by Samuel D. Gruber
Since I'm getting ready to begin teaching my "Jewish Art: From Sinai to Superman" class next week, I thought I'd resume my birthday shout outs for prominent and interesting Jewish artists and architects. Given the name of the course, posthumous felicitations to Lithuanian-born Jacques Lipchitz, born on this day in 1891 in Druskieniki, Lithuania, seem appropriate since a common theme in his later work was that heroic struggle - often involving a Biblical character.
Though not quite Superman, David is a superhero as he struggles with Goliath in Lipchitz's 1933 allegorical piece - an important early artistic statement about the Jewish struggles in Europe at the beginning of the Nazi era. Similarly, a heroic Jacob wrestles with an angel. Both are allegories for the individual and collective struggles of the time.
To my mind, however, Lipchitz's best works include his early cubist sculpture which are carefully studied and balanced pieces, but often playful and even whimsical, too. These are probably the least "Jewish" of his work. His identity and emotions are kept in check under Paris's modern influences. Still, he hung out with a small but ever growing number of Jewish artists in what would come to be known as Jewish School of Paris. The best relic of this artistic circle is Modigliani's 1916 double portrait of Lipchitz and his wife Berthe now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Two typical, but excellent pieces are in these, still in France.
From the 1930s on Lipchitz increasingly incorporated Jewish themes in his work, though these were interspersed with references to ancient Egypt and Greece. These themes coincided with his rejection of Cubism and his turn to a more dramatic style - sometimes labeled Baroque. Indeed one can find easy comparison in some of Lipchitz's work in this style and the early mythological works of Bernini.
One of his most explicit Jewish sculptures is The Prayer (also called Kapporot), which represents an old man swinging a rooster over his head in the kapparot ritual. This was done shortly after the artist fled Europe in 1941, and the sacrifice of the rooster is usually taken as symbolic of the sacrifice of European Jews.
Already in the 1930s, Lipchitz had turned to biblical episodes to interpret contemporary events. In this, he shared a common predicament with many artists who struggled to find an appropriate language to represent the recurring and escalating violence of the time. Painters seemed to have an easier time representing apocalyptic scenes. Lipchitz chose allegory: "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" and "David and Goliath." Later, his work The Miracle was inspired by the creation of the state of Israel. A figure with raised arms faces the Tablets of the Law, form which grows a menorah, which also resembles a budding tree. His last work, The Tree of Life, is a six-meter-high bronze outside the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus that consists of the interwoven figures of Noah, Abraham and Isaac at the Akedah, and Moses before the Burning Bush from which rises a phoenix supporting the Two Tablets. Overall the size of work turns it into bronze bombast, but the smaller plaster sketch expresses the great energy still on tap from the octogenarian.
I grew up in Philadelphia which has one of the world's largest collections of Lipchitz sculpture at the Philadelphia Art Museum, but also installed as public art. When still in junior high school I used to enjoy the bold and I thought overripe Spirit of Enterprise then on the North Terrace of the Sculpture Court in Fairmount Park, but since moved to a more prominent spot on the Central Terrace.
The work was begun in 1950, not too long after Lipchitz arrived in the United States after fleeing Europe in 1941. It represents his optimism, though I think that escaped me at the time. What I saw here, and also in his Prometheus Statue at the Art Museum - was a bulging bronze of force and struggle.
This fierce tension is in almost all of Lipchitz works after about 1930, even in seemingly softer themes such as Song of the Vowels, an abstraction of a harp player (which I saw everyday for four years at college, as I entered and exited Firestone Library at Princeton).
I also remember the dispute about placing Lipchitz's massive Government of the People in front of the Municipal Service Building, commissioned as part of the city's Percent for Art program. Then Mayor Frank Rizzo - the city's tough cop - hated the piece and blocked its funding and placement for many years. I remember when he opined that it looked "like a plasterer dropped a load of plaster." It is assumed that Rizzo's actual phrasing was more pungent - and for some prophetic - since the work changed color once it was cast in bronze and finally installed three years after after Lipchitz's death in 1973, in time for the National Bicentennial. For good presentation on the work see this video.
Maybe sometime soon I'll return to Philadelphia to tour the Lipchitz works, and also more of the city's rich sculptural collection. Until then, Happy Birthday Jacques!