Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) – Ukrainian and American sculptor and artist. Honorary member of the Association of Ukrainian Artists in America and full member of the American Academy of Art and Literature.
Information comes to us in a variety of ways. For example, I learned about this man from a novel which I read in my youth, where practically not a word was said about him – only about his harmful influence. And some of you, quite possibly, will learn about him from this article.
This novel was written in the GDR, it was published in the USSR – so it was completely pro-communist, although not entirely orthodox. In particular, the author frankly laughed at the heroine of the novel, who mentioned him all the time – she was already very orthodox.
This heroine, the editor of the magazine, kept thinking about her deceaded husband, a sculptor, that he was able to get rid of the harmful influence of Archipenko. There was not a word in the novel about who this Archipenko was and what harm he did. I also did not have the slightest idea about him then.
Since the author describes this heroine, although not without sympathy, but with frank irony, I suggested that perhaps this very influence of Archipenko was not so harmful, and became interested in who he really was and why I had no idea about him.
It is curious that there was nothing at all about this person in those years (mid-70s). Let’s find out more about him and understand what his influence was, why the orthodox heroine of the novel considered him so harmful, and for whom.
IT ALL STARTED IN KYIV
The name of this most harmful influence was Alexander Porfyrovych Archipenko – as a composer Borodin, and he was born in Kyiv, according to his own joke – at Kyiv University. Archipenko’s father served there as a mechanic, and his interest in this industry was clearly formed from childhood.
But the influence of his father, a techie, could not overpower the influence of his grandfather, an icon painter – interest in the visual arts of all kinds won out. Quite early, he began to study painting, starting these studies by copying drawings from the book of Michelangelo.
Almost every day, on the way to school, he passed by a huge stone woman that had grown into the ground – a pre-Christian sculpture of the Earth goddess, whom the local children called Nana. It was the archaic sculptures that later became for him a source of inspiration and a starting point for his own experiments with massive and hypertrophied forms.
One day his father and mother bought two identical vases and put them side by side at home. And he noticed between them a third vase, immaterial, consisting of empty space. Since then, the future sculptor understood the nonexistent form not as emptiness, but as a symbol of the missing form, which cannot materialize, but remains in memory. It was reflected in all of his works.
DIFFICULTIES OF LEARNING
After graduating from only two classes of the Walker real school, Alexander in 1902 moved to study at the Kyiv Art School. It was extremely conservative and patriarchal – for example, in three years he had to bring two certificates that he was present at confession and communion.
His fellow practitioner, the famous avant-garde artist Aristarkh Lentulov, later recalled, “The main teacher of the school was Academician Nikolay Pimonenko, a rather popular Ukrainian artist, but a dry and acrimonious person who did not enjoy the sympathy of his students”.
In 1905, a strike began at the school against a general pre-revolutionary backgroung- in particular, more modern forms of education were demanded from the leadership. It ended sadly for Archipenko – he was simply expelled. It was necessary to look for another school to which he would be taken.
A year later, his first exhibition took place. A certain landowner from near Kyiv ordered a sculpture on an arbitrary theme to a 19-year-old artist. Archipenko created a grotesque seated male figure out of terracotta, calling it The Thinker. For expressiveness, he covered it with red enamel and put the work on public display in a store not far from the customer’s estate.
On the door of his first showroom, he posted a notice: “Workers and peasants for less pay”. A policeman immediately came… “Why should workers and peasants pay less? And what is he thinking about and why is it red?” Thank God, nothing happened.
Archipenko moved to Moscow and entered the Moscow School of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture. But it did not suit him at all, and he decided to study art in a place that enjoys world fame. Then it was not even emigration – I got on the train and went to Paris.
“BEE IN A HIVE”
In Paris, he easily found a place in which he felt good – the artist colony La Ruche (“The Beehive”). Many of his fellow Ukrainians lived there with him at that time: Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, Sonya Delone, Nathan Altman. He spent six years there and learned a lot.
The Louvre became a very important point for the formation of Archipenko’s style – mainly the art of Ancient Egypt, Hellas, Assyria, Africa and Central America. He specially studied it together with such an iconic figure as Amedeo Modigliani. I think that the opinion about Rodin’s influence on him is unfounded – he eventually became less traditional than Rodin.
The artist called the style he found “sculptural painting”. At first he was denied, and Guillaume Apollinaire, who praised his work, was even kicked out of the newspaper for an article about him. Then they began to look closely at his works, which were essentially the first installations.
Archipenko did not sculpt or carve the sculpture, but combined various elements, including those found. Thus, in the work In the Boudoir, which depicts two female figures, one can also see a small pasted photograph of the artist himself, “signaling” the presence of the author.
After 1910, he began to participate in art exhibitions in Paris. Alexandra Exter, Kazimir Malevich, Vadim Meller, Sonya Delaunay, Georges Braque, André Derain took part in the same exhibitions – the list of names itself indicates a good neighborhood and a high level.
In 1912, the German city of Hagen, the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum hosted the first personal exhibition of Archipenko. Soon he took part in the exhibition The First German Autumn Salon in Berlin – already in the status of not a beginner, but a recognized master.
In 1913, four of his sculptures and five drawings were presented at the acclaimed Armory Exhibition in New York, which practically for the first time introduced the United States to contemporary art in Europe. The exhibition caused a real scandal, accusations of indecency, a bunch of complaints, because of which the exhibition was visited by two senators – to check what was the matter.
The 85 sculptures exhibited by him at the Venice Biennale of 1920 were even more harshly appreciated. It got to the point that the Italian cardinal Pietro la Fontaine forbade believers from visiting this exhibition. However, for Archipenko it was only useful – interest in forbidden art always increased sharply, and he earned good money, which helped him in the future.
Venetian earnings allowed him to open his own school in Berlin in 1921. The point, of course, was not only about money – the authority of Archipenko had already grown so much that the students willingly went to learn from such a master. Teaching later became one of his main occupations.
In the same year, Archipenko finally married, moreover, to a colleague in creativity – the German artist-sculptor Angelica Bruno-Schmitz. It’s not too late to get married in the fourth decade, and a person with such life experience knows better whether he wants to see the same thing at home as at work.
His style also developed: he abandoned the usual materials – bronze, marble and gypsum – in favor of glass, plywood, metal, that is, non-plastic materials, such that naturally lead to the geometrization of forms. It was probably why he was called the Cubist.
Many of his works combine elements of installation, relief and painting, which makes the author one of the first contemporary artists in today’s sense of the word. And where did everything modern take root most quickly? In the USA, of course – and he went there in 1923.
Archipenko, strictly speaking, never emigrated in the sense in which we understand this word – he did not make a difficult, tragic and badly reversible decision. He just moved to another city. And the fact that he was in another country – it so happened, what’s wrong with that?
In the United States, he invented and patented the “archipentura” or “movable painting”. According to the author’s idea, a complex mechanical structure was supposed to set in motion thin colored stripes, which, while rotating, would form various compositions – that is, an almost modern advertising billboard with interchangeable images. It was not the case before.
But only once, in 1929, Archipentura was used by the department store of Sachs and Co., which decorated six windows using its technology. The public did not understand the innovation, and the number of buyers did not increase. Many years had passed before advertisers started using the invention in full swing.
As you can see, his creative endeavors went on with varying degrees of success. However, he was in great demand as a teacher – and in the art schools he created: in Woodstock (1924), Los Angeles (1935), Chicago (late 1930s) and others. Archipenko was willingly invited to teach at universities – for a long time he would be associated with the Chicago Institute of Art and Design. After all, he was already a world-class personality.
FOR THE MOTHERLAND
Archipenko perfectly remembered where he was from, and, although in 1929 he received American citizenship, in the column “nationality” in the questionnaires he wrote Ukrainian (however, in the United States, the fact that a person remembers well his country of origin is not dignity).
In May 1933, the next World Exhibition A Century of Progress was opened in Chicago. There was also a Ukrainian pavilion on it – of course, without any participation of the Ukrainian SSR, which at that time had enough other concerns. Everything was organized by the Ukrainian diaspora, which is quite numerous on the continent.
The whole room of the pavilion was occupied exclusively by the work of Archipenko. Insurers valued his collection at the exhibition at $ 25,000. For contemporary art at that time, it was a considerable sum: a decent new Pontiac car in the United States was then offered for $ 1000.
So even those with little knowledge of art burst into the Archipenko Hall to understand why bizarre sculptures made of a wide variety of materials can be so expensive. Many believed that it was he who made the greatest contribution to the success of the Ukrainian pavilion.
Shortly thereafter, he worked on projects for monuments to Vladimir the Saint, Ivan Franko and Taras Shevchenko in a Chicago park. Not on his native land that remained inaccessible to him, his surviving sculptures were lost or destroyed there. Not mentioning his younger brother Yevhen, the Minister of Agriculture of the UPR – with such kinship it was not worth coming home.
All his life Archipenko actively worked and experimented, mastered a new material for himself – plexiglass. Another important part of his work is light sculptures: here, he was ahead of his time too. It brought a small income, but he successfully earned a living by teaching.
In 1960, he did what many older teachers had done – he married his student Frances Gray, who was a quarter of a century younger than him. Francis still keeps his house-museum, systematizes his work, manages the foundation named after him and fights against counterfeiting.
In 1964, Archipenko, giving an interview to the French magazine The XXth century, said, “Who knows if I would have thought so if the Ukrainian sun had not ignited in me a feeling of longing for something that I myself do not understand?” He did not forget his homeland until his last days, and his homeland remembered him.
He still managed to finish the statue of King Solomon for the University of Pennsylvania campus – it was installed only in 1968, four years after his death. He died on the doorstep of his workshop in New York, without leaving his workplace. His whole life was work – to the end.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
The main achievement of any art worker is attention to his work, which does not end with his life. In this respect, everything is more than fine with Archipenko. Today his works are presented in many major museums in Europe, in the USA and in Israel. Twelve of the artist’s drawings are in the Hermitage, they are, of course, in Kyiv – not all were destroyed, it turns out…
In 2016, Archipenko Street appeared in Kyiv – in the Obolonsky District, not far from Yordanskaya Street. And in 2017, the National Bank of Ukraine put into circulation a commemorative 2 hryvnia coin dedicated to him. The reverse of the coin depicts his portrait – in my opinion, it looks like him…
In a modern reprint of the novel, which I recalled at the beginning of the story, to explain who Archipenko was, perhaps they would not have made a footnote – now it is a well-known name. Although, in my opinion, we should learn more about him. I would be glad to help him with my article.
Now I would rather appreciate the irony of the author of the novel about the communist who is saving her spouse from the “harmful influence of Archipenko”. I wonder if she knew that Hitler treated Archipenko in the same way, ordering the destruction of his work? However, what’s so strange?
All illustrations from open sources