Conceived in 1919, Arlequin à l’accordéon was the first sculpture created by Jacques Lipchitz after the armistice that ended the First World War. This full-length sculpture of a standing harlequin playing the accordion belongs to an important series of seated and standing figures which concentrated on traditional French subject matter—bathers, musicians and harlequins—that Lipchitz embarked upon at this time.
The works that Lipchitz conceived during this period of intense creativity were the result of his wrestling with the problem of deconstructing form using a medium that was inherently solid. With their geometricised bodies twisting and turning in space, the present work and its companion sculpture Pierrot à la clarinette (fig. 1) exemplify the complexity of his task. Whilst the figures of Pierrot and Harlequin were not uncommon among the Cubists, Lipchitz was one of the few artists to successfully render them in sculpture. His faceting of the planar elements in Arlequin à l’accordéon is complex and nuanced. Yet the fragmented forms also build up the structure of the figure in a manner that is unambiguous and constructive, with the intricate staging of positive and negative shapes allowing for a remarkable play of light. We can identify the subject as a harlequin due to his distinctive costume, in particular the wide-rimmed collar that frames his face, his jaunty hat and the buttons that run diagonally down his bust.
Like many other artists during and immediately following the First World War, Lipchitz was thinking in terms of a classicising principle, the ‘return to order’. Among others, Jean Cocteau had influentially advocated a ‘return’ during these years to the sculpturally solid forms found in classical art. The inspiration, Lipchitz maintained, came from eighteenth-century painting, and in particular that of Watteau whose celebrated painting of Pierrot belongs to the Musée du Louvre in Paris: ‘The Pierrots and Harlequins were part of our general vocabulary, characters taken from the Commedia dell’arte, particularly popular in the eighteenth century. We may have been attracted to them originally because of their gay traditional costumes, involving many different varicoloured areas’ (Jacques Lipchitz, My Life in Sculpture, New York, 1972, p. 58).
The artist’s interest in the stock characters of the Commedia dell’arte reflected the trends of the early avant-garde in Paris. Cézanne invoked the Pierrot in important paintings of the late 1880s while both characters appear throughout Picasso's œuvre, and in particular his masterworks of the Blue Period. It was his introduction to the latter, in 1914, that forever changed the direction of Lipchitz’ art. The young Lithuanian had arrived in Paris in 1909 to receive a traditional and highly academic artistic education at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian. His encounter with Picasso, however, had the effect of persuading Lipchitz to abandon the classical representation of human form. In 1916, Lipchitz signed a contract with the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, who also represented Picasso, Braque, Gris and Rivera. This placed him in the pantheon of ‘true Cubists’ and at the forefront of Cubist sculpture. Rosenberg arranged to pay Lipchitz three hundred francs a month and to cover his expenses in exchange for his sculptural production. For the first time in his life, the artist had attained some sense of financial security; he was at liberty to work in stone and to cast in bronze as well.
By the time he executed Arlequin à l’accordéon in 1919, Lipchitz had succeeded in defining a Cubist language that effectively transformed the tenets of this seminal movement into his chosen medium. Lipchitz' choice of an accordion for his first standing musician of the post-war years was not insignificant; he had a large personal collection of instruments, notably guitars and mandolins, which appear with much greater frequency in the hands of the figures that populated his œuvre during and after the First World War. The formal similarities between an accordion that is being played and that of the prominent Cubist trope of an open fan were immediately evident to his contemporaries. Indeed, it is this instrument that catches the eye of the critic Maurice Raynal who singles out Arlequin à l’accordéon for particular praise in a 1920 review: ‘The accordion fans open like a heart that is breaking, right down to the depths of the earth, and stops beating once and for all; as though Aeolus had swallowed up every last drop of air’ (Maurice Raynal, Jacques Lipchitz, L'Art d'aujourd'hui, Paris, 1920, n.p.).
The present bronze was cast after Lipchitz moved to the United States in the 1940s, it is one of seven lifetime casts.
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