Zadkine. In search of the hidden light

Ossip Zadkine is a artist french of Russian origin, established in France in 1910. He is best known for his sculptures which essentially represent very stylized heads, silhouettes, torsos and animals. Those that interest us more particularly here are those covered with gold, of course...


Ossip Zadkine's journey

Ossip Zadkine (born in 1890 in Vitebsk, died in 1967 in Paris) seems to respond very young to an imperious vocation as a sculptor.

He studied at Regent Street Polytechnicum in London, then in Paris in 1909, where he studied Fine Arts. However, his admiration for Rodin seems incompatible with academic education and leaves the school. Exploring the technique of taille directe on stone or on wood that responds to the impulsiveness of his creative impulse, he gradually forms his style.

Installed at La Ruche (Montparnasse),there he met the entire Parisian avant-garde.

Mobilized during the First World War, he declared himself physically and morally destroyed by the war. In 1920 he married Valentine Prax (1897-1981), and in 1928, they moved to 100 bis rue d'Assas in Paris, in a house that would become the current musée Zadkine. In 1934, during their first trip to the Lot, Zadkine and his wife bought a house in Arques, a small village of Quercy, which will become the place of creations of many sculptures.

Of Jewish origin, Zadkine stayed in the United States during the Second World War. He taught from 1944, and gave classes at the Arts Students League. He returned to France in September 1945, "sick, sad and penniless". On his return to France, he continued to give lessons and to be the subject of major exhibitions.


His sculpted work

On his arrival in Paris, he discovers the cubism, which he will synthesize with classical Greek statuary (studied in British Museum), but also the romane, sculpture, the gothic one, cycladique and the african arts who fascinate him :"It's instinct that comes first; it's the most important; everything else comes later; so we arm ourselves with a logic that penetrates every gesture."

Ossip Zadkine seeks the form hidden in matter. Thus, the wood keeps its knots, the long lines of the fiber, but also keeps the trace of the tool. He is a supporter of great sobriety, and by confronting the classic rigor of the lines with the impulsiveness of the emotion, he manages to mix avant-garde and primitivism.

Zadkine goes back to the living sources of archaism. The only need for him is to "put himself at the service of wood" or stone without putting on the "academic uniform". Women, birds, mythological characters, self-portraits come together in a pantheon of recurring figures.

"The sculptors of my generation [...] and myself can be considered as the continuators of the ancient tradition of those stone and wood carvers who, leaving the forest, freely sang their dreams of fantastic birds and great tree trunks. » (Civiltà delle macchine, Rome, n°1, 1963).

For Zadkine, wood, like stone, has within them the framework of an original form that the work of the sculptor will consist in revealing. By bringing the principle of direct carving, an ancestral technique, into modernity, the artist extends a reflection on the expression of materials. It exalts the movement of wood, the intrinsic lightness of stone. Ossip Zadkine celebrates the vital link that connects man to nature (he has a strong connection with the forests and wood: his childhood forests in Russia and his "inner forest"), an intimate and instinctive dialogue, a mirror of his approach to matter.


And the gold in all this?

Among the "golden" sculptures, some are in wood, some in plaster and others in patinated bronze. Often the wood is left raw, or polished/lacquered, the stone on the other hand is sometimes painted (perhaps gold should be seen as a color?), and the bronze sometimes patinated in gold. But the gesture of the artist and the material remain visible, reminding us that the material is the place of the living, the wild... but also of the sacred. Let's not forget Zadkine's ancestral influences (ancient, medieval, Egyptian) where sacred symbols, sculpture and gold have always been intimately intertwined.

So, it is not surprising that some of his sculptures were covered with gold leaf (L'oiseau d'or, Tête d'homme, Bouddha, le Chevreuil, La Jeune fille à la colombe, Le Fauve).

Some are now worn, and we can now see the mark of the gold leaves, as well as the red of the Bowl of Armenia (thus a priori a real dorure à la détrempe). If this brings a certain charm to these sculptures, you have to imagine them originally, as shiny as those in patinated bronzes! Le Chevreuil or L'oiseau d'or had to be as sparkling as Formes et Lumières, Intimité, the bust of Carol Janeway, L'oiseau, La jeune fille à la main repliée ou l'épée de l'académicien René Huygue.

If it adds an artisanal dimension (I don't know if it was Zadkine himself who did the gilding? and why didn't he do more? - question of means I presume), it is interesting to see that subjects as natural and "profane" as animals, busts of women or heads of men, are adorned with gold.

So of course this gold blanket seems to clash with the primitivism of Zadkine and his taste for the sobriety of forms and the raw aspect of matter. Yet gold symbolically magnifies both the material itself (even in its depths) and the sculpted theme.

Thus, the way in which the light strikes the gold of the sculptures (in the hollows, on the bumps and the edges) accentuates both the composition, while giving a different vision according to the angles of view.

The gold is plated on the material, like sensual skin, but it also seems to emerge from it, making the light spring forth.


[Photos of Ossip Zadkine's works are also on Pinterest].