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White Gray Black

Henri Laurens (French, 1885–1954)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French sculptor, collagist, printmaker and illustrator. He came from a family of coopers and c. 1899 joined the studio of a sculptor of building ornaments, practising direct carving on building sites and studying academic drawings in the evenings. In 1902 he settled in the Montmartre district of Paris, where in 1905 he met Marthe Duverger, whom he later married. His portrait of Marthe and other early works, most of which were later destroyed or lost, followed the example of Auguste Rodin. In spite of working in difficult and isolated conditions from 1905 to 1911, he managed to free himself from the influence of Rodin and other contemporary artists and began to study French Romanesque and Gothic sculpture, both from reproductions and by travelling around the Ile-de-France. After one of his legs was amputated in 1909, he lived briefly in the artists’ studio complex La Ruche in Montparnasse; on his return to Montmartre in 1911 he formed a close friendship with Georges Braque, who lived near him and whose wife Marcelle had been a childhood friend of Marthe Laurens, just as Braque was originating Cubism with Pablo Picasso.

Laurens gradually adapted the tenets of Analytical Cubism to his own ends, culminating in 1914 and 1915 in the first of a series entitled Constructions, in wood or polychromed plaster. The earliest sculptures in this series, which he pursued only until the end of World War I, consist of juxtaposed spheres, cones and cylinders, as in Clown (1915; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.). Like Picasso’s assemblages of 1913 and 1914, they are essentially frontal, created by progressively more complex intersections of thin planes of wood or later of metal. Their typically Cubist subject-matter includes dissected human figures (e.g. Figure (Woman), polychromed wood and sheet metal, h. 750 mm, 1917; Paris, Gal. Louise Leiris; see 1985 exh. cat., p. 51), transparent vessels (e.g. Bottle and Glass, 1917; Paris, Pompidou) and hollowed-out objects (e.g. Guitar, 1917–18; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig). Laurens stressed that the ‘empty’ spaces in his sculptures had to be as important as the ‘full’ ones. Consequently the internal volumes of his constructions are proportionally even more assertive than the contours or external casings that define them. He also defined shaded areas precisely by colouring the surfaces, which he saw as a way of giving the sculpture its own light. Such works were included in one-man shows mounted by the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, to whom he had been introduced by Picasso in 1915.

Concurrent with the Constructions, Laurens produced a series of papiers collés also influenced by Braque and Picasso. In them he translated the same subjects into two dimensions in a similarly pared-down fashion, using ordinary materials as exact equivalents to those employed in the sculptures: beige cardboard or wrapping paper imitates wood, black or very dark paper takes the place of sheet metal, and highlights in gouache recall the polychromy of the sculptures . The elements of works such as Musical Instrument (1916; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) are meticulously arranged to give a precisely calculated effect. In 1917 he made two etchings for Spirales (Paris, 1917) by Paul Dermée. These were followed by Young Girl (1919; see Brusberg, ed., no. 2) and other etchings, which remained his preferred medium for prints. From 1919 Laurens pursued his exploration of cut-out and superimposed planes in bas-reliefs, first in uncoloured or polychromed terracotta and later in bronze. Creating successions of planes in barely perceptible relief, Laurens found that the ductility and homogeneous density of clay allowed him to realize even subtler and more unified works devoted to the same range of subject-matter as before. Compotier with Grapes (terracotta, 1922; Paris, Pompidou) exemplifies well his stylized representational language and his method of controlling effects of light by varying the levels of the surface.

Laurens returned to sculpture in the round in 1919, usually using the method of direct carving in stone but occasionally also by casting in bronze, as in Reclining Nude with Fan (1919; Paris, Pompidou). All that is implied by the constructions and open sculptures is concentrated here into a single dense core, a unified rhythm, broken but not divided by Cubist angles and planes. After the war, Laurens rejoined his painter friends at the Galerie Simon, which was reopened by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler on his return from exile in Switzerland. Until the mid-1920s Laurens continued to work in a Cubist manner, gradually toning it down. He abandoned the strict geometry of his still-lifes and devoted himself almost exclusively to the female figure, as in Crouching Figure (Seated Woman) (stone, h. 920 mm, 1930; Paris, Pompidou).

Laurens did not renew his contract with Kahnweiler. Instead he worked directly for several years with major collectors such as Jacques Doucet and Charles de Noailles, for the French stage designer Jean-Michel Franck and on designs for Serge Diaghilev; in 1924, for example, he designed the set for Darius Milhaud’s ballet Le Train bleu, for which Coco Chanel designed the costumes. From 1921 Laurens lived and worked for part of the year in the countryside near Marly. His wife later recalled that he took daily walks in the forest for inspiration, representing the limbs of his figures knotted like branches and giving the surfaces the texture of bark. The impressive Oceanid (bronze, h. 2.15 m, 1933; Paris, Pompidou) combines a rough rock-like torso with limbs outstretched like seaweed. In another sculpture, Water Sprites (bronze, h. 800 mm, 1933; Paris, Pompidou), he returned to one of his favourite subjects, that of the reclining nude supported on one arm, repeated here to give the effect of two successive waves and also calling to mind the nymphs or naiads sculpted on the edges of Baroque fountains. Laurens readily admitted that he was now more inclined to abandon himself to subconscious inspiration, starting a sculpture with only a vague idea of his intended imagery and giving the work its title on completion. Like the series of Bathers painted by Picasso at Dinard in 1928–9 or certain sculptures by Hans Arp, Laurens’s figures obey only an organic rhythm, which swells or lifts them, hollows or magnifies them in a joyful impulse, as in Flag (1939) or Metamorphosis (1940; both Paris, Pompidou).

During the Occupation of France by Germany in World War II Laurens lived a quiet life, modelling massive crouching figures folded in upon themselves; the most accomplished of these is Farewell (gilded bronze, h. 730 mm, 1941; Paris, Pompidou), with its rounded volumes symbolizing spiritual plenitude and the organic ‘ripening’ of forms to which he aspired. Just after the war he designed large illustrated books published by Tériade, including Les Idylles by Theocritus (Paris, 1945) and Lucian of Samosata’s Loukios ou l’âne (Paris, 1947), which included 38 and 68 colour woodcuts respectively. About 1950 he also produced five colour lithographs on the theme of reclining or crouching women (see Brusberg, ed., nos 27–31). Together with Henri Matisse he took part in the Venice Biennale in 1950; Matisse, who won the prize for painting, was indignant that Laurens had not received an equivalent award for his sculpture and consequently shared his prize money with him.

Isabelle Monod-Fontaine
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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