French Sculptor and Illustrator
Summary of Henri Laurens
Laurens indulged in a wide range of artistic practices but is most readily associated with the pre-war Cubists. After the war, he would come to see the movement's focus on geometric planes as too dogmatic and his body of work acceded more and more the formal and thematic influences of Classical sculpture. He would move away from the sharp-edged fragmentation of Cubism to experiment with more organic, curved shapes which he matched to mythical subject matter. This initiative can be seen historically as part of a wider post-war project to bring about societal stability through a more accessible aesthetic approach. His curved forms, which were an extension of, rather than a rupture with, high modernism, fitted with the artist's radical politics which he believed would be better served by a less-aggressive, more agreeable, form of avant-gardism.
- Laurens's papier collé works saw him linked to fellow Cubists Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris. Laurens, however, synthesized their ideas by applying a coloristic and sculptural dimension to his collages. Like his colleagues, Laurens experimented with overlapping planes and formal fragmentation, but he employed color, not as an independent picture entity, by rather as a means of stressing the three-dimensionality of his collage.
- Moving into the inter-war years - the period that became known as the "new order" - Laurens's sculptures reduced in their geometric complexity, becoming less fragmented and more unified. What became known as Interwar Classicism challenged the belief that modern art was all about progress and innovation. Though many modernists came to be view it as mere nostalgia, some artists, including Laurens, sought to bring elements of classicism and modernism into a new relationship. His female busts, for instance, do not conceal their debt to African masks or the female faces of his friend Amedeo Modigliani, but they are unique in terms of their kinship with archaic Cycladic sculptures.
- Laurens's interest in curvilinear Cycladic sculpture extended to full-bodied works such as those representing Venus, the Grecian goddess of love. His sculptures were nothing short of radical reinventions; effectively turning the archaic model "inside-out" by featuring (rather than concealing) the stone mass from which the figure was sculpted.
- Laurens illustrated numerous texts and books of poetry. His illustrations, including woodcuts of reclining nudes, carried the influence of Henri Matisse's "cut-outs" and Pablo Picasso's continuous line drawings, but his "liquid" curvilinear bodies owed just as much to the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing and the curved planes of Joan Miró and Hans Arp. His illustrations brought further confirmation that Laurens was an artist who was almost impossible to pigeon-hole.
Biography of Henri Laurens
Laurens was born in Paris in 1885, growing up in the suburb of Saint-Denis. The artist's father, Joseph, was a cooper, and his mother, to whom Henri was devoted, was the daughter of a sailor. The Laurens family had fled poverty in rural France for the possibilities of a better life in the city. However, despite his family's desire for social and personal betterment, Laurens' life would come to be defined as one of constant poverty, even after his late-career fame. The dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler described Laurens' life as "simple and dignified" albeit one of greatly "modest circumstances" to match his "modest" but "great" temperament.
Important Art by Henri Laurens
In Head of a Woman, Laurens demonstrates what is meant by "sculpto-painting", a term used by author and museum director A.M. Hammacher to describe this work and to place Laurens alongside the likes of Cubist sculptor Alexander Archipenko. Laurens's piece made tangible the Analytic Cubist technique of fracturing three-dimensional forms onto a two-dimensional canvas. The artist here flattened composite views of the woman's head as seen from various angles and at various times of day, and used jagged triangular, rectilinear, and curved shapes to indicate the co-presence of these diverse perceptual experiences. Yet, unlike Cubist paintings, Laurens literally worked in three-dimensions with his non-natural sculptural planes translating the impossible experience of simultaneous vision into an actual spatial representation.
The artist also used paint strategically. Reversing aerial perspective, which would relegate darkened colors to the more distant background with lighter, brighter, more visible spaces in the foreground, Laurens painted the back recesses of the woman's eye areas light brown, with black-painted planes composing the contours of her face. White-painted accent triangles suggested the outlines of the woman's nose, and, in another reverse of chiaroscuro, the shadowed recesses of her neck.
Laurens's Cubist collages and papier collé works closely aligned with the methods and themes of his fellow Cubists, such as Pablo Picasso. Like Picasso, Laurens used Cubist compositional techniques on a narrow range of themes, such as still lifes - in this case, a guitar. Laurens deconstructed the guitar into planar units with overlaid chalk and charcoal drawings indicating the guitar sound hole, strings, outline, as well as its frets. The artist also integrated text with his collage, including the word "musique" as a means to signify auditory experience unable to be captured through visual media.
Unique to Laurens, however, was his maintenance of a coloristic and sculptural sensibility in his collages. Here, the artist played with overlapping black and white planes which at once suggested standard Cubist formal fragmentation, but at the same time reduced chiaroscuro to planar units of light and shade. Color, or, in this case, value, did as much of the compositional "heavy lifting" to suggest three-dimensionality as the tangible pasted papers.
The subject of a woman with a mandolin was a common theme amongst Cubist painters and sculptors. Here, Laurens's sculpture (like Picasso's 1910 Girl with a Mandolin) used a combination of sharp and curved planar units to blur the boundaries between the female subject and the instrument she played.
Woman with a Mandolin in particular invites comparison with works by another notable Cubist sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz. Like Laurens, Lipchitz, in works such as his 1920 Seated Man with Clarinet I literalized the Cubist dissolution of perspectival illusionism, creating layers of angular, geometric forms which suggested the simultaneity of foreground and background space. Yet, unlike Lipchitz's work, Laurens's Woman with a Mandolin is as a more organic (less fragmented) sculpture. Here planar angles build from the ground to an apex with a tapered, bent head, rather than progressed outward as a deliberately sharp sculptural articulation of front and back planes.
Anticipating the curved female forms of his later career, Laurens rendered this woman as almost a fluid, organic outgrowth of the earthenware; with the barest suggestion of hair, head, eyes, and arms. Despite the compositional fragmentation, the woman appeared to emerge naturally from within the material.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Henri Laurens
- The Great Curve: Henri Laurens 1885-1954By the Museum Beedlen aan Zee
- Henri Laurens: Stone, Bronze, TerracottaBy Pierre Reverdy, translated by Walter Pach
- Ballet Russes performance Le Train BleuImage from the 1924 performance for which Henri designed the sets. Picasso designed the curtain, Coco Chanel designed the costumes, and Jean Cocteau wrote the libretto, among many other distinguished avant-garde names who participated in the project
- Céline Arnauld's Tournevire (1919)Includes an illustration by Laurens
- The Tombs of Artists: A Last Statement from the GraveBy Allison Meier / Hyperallergic / August 1, 2013
- Twist and Turn: Stunning Abstract Sculptures by Seven Masters Tell Rich Tales of ModernismBy Alfred MacAdam / ArtNews / June 16, 2017
- The Sculpture of Henri Laurens: 'The Ripening of Forms'By Hilton Kramer / The New York Times / January 24, 1971
- Henri Laurens Where He BelongsBy Paul Waldo Schwartz / The New York Times / May 28, 1967