A simplicity between two worlds
It would be surprising if Cubism -- the work initially of painters who were attempting, within the limits of two dimensions, to picture the three-dimensionality of things by seeing them from different viewpoints simultaneously -- hadn't intrigued and challenged sculptors.
The Lithuanian-born Jacques Lipchitz, who came to Paris in 1909, had early felt saddened by the lack of freedom imposed on sculptors by their materials (while a painter could more easily give shape to his visions). ". . . how impossible," he wrote in 1927, looking back, "it is for our hands to follow the impulses of our hearts and the wild course of our imaginations." He went on: "I was sad until the day when Providence inspired in me these things: aerial transparencies which can be seen, and can move us, from all sides at once."
These open sculptures, or "transparencies," begun in 1925, were for his sculpture a highly individual development from his deep involvement with "Cubism , which had started 10 years before. "Head," made about that year, is still a long way from being a so-called "transparency," but it shows one crucial stage in Lipchitz's response to the "new view of the universe," as he termed Cubism.
He had told the writer Jules Romains that he wanted to "make an art as pure as crystal" at this time. Romains had upset him by asking, "in a slightly mocking way": "What do you know about crystals?"
After some thought Lipchitz says he realized he "knew nothing about crystals except that they were a form of inorganic life" and that this was not what he wanted to make. He wrote: "In my Cubist sculpture I always wanted to retain the sense of organic life, of humanity. It was a result of this encounter [with Romains] that I made the "Head" . . . which was my most non-realistic work to that time but was still strongly rooted in nature. I should say it is a sculpture parallel to nature, maintaining its sense of humanity within the abstract forms."
He also evidently realized, since "Head" demonstrates this, that sculpture's responde to Cubist painting had to be sculptural: it had to be true to its differences from painting. The forms of a sculpture, however much it might attempt to emphasize visual rather than felt qualities, can never be entirely weightless; and it will always have some mass, some volume, some solidity. It will also inevitably be more three-dimensional than a painting, in a definite, specific way. By scale it can suggest another size, but it will still be a measurable object.
In painting, the third dimension can be vague and is inevitably illusory. But in sculpture it is just a fact.You can't have purely two-dimensional sculpture. So Lipchitz in his "Head" took some of the language of pictorial Cubism but put it to new sculptural use: the reconstruction of a human head as an object of rectilinear forms and planes is sculpturally wrought as a comparatively simple, bold, and monumental image. He seems to have realized that there was no need in sculpture for the almost confusing complexity of painted Cubism, and instead of exhaustively exploring endless facets and interpenetrations he has, if anything, reduced even the numerous variations of surface found in traditional sculpture. What he has taken from Cubism is, paradoxically, a new simplicity.
Lipchitz maintained throughout his career that he was "a Cubist," even when the appearance of his sculpture had become curvilinear and fluid and undulating in ways completely unlike the style originally nicknamed Cubism. He came to the conclusion that Cubism could be a formal trap and that there had to be a clear distinction drawn between its "syntax" and what an artist could say if he released himself from that" Golden Cage" while continuing to exercise Cubism's break with tired kinds of representation. He even "exhorted" his friend, the Cubist painter Juan Gris, to follow a similar escape route; but it was the formal nature of Cubism's syntax which was the very lifeblood of Gris's intelligent, lucid, and exacting development of it.
In his "Head," Lipchitz, while making an imposingly dignified sculpture which acknowledged the strengths of Cubist formality, was already in search of something that could more warmly grow out of the "impulses" of his heart. He was by no means the only artist who recognized Cubism as a revolution with which he had to come to terms (producing good sculpture along the way), although its original rigors and logical stylistic conclusions were really alien to him. Its effect on him did eventually make it impossible to follow, in his sculpture, something of "the wild course" of his "imaginations." The early "Head" is poised with discreet self-containment somewhere between two worlds, though closer perhaps to head than heart.