PRINT June 1963

Jacques Lipchitz: Lively Legend

THE JAQUES LIPCHITZ RETROSPECTIVE organized by the UCLA Art Galleries is a definitive survey of more than 50 years of work by one of the greatest living sculp­tors. The University has tried to make this an event of the greatest merit by permitting Lipchitz to select the show and by bringing him to southern California for appearances in conjunction with the exhibition. In addition this is the first UCLA Art Council sponsored exhibition planned for a national tour. The show is made up of 115 sculptures and 28 drawings, repre­senting his work in almost every year from 1911 (when the artist was 20 years old) to 1962. In making the difficult selection, Lipchitz found it necessary in some cases to make another cast in order to represent his development fully and thus he has been preparing for the exhibition for more than eighteen months and working in the foundry every day for the last year.

Jacques Lipchitz was born Chaim Jacob Lipchitz in August of 1891 in Lithuania. By the age of 18 he had completed public school and had moved on to Paris to study sculpture. His father, at first disap­proving, helped him to live for two years until the family building business failed. The young sculptor studied at the Beaux Arts, the Academies Julian and Collarossi and in several studios. He began to visit the many Parisian museums and became deeply moved by and involved with archaic and primitive art as well as the better known epochs of western art. His friends of these years were the vanguard leaders Diego Rivera, Max Jacob, Modigliani, Soutine, Picasso and Juan Gris.

After a period devoted to a rather self-conscious “modernism,” represented in the exhibit by works of 1913 which show a streamlined art nouveau, the artist spent 1914 on Mallorca and in Madrid. Out of this period came the celebrated Sailor with Guitar, 1914, which he “sketched from nature” in Mallorca and executed later in Madrid. This work shows his use of the abrupt conjunction of angular planes, the dis­rupted continuity of the leg-column, and a new sense of sculptural unity. Once the “Sailor” existed and the impact of cubist painting had been expressed in three dimensional art, Lipchitz was launched into more than ten years of work to explore the possibilities. Head, 1915, when compared to Picasso’s famous Woman’s Head, 1909, is a structural metaphor as opposed to a naturalistic resurfacing of anatomy. The drama of interpenetrating masses in this work and in Standing Figure, 1916, became a major inspiration to sculpture and architecture. Later works like the two bathers of 1917 and 1919, The Reader, 1919, and a number of figures with guitars, serve to show his new conception for the articulation of form in three dimensional space. Moving around these works provides the viewer with an endless succession of forms that function per­fectly at a formal level and at the same time trace physical relationships between legs in motion or legs crossed, torsos seen simultaneously in profile and frontally, heads held erect and half bowed. There is little deformation in these works. If we find difficulty in reading them it is because we are using a renais­sance-based convention through which to see. One must feel his way into the system of Lipchitz’ cubism. Once empathically adjusted, his art reveals itself to be one of the most fruitful and rich experiences in all of sculpture.

“Cubism is an art of collaboration,” the artist ad­mits quite frankly, saying that he used the ideas of his cubist colleagues, just as they used his in later years. “Cubism is,” as he says, “a human language which speaks to us of specifically human interests, like the city seen from the air, as opposed to a range of mountains.” Even though he is himself deeply interested in African Negro sculpture, Lipchitz denies that it had an influence on cubism. He has somewhat more difficulty in denying that the appearance of many of his 1915–19 pieces show aspects which seem directly related to the carving of West African figures. He also says that “Cubism is a straight line. . . . A reaction to art nouveau.” His work shows that it is also an architectural, modeled and experimental series of conventions that evolved into curvilinear forms, which were able to include a kind of Futurist movement (Bather, 1917, Bather, 1919), and the penetration of the sculptural form as in the Standing Figure, 1916. Even bas relief was of interest to the sculptor and this can be traced in a series of four bronze plaques from 1918 to 1924 and still others which were carved in stone and even polychromed. Lipchitz says in the catalog of the exhibition, “You know, I am one of the Cubists.” He is, indeed, one of the foremost creators of Cubism and its primary sculptor. If he never left nature altogether, he nonetheless laid the groundwork for many non-objective developments in sculpture and the other plastic arts, which have been extremely influential in the art of his time.

“I can distinguish in my art two clearly defined strains: one is very sturdy, so tall, you know, built with care and with a lot of preparation, and the other is a kind of lyrical expansion. And I remark that when I am working for a certain time in one, I somehow explode into the other and let myself go, you see, and then the other comes back again, and like that all my work is succeeding from one strain to the other.” The work of the twenties is particularly revealing of this esthetic schizophrenia in the artist. For the first five years the sculptor was finishing a synthetic cubist develop­ment which culminated in the over six-foot Bather, 1923–25. Then his two strains begin to emerge. Be­tween 1925 and 1930 the artist indulged himself in a series of caprices which he now calls “the trans­parents.” These pieces are all small (Seated Man with Guitar, 1926, 9¾''; The Harp Player, 1928, 10½''; Melancholi, 1930, 11''), worked in the lost wax process and therefore unique. Lipchitz recalls that he was on fire with excitement about these works. At the time he said, “I soar with this heavier-than-air which is sculpture.” The first of the long series was executed in cardboard, re-created in wax and cast. With repeated experiments the artist achieved an “exploded” sculpture of thin bronze ribbons enclos­ing space with a three dimensional calligraphy which became structure and object as well as emotional invention. The work is anti-mass, stringy, open and prophetic of the sculpture that Picasso, Gonzalez, Smith and others would carry to heights in subse­quent years.

At the same time the sculptor was continuing to work up “sketches”––small models in clay or plasti­cene––around a number of more humanistic themes than he had ever been concerned with before. Joie de Vivre, The Song of the Vowels, Mother and Child and Return of the Prodigal Son, all had their inception in this period, through sketch, study, re­study, full sized model in plaster and eventual bronze. The new themes came to relate most often to mother and child, man and woman, man and his struggle with life and God and to the celebration of life. The form that began to emerge in his art was no longer “the straight line” of cubism but an organic limb-form that testifies to the sculptor’s earliest desire to possess and understand the art of the centuries. In his forms one may see Gislebert, the Gothic-column figures of Bourges, or the Combat of the Centaurs of Michel­angelo. As Lipchitz says of himself, while denying personal greatness as a sculptor, “Everything has in­fluenced me; everyone who came before me has had his effect. But you cannot continue the tradition if you do not know and understand what has come before you. . . . When I look at my collection of world sculpture each morning before beginning work I feel all of the world in me.” The limb-form that has come to characterize the master’s heroic sculpture may be seen in the mentioned monumental figures of the thirties and in related works. The harp string, the candelabrum, the leg of the bull, the torso of Europa, or indeed, a finger or bird wing can assume heroic proportions, expressive of vital human action or feeling. The surfaces of these works became more obviously reflective of the artist’s shaping hand in a tactile and expressive way. The kneaded surface of a “Theseus” or “Prometheus” catches light and reflects it along the surface of an element, changes direction and emphasis as one moves about the piece and gives a life and conflict to the dangerous Minotaur and the deadly eagle.

After fleeing from France during the Nazi blitzkrieg, Lipchitz found himself in New York in 1941 with little money and all of his work lost to the invaders. He set up a studio and began his work anew on Washington Square. He says of the period that, “I came to the U.S. at the age of 50 years. I was worn out. I got a new youth here. Your homeland is where you can work best. My best environment is in America today.” The first work on his mind was a figure to describe his feelings about the war. Mother and Child II, 1941, was the work and it continued the vocabulary of the thirties. Indeed, within the year the artist went back to Prometheus and Europa for new versions within his known and comfortable manner. At the same time he was impelled to investigate new forms and Spring, Pilgrim, Yarra, and Myrah, all of 1942, and The Prayer, 1943, reflect his new, more plastic interest in the capacities of modeling. The influence of the forms of pre-Columbian sculpture may be recognized along with a burgeoning imagination centering on female forms, fertility and gestation. These researches helped the pendulum to swing back once again to the more procedural development of monumental forms in Benediction, 1942–43, Song of Songs, 1946, and the “Sacrifice” series.

In the last decade Lipchitz has swung away from the monumental strain in three separate groups of works: “the chisels,” the “semi-automatics,” and the “Galapagos” series. The modest sizes of these works and their directness and spontaneity seem to serve as a balance to the grandiose and often inflated ges­tures of the artist’s monumental style. At any rate the artist found himself “relaxing” after his studio fire of 1950 by converting carving chisels into figures like Begging Poet, The Flight and Dancer, by adding tendrils and bits of plasticene. He then pre­pared them for lost wax casting and brought forth a series of unique sculptures. The relation to “objet trouve” is in no wise accidental, for Lipchitz was a Paris resident at the time of the first such construc­tions by Picasso in 1913–14. Later, after a period of monumental work, Lipchitz invented his “semi-auto­matics.” He took the wax as hot as he could hold and worked “in blind” under water, without conscious con­trol. He then withdrew the work from the water as it had cooled and examined it, removing everything that couldn’t be made in bronze. Many images came to his mind at this time but usually one would recur, and he would choose to clarify that image, A few years later, in 1958, the sculptor attempted an even more ambi­tious combination in the use of driftwood and other detritus in the series he calls “Galapagos.” These found object forms may fool the eye because some of these “natural” forms were modeled by the artist to complete a suggestion found in natural matter. He had wanted to attempt something like this as early as 1946 but was unable to find a methodology for burning out the “object.” He believed it possible to do marvelous things in bringing together a rich variety of materials from everyday life. He attempted 26 pieces and realized 14. Lipchitz thinks of this series as “the limit of possibilities” in lost wax sculp­ture and a relaxation or renewing of his creative urge—an enrichment of his imagination through the experience of spontaneous making. And then the pendulum swings again toward the sketch for major works, the great commission, and the monumental.

Today Lipchitz says he is tired by the many months devoted to the UCLA exhibition. Working six days a week for the last year has left him only one day a week for new work. He is intending to hold a new exhibit of work at the Otto Gerson Gallery in New York in the Spring, an exhibition of more than 150 “sketches” since 1914. The sculptor wanted to pre­serve the sketches and felt that they would make a very personal and remarkable show because the sketches are often more moving and plastic than the more architectural development from them. Think­ing of Mother and Child, 1949, Head of Harlequin, 1955–6, Sacrifice, 1955–6, Joy of Orpheus, 1945, and The Flight, 1940, his first conceptions and solu­tions often have a dimension of meaning and emo­tion that becomes diluted in the frustrating proc­ess of projecting it onto the monumental frame. The freshness and vitality does not become purified and simplified, but rather inflated and needlessly compli­cated. The finger-print modeling of the 15-inch maquette is touching and vital while the giant “nobs and bosses” can work in the reverse. Nonetheless the artist has a real and enduring wish to somehow cap his life’s work by a great summary piece. He looks for­ward to the challenge of a major commission worthy of his years and his sympathy with the centuries of

As in all of his conversations, speeches and inter­views, Lipchitz returns to the most commonplace of relationships for his examples, analogies and meta­phors. He treats of birth and life, going and coming, man and wife. He can deny that he was anything but the vehicle of his art, saying “I was possessed by sculpture. I have no merit in this––I was possessed with ambition for sculpture. Like in a jungle, I felt that I had to clear things away with a machete. I had no time to caress my work but had to keep moving.” At still another point Lipchitz said, “I am not an intellectual, I am a visual. I have always wanted to integrate everything I came into contact with. This is part of our feeling for primitive art––we feel close to beginnings because we’re at the beginning of a new cycle ourselves.”

When asked about the place that religion plays in his work he can only reply, “It is essential, it is an inescapable part of the work.” “Religion is a way to teach us how to be human beings,” he says. Surely his work is in harmony with this view of life. He is no longer concerned with Olympian views of life, nor can he accept an art of abstract “purity.” He feels that art is deeply wedged in the stuff of life and that it must reflect it and its impurity and humanness. To do less, in Lipchitz’ view, is to create only a partial art and therefore a disunity and hatred rather than love. If there is any crowning guide to Lipchitz’ art it is his search for unity. He says of himself, “I try to relate everything I encounter, spiritually or poetically.” He expresses the idea that to deal in partial truths is to deal in lies and that is neither unity nor art. For all of his innovations, Lipchitz never left the figure and still considers himself a worker in the grand tradi­tion of sculpture. He has chosen the heroic mode as his in the manner of Michelangelo. He is not afraid of revolution any more than he is of evolution, saying that, “Every little stage of evolution has as much fear in it as does a whole revolution.” He embraces growth, hoping that his work will prove to have grown over the years.

One of the great results of the Lipchitz show and his visit to the west has been that UCLA has suc­ceeded in purchasing The Song of the Vowels, 1931–32, for its campus. The 150-inch work will be one of the University’s proudest art treasures and an inspir­ing work for all to live with. Another, less obvious, result of the Lipchitz visit was the impact the great old man had on students, council members, collectors and others. The warmth, wisdom, common sense, modesty, lack of jargon and closeness to life of this curious, interested, vital man, served to bring art alive in a way seldom seen on a university campus.

––Gerald Nordland