PRINT Summer 1970

A Memoir of Zadkine

WHEN ZADKINE ENTERED THE sculpture studio at the Grande Chaumière to give his weekly critique, all work stopped. It would have taken more courage than anyone there had to have remained at his modeling stand while the master held forth, in a performance that expected and commanded attention, that engaged us individually and collectively, never anticipating interruption, its self-confidence bolstered by the evident adulation of the female students. (I seem to remember that a young South American woman took notes.) After exclaiming with gusto on the beauty of the model in general and on her special charms (“Quels beaux seins! Quelles fesses magnifiques!”), Zadkine would select a work and begin his tour of the room, pausing only to light or fill his pipe. His language was colorful, and constantly marked by literary and mythological allusion. We were to make no mistake about the matter: we were being addressed by a representative of high European culture.

Zadkine’s quick intelligence, his alternation of poetic eloquence and corrosive wit, his vigorous staccato delivery, kept us on our toes, the tireless monologue moving easily from wide-ranging reference to banter, to reminiscence, to acute exegesis of the work before him. His great experience in sculpture gave him an x-ray vision that rendered every student and study naked before his glance. Gentle and gallant toward women, he could be cruel with men and took special pleasure in uttering broad sarcasms at the expense of American men—of whom there were several in the international group present—comparing, for example, a certain kind of curvaceous modeling with the swooping of the roller coaster at Palisades Park or with the forms created by the licking of an ice cream cone. He could speak English, when he wanted to, with exactitude—he had spent about four years in the United States during the second World War—and liked to display a knowledge of the inner workings of what he let us know was the young and crude American culture.

If Zadkine was a lively talker he was also a no less lively writer. His posthumous autobiography1 is, indeed, written in the rhythms of his speech, and it is very touching to me, who was near him for a year and a half, to hear his voice again in this text. A set of ideas I came to know in 1949–50 manifests itself here slowly; there is also much I did not know and much, to be sure, that is left out. But the incorrigible character is there, and the bright language with its constant sprinkling of anglicizations and straight English. This is not Zadkine’s first venture in print: he wrote poetry (which, in the early years, Max Jacob criticized for him) and a book on his travels in Greece. His linguistic gifts, his volubility and combativeness, led him to talk often in private and in public; and it is hardly true that he “elaborated his art in silence,” as the blurb on the book cover has it. After the day’s work he was an energetic café trotter and conversationalist; with his habit of glancing at all sides and taking in the scene, he seemed to have alighted on a perch from which he would fly in a moment.

Ossip Zadkine was born in Smolensk, Russia, in 1890; without knowing a word of English, he went to England at the age of 16, remaining there for two years; he returned to Russia for a while, then went to Paris in 1909 where he lived to the end of his life except as two World Wars and many summer holidays took him elsewhere. I have always considered him to be the virtuoso wood-carver of our time, and somehow thought that he learned his craft in his native forest-strewn land. But the little sculpture he did in Russia was modeled in clay, whereas it was in England that he learned to carve wood, and then commercially, in order to support himself.

In Paris he enrolled at Beaux-Arts, went to the Louvre and the Musée Guimet, and soon found himself at La Ruche. These early years are evoked marvelously and swiftly in his book, and we learn that for Zadkine as for so many others Rodin was at once the great sculptor and the personage against whom he was in revolt. Serving as an ambulance driver in the first World War, Zadkine was gassed, and the physical effects of this experience probably never left him.

His work had drawn attention early, but it was only slowly that he made a place for himself, not achieving anything like great fame till late in life. The turning point in his career was, by his account, the retrospective of his work at the Musée d’Art Moderne in 1949, when, he notes, he became a “somebody.” I am surprised to see that he regarded the matter in that way. The cockiness he displayed that year had seemed to me a permanent attribute; it may have been a way of being “somebody.” (Would it have pleased him that his photograph appears on the jacket of the current supplement to the Grand Larousse Encyclopédique, A to Z?) Still, his very broaching of this subject reflects a typical forthrightness. He can say, for example, that the presence, at a given moment, of women students of a “certain age . . . masked for me the absence of admirers of my work.” But it is equally typical that his honesty should become too honest, as in an ungraceful passage in which he excoriates those of his friends who sent him congratulatory messages on his seventy-fifth birthday. General silence would probably have drawn similar remarks from him; he was a man toward whom it was not easy to know how to act.

In the second World War, Zadkine—“le demijuif,” as he calls himself late in this volume—had to flee to the United States, and his sojourn here is recounted in one of the longest sections of his autobiography. He had several exhibitions in this country, sold a few works, taught for some time at the Art Students League (which comes out “Art Student Leag”) and created over fifty sculptures, but states that he never worked properly or felt at home here. In fact one of his persistent themes is his need and love of Paris and of France and, beyond them, of “old Europe.” During the retrospective of Henry Moore at the Musée d’Art Moderne in 1949 he said to me, “Moore may look important in New York or London, but he doesn’t look so good when he comes to old Europe.”

(Zadkine’s rendering of non-French names and his historicity in general are often wildly capricious. Is Henry Moore the “Archie Moore” recorded in a list of sculptors on page 66? Is John Flanagan the New York sculptor “Callahan,” recorded on page 153 as having died in the early forties? I remember someone asking Zadkine, on the terrasse of the Sélect one noon, what he thought of Gaudier-Brzeska. Zadkine remarked impatiently that the Frenchman didn’t live long enough to accomplish anything. In Le Maillet et le ciseau, Gaudier’s name appears three times: as “Gaudier, Bresdzka,” page 66; as “Gaudier Bziderka,” page 80; and as “Gaudier Brseske,” page 215. We find too (Albert).“Barness,” “José de Kreft” and “David Haire.” Zadkine continues the myth that Duchamp-Villon was “killed” in the first World War. Writing of a London exhibition in which he participated, he says that it included Brancusi “who had just arrived from his native Rumania”; but Brancusi arrived in Paris five years before Zadkine. He has Modigliani beginning to carve stone in 1918, which is late by nine years, and at least three years after Modigliani stopped carving.)

The Americans I remember who studied with Zadkine during 1949–50 included George Spaventa, Shinkichi Tajiri, Levitan, Harold Tovish, Maria Pineda, Hugh Townley and Charles Semser; Richard Stankiewicz and George Sugarman arrived a little later. All of these were divided between the Colarossi studio at the Grande Chaumière and Zadkine’s private school on rue Notre Dame des Champs. Spaventa once did a rather Zadkine-inspired piece in order to see what Zadkine’s reaction would be; because of some leaves that fluttered over the head of one of the figures, he exclaimed, “Is something on fire?”—but he approved. Only once in a year of working from the model did I do a composition that had a Zadkinesque motif; coming upon my piece Zadkine turned to the class and said, “At last we see that this man has some intelligence.” He once chided me for having done a slavishly faithful figure study: “A sculpture of a woman is not a little woman,” he said, and he was right. A short time later he was critical of an “unnatural” rendering of a foot in another piece of mine. Rather needlessly I countered, “But you said that a sculpture is not a little woman.” “And yet it is,” he said, and he was right. Coming unexpectedly into the studio one afternoon with the class monitor, he examined a figure I was working on and which I had very much changed from the original study done from the model. “It pays to scold some people,” he said to the monitor—not to me.

His autobiography recalls with bitterness an episode of his early stay in England when he visited Epstein with a piece of his, to hear what the famous sculptor would say. After ten minutes of crushing silence before Epstein and “a large and fat female,” he fled with his work—and threw it into the Thames. But he could be cruel himself. In 1949 a young German from Cologne who had worked with Mataré came to the studio; Zadkine asked him to bring in some photographs of his work. When he finished looking at them he asked if anyone in the class spoke German. I offered to translate. “Tell him,” said Zadkine in English, “that it’s all very interesting, and if he wants to stay here, I’ll break his bones.” I said this would sound terrible. “Tell it to him exactly,” he said. I did. The young man blanched, picked up his photographs, left and never returned.

I was once present at a scene of another kind. Zadkine had proposed that the class do a relief of a still life, and to that end had assembled a group of objects on a table. A week later as he made his tour of the studio he came to a very beautiful piece and asked whose it was. “Mine,” said a young Icelander, negligently waving a hand, and swaying slightly on his feet. Zadkine’s glance took in what the rest of us already knew, that the chap was quite drunk and at ten in the morning. But he turned to the piece again and began pointing out its virtues, extolling its beauty. “What makes you think so?” came the insolent voice of the young sculptor. White silence. Unbelief. Zadkine turned red, seemed about to explode, but then continued where he had been interrupted, and went on to the next piece. Only respect for the young man’s work had kept this most excitable of men from losing his temper. The Icelander, we heard, had borne a grudge against Zadkine because of a particularly harsh critique that Zadkine had given him; after the episode of the relief he left Paris and returned home, revenged.

One after another of Zadkine’s male students fell out with him and left. (He was not unaware of his effect on them: he “divested” them, he says, of their clumsy past training in a manner that he claims was “brutal no doubt, but salutary.”) I stayed on longer than most, but tired of working from the model daily for almost a year, I began making some constructions of balsa wood and spring steel. I made these pieces in a corner of the Colarossi studio, and Zadkine reacted with bitterness to what he must have considered a defection, finding reason to make a fuss over the few chips of wood that fell about my feet. “Here comes the toy maker,” he would say as I entered the terrasse for coffee at noon. Later, seeing me in the street carrying some tools I had used to make a large wood piece in a rented studio, he said, “Look at the carpenter.” We came to dislike each other heartily. (When in his memoir he calls himself a “furniture carver” or “the termite O. Z.,” this self-deprecation is to be imagined against a chorus of shocked protest. These are terms he would not have tolerated if uttered by anyone else.)

At the end of the school year of 1950 Zadkine gave a party for his private students which took place on the same day as the opening of the second Salon de la Jeune Sculpture, out of doors at the Tuileries. So many guests, I was told, asked Zadkine what he thought of the contributions of Tajiri and myself that he burst out that he didn’t want to hear our names mentioned anymore.

Soon after, he must have learned that I was going to Mexico, for he sat down next to me at the Sélect one day and said, “You should not go to Mexico. Paris is the only place for you to be. If you intend to make a career of sculpture you must stay in Paris.” With this delivered coldly—to the street rather than to me—he got up and left. Just as coldly I thought to myself, I’ll do this my own way—and soon was embarked on one of the great mistakes of my life.

At one point I sent him some American tobacco which he liked, and on my first visit to Paris, six years after I left, I went to see him. We had those many small misunderstandings that arise between people who are not at ease with each other. He showed me the studies for his Van Gogh, done in a loose, emotional manner. I never called on him again though I was in Paris several times before his death in 1967. I was spared, it seems, the sight of his sad physical deterioration, which is documented inexorably by the illustrations in his autobiography.

Curiously, the bright critical mind that I knew in class discussions is hardly evident in the autobiography. Zadkine speaks here of his early struggles to “SEE”; he speaks of the “THING” escaping him. He seeks to find the “other thing” in his models, “the other personage who lies within every being.” A key attitude is expressed in the sentence, “A statue should not be a cold assembly of cold forms,” but there is the echo of familiar French studio talk as he continues: “it should exhale a ‘something’ which overpowers the spectator and permits him to glimpse an unsuspected pathway within his own soul.”

Typical of his thinking was the contention that a work of art should not go down smoothly, that it should contain something “indigeste”—a motif that re-appears in Le Maillet et le ciseau. The theme of Orpheus was his constant preoccupation, and he was himself a lyrical artist. Yet his art is pervaded by the same restlessness, the same disjunctures that marked his speech, thought, and every gesture. He could not tolerate repetition in sculpture (or a large unaccented passage). “It is enough to make a form once; to make it twice is dangerous; three times is impossible.” Or: “Why must we make two breasts, two eyes, two arms?”—and would eliminate this doubling of features. But constant change is a different kind of repetition, and especially in his later years Zadkine avoided the danger in one form only to succumb to it in another.

Zadkine’s early sculpture was carved, most often in stone, and worked in facets and shifting planes. A group of heads and busts or truncated figures marks this production, its high point being a Woman with a Fan in several versions, probably the most beautiful sculptures inspired by Cubism, their lyrical quality in clear contrast to the intellectuality of work by Lipchitz created with the same sculptural materials and at the same moment.

With The Prophet of 1914 Zadkine initiates a series of carvings executed in long masses of wood. These works are not Cubistic, but have an organic, twisting character that calls to mind a growing tree trunk. The Prophet, he claims, rid him of his “rigid and angular little Cubist world.” But the Woman with a Fan and many other Cubist-influenced works appeared in the years following The Prophet, and indeed Zadkine’s stylistic vacillations may be read as flight from and return to that very “scholastic rigidity of Cubism” to which he had allied himself in his early years in Paris.

Later he would design elaborately in wood and carve in a virtuoso fashion, creating notably the masterly ten-foot-tall Orpheus in the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. Indeed Zadkine’s singing spirit is reflected in a number of works of musical inspiration: a relief showing musical motifs, The Composer, numerous figures and groups singing or playing instruments. He takes on ambitious themes: Homage to Bach, projects for monuments to Apollinaire, Jarry, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Rodin. He does several versions of The Sculptor, one a polychrome machine carved in a mass of wood six and a half feet high, more than four feet wide and three feet deep; a Homo Sapiens is carved in a similar immense block. He does a Demeter, a Niobe, a crucified Christ, a Pietà. If his titles often reflect classical interests, he is not oblivious to the contemporary world: he makes The Prisoner in 1943, a tribute to the captives of the second World War; a Warrior composed of his gear and weapons; The Destroyed City, erected in 1953, a twenty-foot monument to the ordeal of Rotterdam, the sculpture itself frighteningly exploded. In the late fifties he is passionately involved in a project for a monument to Van Gogh. A recurrent image in spite of his changing preoccupations is that of a woman’s figure or torso, of which the stones of 1924 (coll. Wiegersma, Holland) and 1928 (Musée d’Anvers), and the wood, 1939 (coll. Hoppenot, Paris) are striking examples.

Zadkine’s thematic variations are accompanied by a stream of formal explorations: applied color, the evident chisel mark, the naturally convex form rendered by a convexity, anatomical dislocation, combination of materials, aerating of the sculptural mass. If his obvious application, in certain works, of the clay pellet results in a decorative texturizing, his startling use of drawing or engraving to render solid forms creates passages of unexpected beauty. Frankly “literary,” he inscribes the words of a poem by Paul Eluard on the body of The Poet.

Zadkine’s is a flashing, improvisatory talent, but the price of his invention is high. His noble inspirations are crowded by the less worthy ones; the work as a whole creates the impression of constant disruption, of a spiritual nervousness that accords ill with the ultimate stillness of the sculptural medium. Zadkine, to be sure, is never bland or neutral: he falls with a crash or soars to the highest poetry. He is hardly known here since there has been no real show of his work in New York in twenty-five years. Considered a master in Europe, he should be accorded a comprehensive exhibition on these shores; it is time we knew whether he belongs to all of us or to old Europe alone. He wouldn’t mind, I imagine, if the latter proved to be the case. Such a show would give me, at any rate, a chance to reassess, after all this time, my relation to this man who taught me and troubled me for a year and a half.

Sidney Geist


1. Le Maillet et le ciseau: Souvenirs de ma vie. Paris, Albin Michel, 1968.