In these times of war, demagoguery and fake news, it is essential to focus also on the creative genius of humankind. In these times of migrants lost at sea, it is helpful to remember how migration throughout the centuries brought human riches across borders. Ossip Zadkine (originally Yossel Aronovich Tsadkin) was a twenty-year-old emigrant coming to France in 1910 from Belarus, then part of Russia. Paris became his home and was a more vibrant cultural place for it. Zadkine’s story and art give hope.
The Zadkine museum and atelier just south of Les Jardins de Luxembourg is a perfect meditative oasis, with its buildings encircling a garden of trees and sculptures. Many of his creations pay homage to the cultural greats that walked the earth over millennia. Others search for pure beauty and form. Yet others manifest his anger and loathing at the wars that decimated Europe in the twentieth century and forced him to a second exile to the USA for a few years as Hitler’s dark shadow spread death across the continent. The museum dedicated to his work is a time capsule.
Zadkine brought thousands of years of European history with him. His sculpture, Orpheus, reworks the theme of Orpheus into bronze – showing the singing bard who travelled to the underworld to seduce death with his lyre and sublime voice and regain his love, Eurydice. He finished this piece in 1956, a few years after the famous film “Orphée” by Jean Cocteau, one of my favourites ever, with the unforgettable Maria Casarès as the Princess, representing death. She falls in love with Orpheus. To demonstrate her love, she brings Eurydice back to life, but with a sting in the tail: Orpheus can’t look at Eurydice else she will die again. Life becomes hell, complicated further by the fact that Orpheus also fell in love with death. Orpheus’ gaze finally fells Eurydice a second time. All goes wrong until death intervenes; her self-sacrificial love is so strong she turns back time to before they met, to when Orpheus was still in love with Eurydice and ignorant of the Princess’s existence. Zadkine reminds us that love is a force.
Zadkine also paid homage to the French poet, author and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (originally Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki), of Polish-Lithuanian descent, with Belarusian ancestors. Apollinaire immigrated to France in 1900, in his teens. He gave the Cubist art movement its name, and cubism inspired early Zadkine. Their family histories are connected at many levels, like so many in Europe.
In Zadkine’s garden stand The Brothers Van Gogh and The Birth of Venus. The former, with the hands holding hands and touching heads, is a tribute to the strength of bonds between brothers. The Birth of Venus is a reworking of Greek mythology explored throughout the ages, including by renaissance Botticelli. The sculpture here felt more of a tribute to family – with the physical closeness of father, mother and child. It is also a manifestation of his unique style that manifests the cubist vision, with the angled arms and hollowed faces, the flowing grace of Greek robes, and the beauty of African mask cultures. The smoothed head also reminds me of the perfection of form of Constantin Brâncuși, the Romanian sculptor who came to France in 1905. Another immigrant who enrichened Paris.
Zadkine’s style evolved. Earlier in his career, he explored the beauty of form, much like Brancusi, as seen by his golden, smooth, Young Girl with folded hands. Much of his later work became dark, as illustrated by his Study for the Prisoner, 1943, a claustrophobic piece of a captured woman trapped and squeezed by bars. This was one of the few sculptures Zadkine managed to make while he exiled himself in the USA, given the risks to his life from the German occupation (Zadkine was half Jewish). It is also a statement of the harsh times. His Ideas of beauty were forgotten, swept aside by a profoundly ugly side of human history.
The exhibition also hosts sculptures of what became arguably Ossip Zadkine’s most famous work, The Destroyed City, 1953, which represents the destruction of Rotterdam’s city centre in 1940. The statue has a hole where its heart should be. The arms are raised in anguish, in a manner that reminds of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, in its style, its anger and its political messaging – outrage at the destruction of war.
I don’t want to end this article with despair but with the seeds of hope in The Human Forest sculpture(1948) and the painting of the same name (1960-62). The broken and twisted forms show the pain of war; the gaps in the sculpture speak of loss. Yet, the rising vegetation, the cradled flames, arms and hair striving to the heavens instil hope. Growth. Renewal. Despite the tragedy, life moves on but, with the help of artists, doesn’t forget the pain. Other interpretations are possible of this complex creation. But for me, in these dark times with the Russian war in Ukraine and refugees of the calamities making new homes across Europe, this one captures the soul of the times, even if made over half a century ago.
The exhibition Ossip Zadkine: Une vie d’ateliersis showing at the Zadkine museum and atelier until 2 April. And The Destroyed City stands in Rotterdam, rebuilt, its former loss not forgotten thanks to Zadkine.