactly entwining forms which terminate in an abstract, ovoid head with a pair of small cylindrical forms so placed as to suggest piercing eyes. Jack Flam in the Wall Street Journal described Figure as, "one of his most powerful and original works Lipchitz ever did." From then on Lipchitz made most of his pieces as clay maquettes to be cast in bronze.
Lipchitz' work was in increasingly great demand. In 1930 his first retrospective was held at the Galerie de la Renaissance in Paris. The following year, he executed one of his most impressive monuments, Song of the Vowels, which owes nothing to Cubism. His Towards a New World (1934) also illustrates his continued shift from Cubism and his renewed preference for the curves of the human form. In 1935 he held his major exhibition in the United States, at the Brummer Gallery in New York City. His monumental work displayed at the Paris World's Fair, Prometheus, won a gold medal.
Turbulence Evokes Powerful Allegorical Works
In the mid-1930s, when war seemed inevitable to many, Lipchitz was preoccupied with themes of violence. His sculptures assumed a ritualistic character, with their solemn repetition of blocky, organic shapes and vigorous contours, baroque in form and darkly expressionist in character. He used his work to attack Nazism, such as David and Goliath (1933). In 1941, to escape from Nazi persecution, Lipchitz abandoned all his possessions except the clothes he wore and a portfolio of drawings. With the help of the dealer Curt Valentin, Lipchitz found refuge and support in the United States. His work took on a strongly autobiographical feel, reflecting the horror of war. The pain of the mother in Mother and Child (1941-45) strongly conveys Lipchitz' anguish over wartime atrocities.
Continued Recognition and Commissions
In 1953 he set up a studio at Hastings-on-Hudson in New York. In the early 1950s, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller commissioned Birth of the Muses and he produced Spirit of Free Enterprise for Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. In 1954 the Museum of Modern Art gave him a large retrospective exhibition. In the late 1950s Lipchitz continued to use innovative sculptural techniques by creating works of clay or pasticine under water using only touch. His subsequent works were modest in intent and composed of "found objects, " frequently incorporated with clay, the whole then being cast in bronze. He also executed portraits. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Lipchitz' work was shown in the United States, Europe, and Israel. One of his final projects, Peace Earth (1967-1969) incorporated elements from his past. He died on 26 May 1973 and was buried in Israel.
Further Reading on Jacques Lipchitz
Excellent works on Lipchitz are Henry R. Hope, The Sculpture of Jacques Lipchitz (1954), the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art retrospective; Robert J. Goldwater, Lipchitz (1959); Abraham M. Hammacher, Jacques Lipchitz: His Sculpture (1961); and Bert Van Bork, Jacques Lipchitz: The Artist at Work (1966). H. H. Arnason, Jacques Lipchitz: Sketches in Bronze (1969), offers good photographs of the maquettes. Other biographical sources include: Wall Street Journal (March 1, 1991); ARTnews 90, no. 7 (September 1991); The Dictionary of Art, Macmillan (1996).