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Jacques Lipchitz Photo

Jacques Lipchitz

Lithuanian-American Sculptor

Born: August 22, 1891 - Druskininkai, Lithuania
Died: May 16, 1973 - Capri, Italy
Movements and Styles:
Cubism
,
Purism
"Copy nature and you infringe on the work of our Lord. Interpret nature and you are an artist."
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Jacques Lipchitz Signature
"Abstraction was never enough for me."
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Jacques Lipchitz Signature
"I also found so-called great art too pompous, too stiff. What at this time was called minor art was freer, more imaginative, more open to all kinds of unorthodox expression, all kinds of daring in the handling of materials."
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Jacques Lipchitz Signature
"For me sculpture is divinity. This is the only answer that I could find for myself. Art is man's distinctly human way of fighting death. Through art, man achieves immortality and in this immortality we find God."
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Jacques Lipchitz Signature
"Cubism is not a formula, it is not a school. Cubism is a philosophy, a point of view in the universe. It is like standing at a certain point on a mountain and looking around. If you go higher, things will look different; if you go lower, again they will look different."
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Jacques Lipchitz Signature

Summary of Jacques Lipchitz

Lithuanian and Jewish, the refugee artist Jacques Lipchitz arrived in Paris at precisely the right time: when the early-20th-century European avant-garde was shaking up the art world and Cubism was born. When we think of Cubist sculpture, the works of Lipchitz emerge as exemplars of the style translated into three dimensions. Later, the second time Lipchitz fled for his life at the beginning of WWII, he left behind a less abstract style and, in a major career-changing transformation, began producing larger-scale sculptures in bronze. Later still, the work of the ever-dynamic Lipchitz had become increasingly emotionally expressive, often incorporating themes from Judaism. At the end of his long lifetime and multinational trek, Lipchitz may be regarded as one of the foremost contributors to the Cubist style and to modern sculpture.

Accomplishments

  • Lipchitz and fellow sculptor, Alexander Archipenko, succeeded where Cubist painters had achieved only moderate success - he transformed Cubist themes into sculptural works that display a sense of refinement and cohesion. Of the two artists, the works of Lipchitz were less abstract and rarely incorporated bright colors.
  • The works that Lipchitz referred to as "transparents" were given that name because they were pierced by abundant negative space. Basically, you could see right through them, or through parts of them. He used this strategy to promote the sculptures' interaction with their surroundings. They were frequently displayed outdoors, so the landscape became an important component of a work.
  • Lipchitz early, classical training and adept draftsmanship are evident in the emotionally charged, large bronze pieces he began producing later in his career. Themes deriving from Biblical tales and Greek mythology called for a more curvilinear and naturalistic style. Sweeping lines and variations in depth belie the influence of Cubism but the large, dramatic pieces that are made even more powerful by nature of their size as if to evoke the magnitude of the horrors of World War II.

Biography of Jacques Lipchitz

Lipchitz at his studio (1967)

The ever-driven creator, Lipchitz said: "All my life as an artist I have asked myself: What pushes me continually to make sculpture? I have found the answer. Art is an action against death. It is a denial of death."



Progression of Art

1912

Pregnant Woman

This early work by Lipchitz demonstrates both his traditional artistic training and the incipient signs of his transition away from art school orthodoxy. Lipchitz received a thorough education in traditional sculptural processes, from drawing classical works to mocking up compositions in clay, to creating full plaster models. Most classically trained artists would give their models to a craftsman to carve in stone or cast in bronze. However, Lipchitz' Pregnant Woman remains in its plaster stage and has been treated as a finished work.

Although it is technically skilled, this work is very unlike the classical sculptures Lipchitz would have studied. Instead, it shows the influence of alternative types of sculpture such as medieval pieces or works from the African continent that, at the time, were being brought to Europe and characterized as "primitive". The figure's flat facial features and the unusual position of her arms, along with her designation as a pregnant woman, all point to an anti-classicizing tendency. This is indicative of Lipchitz' increasing regard for the work of contemporaneous, avant-garde artists in Paris who were predominantly interested in works of art from outside the classical canon.

Plaster - Tate Modern, London

1915-16

Sculpture

One of Lipchitz' earliest abstract sculptures, the composition is based on the form of a human figure seated at a table. He claimed that at the time the sculpture was produced that he was engaged in "building up and composing the idea of a human figure from abstract sculptural elements of line, plane and volume."

Lipchitz presents the human figure as comprised of a variety of planes and surfaces, making use of the space surrounding the sculpture and encouraging the viewer to look at the work from multiple angles. In this way, the artist is rejecting the concept of the ideal viewpoint which is fundamental to classical sculpture.

Lipchitz originally modelled this work in clay before having the final piece executed by a stone carver he employed to assist him. When working on these "abstract architectural" sculptural pieces, Lipchitz insisted that they required the "architectural mass of stone" in order to be fully realized.

Limestone - Tate Modern, London

Seated Man with a Guitar (1918)
1918

Seated Man with a Guitar

Seated Man with a Guitar is one of Lipchitz' most mature Cubist works. While it is less abstract than earlier works such as Sculpture (1915-16), Lipchitz manages to reduce the human figure into a few distinct shapes while maintaining a degree of naturalism. The simple forms that make up the guitar are integrated with the figure's body, fusing the two as though they are one and the same object. In this way, Lipchitz succinctly conveys the notion of a performance in which the musician and instrument are of equal importance.

Guitars were frequent features of Cubist paintings and sculptures. There are various theories pertaining to exactly why the instrument was so widely depicted by Cubist artists, but it is perhaps partly because the guitar is held so close to the body, integrated and enlivened by it, when it is played. This necessary intimacy between the musical instrument and the musician inspired artists such as Lipchitz to collapse the space between the figure and the object and unify them, which was a key aim of the Cubist movement.

Critic Christopher Green describes how, in order to compose this work, Lipchitz constructed and projected volumes "outwards from an imagined core" in order to achieve an "expansive, outward-oriented occupation of space." This creative use of the space surrounding the sculpture is a key feature of Lipchitz' sculptural work.

Plaster, paint, varnish - Kröller-Muller Museum, The Netherlands

1925

Seated Man (Meditation)

By the mid-1920s, Lipchitz had moved away from the Cubist style that had characterized his work for two decades. While he continued to produce simplified, semi-abstract compositions, frequently referring to the human form for inspiration, many of the formal features of Cubism disappeared. He spoke of breaking free from "the iron rule of syntactical cubist discipline" in the hopes of discovering a new creative mode. One of the fruits of this labor was Seated Man, which is a highly emotive work.

Lipchitz described this piece as depicting "a weary man, slumped in a chair, his arm supporting his nodding, drowsy head." In order to achieve this effect, Lipchitz makes use of the mirroring of geometrical shapes to form the figure's arms, which sweep around the body in an S shape. Although the figure has a sense of solidity and mass, its core is pierced by a hole, creating a sense of balance to the weightiness of the material and the mood. Lipchitz' innovation was to utilize this negative space as an integral part of the sculptural form.

Although Seated Man is produced in a style that clearly recalls the innovations of Cubism and abstraction, it also serves as a visual reference to Auguste Rodin's famous work, The Thinker (1902). Indeed, Rodin's influence was palpable in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century, although many members of the avant-garde were contemptuous of his popularity. However, at this point in his career, Lipchitz' respect for the fervent, expressive style of the renowned sculptor and so-called "father of modern sculpture" is surely echoed in this work.

Bronze - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

1928-29

The Cry (The Couple)

By the end of the 1920s, Lipchitz had achieved commercial success and was thus able to work on larger pieces, which could be cast in bronze, an expensive material. With The Cry (The Couple), he continued to explore the limits of the casting process by including large openings in the mass of the sculpture through which the viewer may peer. This feature makes such works particularly suited to being displayed outdoors, as the landscape can be seen through the sculpture and even becomes an interactive component of the piece. Lipchitz referred to these sculptures as "transparents" because they defied sculptural conventions in the sense that, while comprised of mass, they actively engaged with negative space and the viewer could literally see through them.

The Cry (The Couple) depicts two serpentine figures locked in an erotic embrace. Although the male and female figures are evidently discrete forms, the composition emphasizes the eponymous notion of coupling through their embrace, and creates a unified whole. Lipchitz originally titled this work The Couple, but he later chose to rename it The Cry. This adjustment reflects the tense nature of the ecstatic sexual moment, but both the sculpture and the title are ambiguous about whether it is agony or pleasure that is being depicted.

The overtly sexual theme of this work is emblematic of Lipchitz' departure from the more common subjects that dominated his earlier work such as standing or seated figures or musical instruments that were favored by the Cubists. By the early 1930s, he had begun to explore a range of themes along biblical and mythological lines.

Bronze - Riijksmuseum, Amsterdam

1943

The Prayer

Sculpted in the midst of the Second World War, The Prayer served as a direct expression of Lipchitz' horror upon learning of the Nazi's concentration camps. As a Jew, he had been forced to flee Paris for New York a few years earlier and it was in the United States that he rediscovered his religion and the subject matter of his sculptures became increasingly concerned with religion and Judaism.

This particular work depicts an elderly man in traditional ritual garb, reciting a prayer. The figure is surrounded by projecting organic forms, flames, or foliage suggestive of the Burning Bush. As a part of the ritual, the man flings a large rooster over his head while in his other hand he holds a prayer book. The composition is complex and, on first sight, perplexing. It is, however, deeply emblematic of the complexity of the prayer ritual itself and functions both as the manifestation of a prayer for Holocaust victims and of Lipchitz' own process of praying through sculpting. Indeed, the artist explained that he had wept throughout the production of the work; for Lipchitz, the sculptural process provided a sort of spiritual and emotional catharsis.

By the mid-1940s, Lipchitz was developing his own style of expressionism, producing works that were charged with emotion. Lipchitz sought a sculptural form that could help him both to express his own feelings of sorrow and to comment on the tumultuous state of the world.

Bronze - Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Prometheus Strangling the Vulture (1943)
1943

Prometheus Strangling the Vulture

This work draws on a well-known Greek myth in which the Titan Prometheus sympathizes with the plight of humans and steals fire from the gods for them. As punishment, he is tied to a rock and a vulture (or, in some versions, an eagle representing Zeus) consumes his liver. Each day, the liver is regenerated and Prometheus' agony repeated. According to the myth, Prometheus is eventually freed by Hercules who kills the bird. However, in Prometheus Strangling the Vulture, Lipchitz depicts the Titan breaking free of his chains and wrestling the bird that has caused him so much pain. Created at the height of World War II, the sculpture is in part symbolic of humanity's struggle against evil and particularly against the persecution of Jews by the Nazis.

The sculpture was originally produced in plaster and that version was on display in Philadelphia in 1952 when Lipchitz' New York studio burned, destroying all his works in progress. The Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased the work at the highest price it had paid for a work by a living sculptor at that time. Following its purchase, the piece was cast in bronze under Lipchitz' supervision. Prometheus Strangling the Vulture is installed near the entrance to the museum. Expressive and distinctly organic, from a formal perspective the work shares few stylistic similarities to Lipchitz' early works although it maintains the same strong sense of mass and volume projecting from a central core.

Bronze - Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia


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First published on 16 Jun 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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