The injunction against “graven images” in the Second Commandment has inhibited some of the world’s greatest Jewish sculptors from creating works exploring their heritage. Jacob Epstein admitted as much when he revealed that he would have liked to produce sculptures for Jewish audiences, but felt it was impossible as “the synagogue has no use for me”.
One Jewish sculptor who did find a way to make great works with Jewish themes was Jacques Lipchitz — an exhibition of whose marvellous drawings is currently on show in London.
Chaim Jakob Lipchitz was born in Lithuania in 1891. After studying in Vilnius, he, like so many other young Jewish artists from Eastern Europe, made his way to Paris, arriving in 1909. At the time the city was a centre for pioneering avant-garde art and Lipchitz soon became drawn to Cubism (he was friendly with Picasso). The lean, spare sculptures he produced in this early period, tending towards abstraction but always based on the human figure, are his most famous works.
However, after 1925, he became disenchanted with the Cubist approach — too rigid, too many straight lines, he felt. His new sculptures were influenced more by baroque art, full of movement and energy, his figures monumental and made up of curves.
In many of these works he explored issues relating to his Jewish identity, including the rise of Nazism in Europe, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.
While Lipchitz declared: “I never make drawings as independent works of art”, they are nevertheless a joy to view.
A favourite subject was the Greek myth of Prometheus, the hero who was punished for stealing fire from the gods by being eternally chained to a rock where a vulture would peck out at his liver which regrew every night. In 1937 Lipchitz was commissioned by the French government to produce a huge plaster sculpture on the theme for the Paris World Fair. Deeply worried by the rise of Hitler in Germany, he twisted the myth to show Prometheus getting revenge on his persecutor, grabbing the vulture by the neck.
Lipchitz’s hero wears a bonnet similar to those worn by French revolutionaries, while the vulture bears a strong resemblance to an eagle, which is, of course a symbol of Nazi Germany. The sculpture represented the victory Lipchitz hoped France would win over the Nazis. His drawings for the sculpture convey the intense nature of that struggle by showing the effort needed by Prometheus to throttle the bird.
In 1941, Lipchitz sought asylum in the United States where he met his wife, the Berlin-born sculptor Yulla Halberstadt. She encouraged a new interest in his Jewish heritage, sparked by an excitement at the foundation of Israel in 1948. The most beautiful drawings in the exhibition are for his last great work, the colossal Our Tree of Life, which was a celebration of the new Jewish state and was installed on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.
For the sculpture, Lipchitz stacked one biblical hero on top of another, culminating in Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on a mountain made up of his ancestors. The figures are hard to make out in the drawings, but you get a strong idea of drama and complexity of the piece.
Jacques Lipchitz Master Drawings – The Anatomy of a Sculptor is at the Ben Uri Gallery until July 26 (www.benuri.org.uk)