French sculptor of Russian birth active in the USA. Lipchitz grew up in Druskieniki. His father, a Jewish building contractor, opposed his son’s desire to become a sculptor, but his mother was sympathetic and arranged for him to go to Paris in 1909. He arrived with no formal academic training and studied briefly at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts before transferring to the Académie Julian. Mornings were spent drawing and modelling from life; during the rest of the day he visited museums. Lipchitz’s early nudes and portraits of 1910–12 have much in common with the classicism of Maillol and Charles Despiau, although he himself suggested that they had a common source in Greek and medieval art. On a visit to St Petersburg in 1911, he became particularly interested in the Scythian sculpture collection in the Hermitage. Lipchitz remained fascinated with the sculpture of the great non-European traditions throughout his life, and was an ardent collector of non-Western (especially African) art.
On his return to Paris in 1912, Lipchitz moved into a studio next to Constantin Brancusi in Montparnasse. During these early years in Paris he met many of the most prominent artists and poets of the day: Chaïm Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani, Alexander Archipenko and Max Jacob. In 1913, through his friend Diego Rivera, he met Picasso; the encounter had far-reaching implications in the development of Lipchitz’s work. He intuitively understood the sculptural possibilities of Picasso’s Cubist paintings and soon abandoned the naturalist, Art Nouveau style of his previous work in favour of a more simplified, geometric style. Mother and Child (bronze, 1913–14: priv. col., see Lipchitz and Arnason, 1972, p. 22) is representative of Lipchitz’s proto-Cubist works. It reflects his assimilation of bold, simplified Cubist forms, as well as a confluence of other influences: Egyptian and African sculpture and the work of Brancusi and Modigliani.
Lipchitz’s first purely Cubist sculptures were executed in 1915–16; they represent the most abstract phase of his development. Head (bronze, 1915; London, Tate) is composed of abstract, interlocking planes and curved edges but retains such features as the nose, which make the subject legible. This sculpture was almost certainly inspired by such works by Picasso as Head of a Woman (bronze; New York, MOMA). Also in 1915 Lipchitz made several sculptures in wood and began a number of totemic sculptures that had only the most obscure references to the human figure. He later compared the stone Standing Personage (1916; New York, Guggenheim) to a cluster of skyscraper towers, and indeed the work seems closer to architecture than to the human figure. Lipchitz appears to have borrowed freely from various phases of Picasso’s Cubism, in this case, from such paintings as Man Leaning on a Table (1916). Lipchitz’s Cubist sculptures were made in clay or plaster. Some were transferred into stone in Paris under his supervision; but most of the works were not cast in bronze until the 1960s, when the sculptor was living in the USA.
In 1916 Lipchitz met Juan Gris, and they soon became close friends. He also signed a contract with the dealer Léonce Rosenberg (who also represented Picasso, Braque, Gris and Rivera), producing for him a series of stone figures (e.g. Sculpture, 1915–16; London, Tate), which the dealer exhibited at his gallery in Paris in 1920. Lipchitz was concerned that some of his sculpture was too abstract, that he had almost lost the sense of the subject, of its humanity. In 1917–18 he abandoned the austere purity that had characterized much of his recent work and created clearly legible Cubist subjects: bathers, musicians, harlequins and still-lifes. In Seated Man with Guitar (bronze, 1918; Dallas, Mr and Mrs A. H. Meadows priv. col., see Hammacher, 1975, pl. 77) the guitar and simplified anatomical forms are clearly defined. The sculpture also reflects Lipchitz’s renewed interest in frontality, an aspect of Egyptian and archaic sculpture that he greatly admired.
By the 1920s Lipchitz’s work was becoming more widely known and admired. In 1922 the American collector Dr Albert C. Barnes acquired a number of sculptures from the artist and commissioned relief sculptures for the Barnes Foundation at Merion Station, PA.
In 1925 Lipchitz began experimenting with a radical approach to three-dimensional form. In his small ‘transparents’, as he called them, he found himself ‘playing with space, with a kind of open, lyrical construction that was a revelation to me’ (Lipchitz and Arnason, 1972, p. 86). These skeletal figures, bronzes cast from constructions in wax and cardboard, represented a hitherto unexplored juxtaposition of solids and voids; their fragile forms presented new technical problems in terms of casting. Lipchitz described Acrobat on a Ball (bronze, 1926; priv. col., see 1954 exh. cat., p. 43), composed of thin, twisting, interlocking forms, as a kind of drawing in space. Lipchitz’s ‘transparents’ were among the most innovative works of his career, and they influenced Picasso and Julio González’s metal constructions of 1928.
Until the mid-1920s almost all Lipchitz’s sculptures were modest in scale (between 500 mm and 1000 mm high). The large Figure (bronze, 1926–30; New York, MOMA) was among the first of many commissioned monumental sculptures. During the late 1920s and 1930s Lipchitz created a number of highly personal works relating at times to events in his own life. The theme of Joy of Life (bronze, priv. col., see Hammacher, 1975, pl. 38), commissioned in 1927, was chosen to cheer up his sister, who was ill in hospital. Much of Lipchitz’s work from the late 1920s until his death combines the formal language of Cubism with the open, lyrical quality of his transparents. Mythological, biblical and sexual themes came to dominate his work: for instance in The Cry (The Couple) (bronze, 1928–9; Otterlo, Rijksmus. Kröller-Müller) and the Return of the Prodigal Son (bronze, 1930; priv. col., see Lipchitz and Arnason, 1972, p. 121). Prometheus Strangling the Vulture (plaster; 1936–7; destr.) was conceived as an attack on Nazism by Lipchitz, with Prometheus symbolizing democracy. It was commissioned by the (Socialist) French Government for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in 1937 in Paris, but was destroyed afterwards following a virulent press campaign against it. A preliminary plaster model and a study (ink and gouache on paper) are in the Tate Gallery, London.
Upon the German invasion of France (1940), Lipchitz and his wife fled to Toulouse; the following year they emigrated to New York. His sculpture became more directly autobiographical, in such works as Flight (bronze, 1940; priv. col., see 1954 exh. cat., p. 65) and Arrival (bronze, 1941; see 1973 exh. cat., p. 19). In Mother and Child (bronze, 1941–5; Toronto, A.G. Ont.) Lipchitz’s horror of war is expressed in the anguished despair of the mother, whose stump-like arms and truncated body create a poignant image of mutilation.
Lipchitz exhibited at Curt Valentin’s influential Buchholz Galleries, New York, in 1942 and returned to Paris in 1946. In 1947 he was commissioned to carve a Madonna for the church of Notre-Dame-de-Liesse (in situ) in Assy, near Chamonix, a project not completed until 1955. On his return to the USA in 1947 he moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. During the early 1950s he received other important commissions: Birth of the Muses (bas-relief; Rockefeller priv. col., see 1973 exh. cat.) for Mrs John D. Rockefeller and the Spirit of Enterprise (bronze) for Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. In 1955 Lipchitz began experimenting with ‘semi-automatics’, in which he would splash or squeeze warm wax in a basin of water and let it harden. The haphazard method suggested many different images that could be developed. In 1958 Lipchitz worked with the architect Philip Johnson on the gateway for the Roofless Church, New Harmony, IN.
During the 1960s and early 1970s there were major exhibitions of Lipchitz’s work in the USA, Europe and Israel. Many of his large bronzes were cast at the Tommasi foundry at Pietrasanta, Italy, where Lipchitz worked during the summers. Peace on Earth (bronze, 1967–9; Los Angeles, CA, Music Cent.) was one of his last monumental projects. It is an enlargement of the Virgin at Assy, and its open, transparent structure and powerful baroque rhythms make it a summation and resolution of the varied stylistic currents that informed his work for more than half a century. Lipchitz had become acutely conscious of the Jewish cause during the 1940s. Our Tree of Life (bronze), commissioned by the Hadassah University Hospital of Jerusalem in 1967, was intended as a Jewish counterpart of the Virgin Mary at Assy and included a series of subjects showing the growth of Judaism. The final version (made from Lipchitz’s last maquette) was installed on Mount Scopus in 1978. Lipchitz regarded Israel as his spiritual home, and was buried there.
Alan G. Wilkinson
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press