Jacques Lipchitz: Sculptures & Biography

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

How does an artist explore things like shape and form? What ideas serve as influences? In this lesson, explore the life and work of sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.

From Engineering to Art

Jewish-Lithuanian artist Jacques Lipchitz (1891 - 1973) was born into a wealthy family in Russian-controlled Lithuania. To please his parents, Lipchitz studied engineering as a young man. But around 1909, he decided to pursue art instead and moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

Lipchitz had arrived in Paris at a very exciting time for a young artist. The city stood at the forefront of modern art. It was a mecca for painters, sculptors and artists of all kinds and alive with new ideas about art. Lipchitz met and interacted with many artists. He became especially influenced with work by Pablo Picasso, who had pioneered a style of art called Cubism. Cubism was an art movement in which images were fractured and broken into simultaneous fragmented shards of perspective. It was strongly geometric and not based on traditional representational art like portraits or landscapes.

At the beginning of his career, Lipchitz created figural sculptures, but by around 1913 he'd shifted direction toward Cubism. At the time, most Cubist artists were painters, but Lipchitz had met Russian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, who was experimenting with Cubist sculpture.

Likewise, Lipchitz began using the language of Cubism, translating it into three dimensions. Some of Lipchitz's early shallow relief carvings even resembled Cubist paintings. A relief is a sculpture where figures are raised from a surface but still attached to it.

Relief sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz
Relief by Lipchitz

By the mid-1910s, Lipchitz was creating his sculptures from solid blocks of materials like stone. Many works, like a sculpture from around 1916, were very architectural and abstract. In abstraction, the artist was not trying to accurately portray things in the real world. In one plaster cast of a work that had been carved in stone, the subject was a seated woman. But her form was reduced to angular planes and smooth geometric surfaces.

Cubist sculpture by Jacque Lipchitz, 1916
Lipchitz sculpture

Lipchitz and Transparents

By the 1920s, Lipchitz's career was taking off. He exhibited regularly and received commissions for work in Europe and the United States. His style had also begun to change again. After 1925, he moved away from Cubism, although he still used elements like geometric forms and planes in his work.

Instead, Lipchitz shifted to an exploration of form and space. In sculptures he called transparents, he purposely created forms with holes right through them, incorporating negative space into his designs. These works were not completely abstract, and they often referenced familiar forms and shapes. But they weren't straightforward figures of recognizable people. Instead, they symbolized emotions and ideas. To make his transparents, Lipchitz often started with small models made of clay or constructed small models of wax and cardboard. He then used the models to create large sculptures that were cast into bronze. He also drew and painted preliminary studies of these works.

A good example of work from this period is The Couple, sometimes also called The Cry. It dates from around 1929. In it, two people are entwined in an embrace. We can make out two forms, and there's a lot of negative space below them, allowing viewers to look through to the other side.

The Couple or The Cry
The Couple

Yes, it's rather abstract, but we know that it portrays people, and it involves an element of emotion. During the time he was creating his transparents, Lipchitz was also beginning to explore deeper emotions, as well as themes from the Bible and from ancient mythology.

Later Years: Remaking Life and Art

In 1937, Lipchitz was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exposition for a large sculpture titled Prometheus. He was a famous and successful artist. But Europe was in turmoil. In 1940, the growing threat of Nazism meant people of Jewish heritage like Lipchitz were in danger, and he was forced to flee to the United States. He settled in New York and resumed his career.

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