“Nothing grows under big trees,” Constantin Brancusi said when he fled his job as Rodin’s assistant in 1907. Was it freedom from being French — from Rodin’s suffocating influence — that liberated eastern European artists to take the lead in Modernist sculpture?
Converging on Paris in the early 20th century were Brancusi from Romania, Chaim (renamed Jacques) Lipchitz from Lithuania, Ossip Zadkine from Belarus and Alexander Archipenko from Ukraine. All pioneered abstracting approaches with audacity and elegance: clean, sweeping lines, playful forms and reduction to geometric structure. Rejecting Rodin’s tragic sensibility, they made optimistic sculptures for a brave new world.
Archipenko, the least known and most maverick, is the subject of a lovely, lively, unexpected show at London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. Tearing sculpture down from the plinth to hang it on the wall, jumbling materials, setting illusion against artifice, adding shrill colour to monochrome Cubist experiment, Archipenko was bizarre even within the Parisian avant garde. He resisted definition, yet had an impact on the history of sculpture for half a century.
The immediate impression at the Estorick is of everything flickering into action, and in kaleidoscope brightness. Panels in painted papier-mâché and wood contradict their own flatness by leaping out into real space in the marvellous, multicoloured “Standing Woman and Still-life”: a rare example of Archipenko’s early mixed-media “sculpto-paintings”. Feathery red chalk triangles in “Figure in Movement” and pasted paper shapes in the collage known as “Movement” (title unknown) pirouette in graphic dancing compositions. “Architectural Figure” spirals upwards, a yellow-and-pink striped wooden tower surmounting a tall arch.
The human form, Archipenko’s starting point, is simplified beyond recognition, yet sense of time and place is often pronounced. This can be seen in two works from 1917. The cloaked bronze “Walking Soldier” is a flowing oval dash, a vision of wartime transience yet resilience. “Seated Figure” is an undulating pattern of wooden curves and hollows in blues and turquoise, fluid and eternal as water — Archipenko made it facing the sea in Nice.
Bursting out from a corner structure, conical, tapering and circular polychrome shapes reassemble themselves into the sculpto-painting “Figure”. Also from 1917, it is a secular version of the Orthodox icon in traditional homes. Archipenko’s grandfather was an icon painter. His father was an engineer in burgeoning industrial Kyiv when Archipenko was born there in 1887.
Meanwhile, Archipenko’s early kinetic “Medrano” circus figures, innovatively nailed together from metal and wood and featuring moving parts, are whimsically Constructivist. Too fragile to travel, they are represented by a watercolour: mannequin heads, tubular limbs, oddly jointed mechanised bodies.
Reaching Paris in 1908, Archipenko was confidently adapting Cubist experiment to sculpture by 1911. The show’s earliest piece, “Madonna of the Rocks”, is a monumental figure built from interlocking sharp ridges and bulbous contours, with huge twisting legs. The infant Christ is a streamlined rectangular form slung across the torso; the figures are perched on a block — a cube, or a boulder. It is stylised yet archaic, carrying memories of the anthropomorphic Scythian stone statues found across the steppe, part of the visual vocabulary brought to Paris by eastern European sculptors. Archipenko dovetailed “two combined sources of prestige”, wrote the poet and art critic Roger Allard at the time, “a modern culture and a barbarous taste”.
The “Madonna” in London is a bronze, but Archipenko painted the original plaster bright red, showed it to the futurist Umberto Boccioni in 1912, then sold it to the “tubist” painter Fernand Léger. Boccioni answered, in 1913, with his striding aerodynamic machine-man “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space”.
Archipenko came back in 1914 with “Boxers”, his most famous piece. Two strongly abstracted fighters create a dynamic arc around a central void, animating the surrounding space — energetic, rhythmic, brutal, formal. Light and shadow shift across the polished surface, changing with the viewer’s own movements.
What Archipenko called “the materiality of the non-existent” — that the void is as important as solid matter — had fascinated him since childhood, when he watched his parents place two candlesticks on a shelf, and saw a third shape appear: the gap between them. After the breakthrough of “Boxers”, how to integrate emptiness into sculpture became an interest that he explored most inventively in the next decade.
“Seated Woman”, inscribed “Concave L’espace”, and “Woman Standing” (1916-20), are bronze figural outlines, arabesques of convex and concave shapes encircling open space — totemic, frontal, emphatic, yet evoking the intangible. These compressed geometric silhouettes herald Giacometti who, on encountering Archipenko at the Venice Biennale in 1920, relocated to Paris. In 1925, after Archipenko had moved to New York, Giacometti rented his former studio.
Giacometti is not in this show, but the Estorick, the UK’s home of Italian art, does explore Archipenko’s relationship with Italian futurist and metaphysical painters, many who were his friends in Paris. These conversations between painting, drawing and sculpture are a joy.
Carlo Carrà’s “Boxer”, a battle of darting lines, curvilinear planes and blank paper, dates from the same year as Archipenko’s pugilists. Boccioni’s fiercely thrusting “Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head” (1912) is echoed in Archipenko’s weathered bronze “Head” (1913), a series of overlapping angular planes, pushing forward, an unstoppable force. Mario Sironi’s mournful delicate wartime puppet “Metaphysical Figure” is in dialogue with Archipenko’s “Medrano” marionettes.
A willowy linear nude by Modigliani is juxtaposed with Archipenko’s embracing couple, bodies formed from a sequence of smooth, curved sections that dramatises different simplifying approaches. Modigliani, Archipenko’s neighbour in the rundown Montparnasse artists’ colony La Ruche, was also a sculptor. Both were dirt-poor; Archipenko, singing in a “deep and warm” baritone, accompanied by Léger on the violin, sometimes survived by busking.
The Italian connection, vital to Archipenko, netted his first collector: futurist supporter Alberto Magnelli acquired “Boxers”. French audiences were hostile; in 1914 Cubism’s apologist Guillaume Apollinaire was fired as art critic of L’Intransigeant for praising Archipenko. After the war Archipenko began to sell in Berlin — his home from 1921-23 — and eastern Europe; Belgrade has the luminous, rippling sculpto-painting “Two Women”.
The fragility of such early pieces makes a comprehensive Archipenko exhibitions difficult. His works have also been buffeted by history, scattered and destroyed: the leading German collection went to Tel Aviv in 1933, communist officials confiscated “ideologically harmful” works in Lviv in 1952. As an émigré in America, distant from his past, Archipenko recast earlier European pieces, but his style was by then more conservative, smoother, as in the aluminium “Torso in Space” (1935), sleek as a deco spaceship.
This show, though delightful, is small, and reliant on later editions. It whets the appetite for a larger survey, and in beautifully orchestrating east-west cross-currents it celebrates how innovation thrives on open borders and free cultural exchange. That Archipenko preserved something of Kyiv in Paris’s modernist melting-pot feels especially precious now.
To September 4, estorickcollection.com
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