This lifetime cast is an exceptional example of the revolution in sculpture triggered by Archipenko’s intense period of creativity in the first half of the 1910s. It is easy to forget the extent to which the new vocabulary he established for sculpture, virtually single-handedly, was considered by many as either ridiculous or shocking. The journal Le Bonnet Rouge openly mocked his work with crude caricatures under the heading "Un scandale;" Apollinaire resigned from L’Intransigeant newspaper when the editor overruled his positive reviews in favor of a negative critique, and at the end of the decade the Patriarch of Venice even warned against visiting the Archipenko retrospective at the Biennale on the basis that the art “was an insult to Christian morality and common sense” (Telegrafo Livorno, June 11, 1920). Recognition overcame resistance however, and the range and inventiveness of the young Ukrainian émigré was the subject of no fewer than four monographs in the 1920s, and he was ranked by many alongside Picasso, Kandinsky and Chagall as a leader of the avant garde. As Donald Karshan comments, “The question is no longer which sculptor he influenced, as which sculptors he didn’t influence” (Donald Karshan, Archipenko, The Sculpture and Graphic Art, Tubingen, 1974, p. 36).
Femme se coiffant demonstrates some of his innovations, notably experiments with negative space and concave and convex forms. The model shares the arm-enclosing-head motif that is also found in related sculptures, Standing Figure Combing Hair (1915) and Standing Figure (1916-17), where the densest concentration of mass and focus—the head—is also substituted for a hole, intensifying awareness of this element by its absence. The torso is still curvaceous but formed of hollow recesses where one would expect protuberances, while the sharp breaks at the waist and knees contribute to a sense of dynamism.
The first director of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred H. Barr Jr., considered Archipenko the first to seriously tackle Cubism in sculpture. The artist was more ambivalent, noting the “geometric character” of his works was “due to extreme simplification of form and not to Cubist dogma” (quoted in Katherine Michaelsen, Archipenko, A Study of the Early Works 1908-1920, New York, 1977, p. 41). But putting aside the vexed question as to whether a "Cubist sculpture" is an oxymoron, his early association with the inhabitants of La Ruche, and particularly Léger (who used to busk with him in the streets to earn money), was clearly invaluable to his programmatic reduction and streamlining of form. In the age of Rodin, when the emotional charge of a subject was paramount, he succeeded in changing the conversation entirely. Katherine Michaelsen notes Archipenko’s semi-serious reply when asked in 1923 about his early reaction to the great French sculptor: “Archipenko minced no words: ‘I hated Rodin, who was then fashionable. His sculptures reminded me of chewed bread that one spits on a base, or of the crooked corpses from Pompeii’” (Katherine Michaelsen, ibid., p. 47). A woman brushing her hair could not be further from the tormented figures of the Gates of Hell and is typical of Archipenko’s choice of understated subjects, his focus on the beauty of the quotidian and the new direction which he set for twentieth-century sculpture.
This work was conceived in early 1914 and created in two versions. There is only one known early cast circa 1914 of the first version. The present lot is the second, larger version which was cast in an edition of eight prompted by Archipenko's retrieval of the plaster model from a couple in Cannes in 1960. The head of the second version is pierced by a void, whereas a deep concave exists in the first. He may have inadvertently misdated the later cast 1915.