Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967)
Ossip Zadkine was born in 1890 in Vitebsk in the Russian Empire (now Belarus), but unlike Chagall he grew up in a family far removed from religious practice; his father Éphime was a Latin and Greek teacher of Jewish descent who converted to orthodox religion in order to marry Sophie Lester, a descendant from a Scottish family that had migrated in the 17th century to build boats in Russia.
Very early on, the young Ossip felt the need 'to constantly draw everything', and at the age of twelve he started to model a block of clay found in the garden: thus was born his vocation for sculpture. In 1905 his parents decided to send him to England to stay with an uncle who introduced him to sculpture in wood and signed him up at the local art school. But the following year the teenager ran off to London and started a course at the Regent Street Polytechnic while at the same time visiting the British Museum. Because his father had cut off his allowance, he worked carving ornaments for a furniture-maker: it was an apprenticeship that would encourage him to make his first carved sculpture in 1908 during a summer in Russia. His father then decided to send him to Paris, where he arrived at the end of 1910, for it was 'there that one became a sculptor'. Although he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts straight away, he left very quickly...! For he discovered that Egyptian sculpture at the Louvre, or a simple head from Roman times, revealed all the vital force exuded by so-called 'primitive' art, through the 'simplification or accentuation' of forms.
From then on, Zadkine abandoned 'the uniform of the academies' and wanted 'to put himself at the service of wood' or stone; carving that he practised from 1911 in his studio at La Ruche. He settled in Rue de Vaurigard in 1912, not far from Vavin, where he met Apollinaire and Picasso at Montmartre, and made friends with Modigliani – his brother in misfortune – who inspired the sensual curves and face-masks of pieces such as La Sainte Famille (The Holy Family); this was part of the lot acquired by Paul Rodocanachi at the Salon d'Automne of 1913 that allowed the sculptor to move to a nicer studio in Rue Rousselet.
During the war, Zadkine responded to the appeal launched by Blaise Cendrars for the mobilisation of 'foreign friends of France': he signed up as a volunteer in January 1916 and joined a platoon of stretcher-bearers before joining the Russian ambulance service in Champagne. But he was gassed, which meant he was hospitalised and then discharged on health grounds in October 1917. Whilst he brought back a batch of works on paper - the evocative power of which encouraged him to create an album of etchings out of them - Zadkine came back to civilian life devastated physically as much as morally. He did manage to exhibit drawings and sculptures in Toulouse a year later, however, including Les Vendanges ('The Wine Harvest'); wood denoting a strong relationship - in principle, form and spirit - with the work of Gauguin, following the example of Vénus caryatide which is still connected at its base to the trunk of an almost untouched tree. Elsewhere he seemed to get inspiration from the archaism of the Cycladic idols – seen at the British Museum – such as in Maternité, which combines untreated and polished marble, handling planes and curves to embody 'artistic tenderness' (Maurice Raynal).
After his marriage in 1920 to a young painter, Valentine Prax, Zadkine obtained French citizenship in 1921 and the following year saw two of his works go to the Musée de Grenoble. He continued his research, and took his sculpture of the 1920s in a distinctly Cubist direction under the influence of the paintings of Braque and Picasso: returning to modelling, he broke down the forms into quasi-geometrical planes with sharp edges, and introduced a rhythmical game between convex and concave elements, which would remain one of the characteristics of his work. Representative of this style are La Femme à l'éventail ('Woman with Fan'), La Belle Servante ('The Beautiful Servant') and L'Accordéoniste ('The Accordian Player') – musical instruments often figuring in the artist's work.
In 1928 Zadkine and his wife settled in a house at 100 bis Rue d'Assas and bought another house – large and rundown but with a barn – in 1934 in Arques, a small village in the Lot where the artist would create a number of works, happy on this 'land' that he made his own. His work evolved, whether technically – beyond carving, he made models in clay or plaster to be poured in bronze – or thematically and stylistically. Zadkine found his inspiration at this time in ancient Greece (a trip in 1931), in a return 'to clear sources of religious and aesthetic philosophies', seizing on mythological subjects (Les Ménades, Orphée marchant, Naissance de Vénus) that he then freed from the compact block of the material to make use of the empty spaces and give a harmonious, flowing rhythm to the figures.
In 1925, a big exhibition at the Barbazanges Gallery earned him critical recognition: 'This Slav who revives myths is a poet who releases emotion of a mystical and religious order,' proclaimed Waldemar-George. From that time on, individual exhibitions followed on from each other across Europe and America, but the Nazi threat forced him to exile himself in June 1941 to the United States, where his 'heart wasn't in sculpture': far from Valentine, who sent him bad news, Zadkine devoted himself especially to gouache and to teaching, yet still producing works that referred to the war – La Prisonnière (1943), a symbolic image of occupied France, then Phoenix (1944), image of the rebirth promised by the turnaround in events. In this way, a style asserted itself - no longer compact, but rich and expressionist - that he would continue to develop.
September 1945 finally saw his return to French soil. Deeply affected by the extent of destruction due to the conflict, at first Zadkine devoted himself to conveying this tragedy: of note, he created La Ville détruite ('The Destroyed City') for the municipality of Rotterdam, a monument that was inaugurated in 1953 as the supreme symbol of human pain - through the heightened expression of a body pierced at its heart, to the head compressed by suffering - which nevertheless does not give up the struggle, as indicated by the upright position and the power of the arms raised to the sky. Again, he showed this will to rebuild on the chaos in La Forêt humaine (The Human Forest) which he would take to a monumental scale to display it permanently in front of the headquarters of the Van Leer Foundation in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1960s. It is a group of three figures that he assimilates into the forest, an example of perpetual regeneration: a lyrical theme, which would remain in his work, of the fusion of the human body and plant material.
Around 1965, still in a 'state of quest', Zadkine started thinking about 'sculpture for architecture' intended to involve urban space, abandoning the human figure to tackle abstraction in the form of interlacing networks: at the end of his life he thus opened promising new avenues for the future.
Two French galleries are devoted to Kadkine's work today, established at the very place where he lived and worked in Paris and in the village of Arques.
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Art works from Ossip Zadkine
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