Andreas Weiland

(Re-)Discovering Zadkine
It was when I visited a friend in Rotterdam that I first saw a sculpture of Ossip Zadkine in the real. The German Nazis, sending their bombers, had created a wasteland out of downtown Rotterdam. The hustle and bustle that was so intrinsically a sign of this pre-war quarter, made room for rubble. Later, after the war, a large empty square filled part of the void left by the bombers. And soon, the purposefully 'functional,' modern architecture of the time began to occupy the margins of this, in many ways, sterile location. The glistening reflections of the light of day, mirrored in the water of the windswept  harbor basin, are perhaps the most lively item here, apart from a few pedestrians hurrying across the widy expanse of the square.

De verwoeste stad (1951-1953). Photo by Ziko (2008)*
It was here, almost at the edge of the water, that Ossip Zadkine placed his work, The City Laid Waste (De verwoeste stad). It was a work he began six years after the war, in 1951 and completed in 1953.

The sculpture was also given the alternative, perhaps initial title City Without Heart. 
Does is refer to the fact that the heart of Rotterdam, its historic center vanished when the bombs fell? Is it primarily referring to the loss of lives - the lives  of so many  inhabitants who lived and perished in this quarter? The aggression that inflicted the wound - did it tear the heart out of living women and men; did it cut a deep hole into their tormented bodies?

We see a human figure, its entire body slanted,  leaning backwards to an extent that is physiologically impossible (without risking to actually fall and hit the ground). The figure is lifting its arms towards the sky, as if warding off or hoping desparately to ward off the terrible. 

Part of photo by Ziko (2008)*
The body of the figure is almost unnaturally 'twisted.' 

It lends movement, a strange dynamics to the figure. As if it is already turning around  and ready to flee. Beginning, in fact, to flee. 

The position of the disfigured hands and the 'frozen' moment of frantic 'motion' they express, indicate helplessness. 

The slanted head, its eyes facing the sun, reveals the terror experienced. 

Are these breasts I see? A voluminous thigh? Is it, after all, a women who is facing death, who is facing the German bombers?

Photo by K. Siereveld (2007)*

Looking from another angle, we recognize Zadkine's readiness to employ stilistic traits not unknown to cubism as well as constructivism. It is befitting of a square lined by the kind of architecture we see here. It is befitting to the 'theme' which also includes the notion of 'industrialized war,' mechanized mass killing reliant on modern industry, modern technology. The immense productive forces developed by men in our age have been turned into destructive forces. If, under capitalism, in its imperialist phase, man more than ever has been turned into a machine that kills, if man eats man (as Lu Xun noted so aptly), then its is befitting to show the victim  as well in a way befitting to the spirit of the time. Filled with human emotions such as deep anxiety, terror-stricken, even, its limbs nonetheless are visible to us as constructive elements. Curves, smooth, rounded edges are visible, though: they have replaced the straight lines and sharp angles of 'pure' constructivism. 

Holes appear. The void between the outstretched arms that flows into the sky. The emptiness between the twisted legs that is formed by these legs and the ground they undoubtedly touch. Yes, these legs that project a sense of 'standing there,' facing something, and of 'turning,' that is to say, of the beginning movement of flight, also form a hole between themselves and the earth. The third hole or opening of this sculpture is the most irritating, and even scary. We see the sky through the slit that has been ripped open, in this human body. Is it the letal wound, suffered at the very moment when the imminent danger of death was recognized? Do we witness the moment of dying? A dying person facing the sun, the blue of the sky, the arriving bombers, the bombs dropped? We who are facing the sky at this very location where so many died, where so many bones are perhaps remaining unearthed forever, transformed as they were into ashes and dust and pain, we are for a moment in the position of the people who perished. Looking up, up to our sister, our brother, a fellow human being, tormented, suffering, because of war.

Photo by Rogier Bos (2005?)*

Photo by F. Eveleens (2007)*



Zadkine's 'Prometheus' was created in 1954 out of a tree-trunk. It was subsequently cast in bronze by the artist. The sculpture was acquired by the 'Municipal and University Library' of Frankfurt in 1965. A Frankfurt art critic, Petra Schwerdtner, noted in 2001:
"One hardly recognizes a realistic, anatomical order in his figures. And yet, they remain attached to reality. [...]
Larger than life, this bronze figure, Prometheus, stands in front of a concrete wall. [...] Zadkine's Prometheus strikes us as enigmatic and mystical, due to his two faces. Looking at it frontally, we meet the look of two displaced eyes, and note the mouth and nose which the artist has scratched into the material.
With long strides, his wide, flowing robe  trailing him, the bringer of fire and founder of culture hurries towards the onlooker and, at the same time, past him. Into the room where visitors of the library have access to comprehensive knowledge [...]. The front side of the figure is dominated by fire. Prometheus isn't carrying the blazing flames in front of him but he is connected with them.  Here, the Titan is not only a mediator of art and culture; he has caught fire himself. He is an inspired, creative being liberated by art. As transmitter of the fire message, he attempts to draw the onlooker with him, asking him to follow his example. 

   Parallel ideas can be found in the work of Goethe, and thus somebody Zadkine directly refers to, but also in the work of Joseph Beuys, 'Every man is an artist.' By way of these words, the modern Prometheus appeals to the creative potential in every one of us. [...] 'Choose art, that is to say, choose youself! All of you! Every one of you!' [...]

(Petra Schwerdner, "Ossip Zadkines 'Prometheus' in der Unibibliothek ist Feuer und Flamme", in: Frankfurter Rundschau, Aug. 14, 2001, p.32)(*)

(*)"Eine realistische, anatomische Ordnung erkennt man in seinen Figuren kaum, dennoch bleiben sie der Wirklichkeit verbunden. [...]
Vor einer Betonwand steht überlebensgroß die Bronzefigur Prometheus.[...] Rätselhaft und mystisch wirkt Zadkines Prometheus durch seine zwei Gesichter. Von vorn begegnet man dem Blick zweier räumlich versetzter Augen, Mund und Nase, die der Künstler in das Material eingeritzt hat.  Mit weit nach hinten wehendem Gewand und weit ausholendem Schritt eilt der Feuerbringer und Kulturstifter auf den Betrachter zu und zugleich an ihm vorbei. Hinein in den Raum, in dem Bibliotheksbesuchern [...] umfassendes Wissen zugänglich ist.  Die Vorderfront der Figur wird vom Feuer 
beherrscht. Prometheus trägt die lodernden
Flammen nicht nur vor sich her, sondern ist mit ihnen verbunden.
Der Titan ist hier nicht nur Kunst-
und Kulturvermittler, sondern er hat
selbst Feuer gefangen. Er ist ein durch die
Kunst befreites, schöpferisch-kreatives 
Wesen. Als Überbringer dieser 

Prometheus. Photo by Peng (talk).*


Feuerbotschaft versucht er, den Betrachter 
mit sich zu ziehen und fordert ihn auf, 
seinem Beispiel zu folgen. 

Parallele Gedanken finden sich bei Goethe, auf den sich Zadkine direkt bezieht, und im Werk von Joseph Beuys. 'Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler.' Damit appelliert der moderne Prometheus an das kreative Potential, das jeder Einzelne von uns besitzt. [...] " 

"Wählt die Kunst, das heißt Euch
selbst! Alle! Jeder!' [...]"
(Petra Schwerdner, "Ossip Zadkines 'Prometheus' in der Unibibliothek ist Feuer und Flamme", in: Frankfurter Rundschau, Aug. 14, 2001, p.32) 




The park of the 'sculpture museum' in the small German town of Marl (a place formerly dominated by coal mines, just as so many other towns in the Ruhr District), features a striking work of Zadkine called the 'Great Orpheus' (Grosser Orpheus). According to one source, the sculpture was initially created in 1948, but perhaps in a different material (stone, or wood). The 'Great Orpheus'  in Marl was cast in 1956.

The influence of Zadkine's earlier formal orientation which was impregnated by Cubist aesthetics can still be felt. The human body has been 'segmented'; it isn't a 'whole' but an ensemble of 'parts.'  As in the sculpture of a human figure that evokes those who faced (and, in many cases perished in) the Nazi German air raid, i.e. in The City Laid Waste, a void opens in the human body. In its chest, that is. Does it privilege essence over physical 'materiality'? Does it enhance the dynamics, the movement that is to be present, in a solid sculpture - a bronze? We remember, I think, the strides taken by Zadkine's Prometheus. There, too, the felt presence of movement was important to the artist. In The City Laid Waste, the body of the woman that appears to us when we see the sculpture is about to turn around and flee. The extremely slanted position of the sculpture suggest destabilization, precarity, the threat felt, the imminent fall. 

Here, in the garden, amid trees, positioned in nature, in a grove, so to speak, Orpheus is playing his lyre. To play means to move. At least it mean to move the hands, the fingers. But perhaps that does echo in the upper part of the body, as well. Whereas the feet of the player need to be standing solidly on the ground.

The head stands out in a clear, precise way. The singer has opened his mouth, accompanying the tune of the lyre with his song. The eyes - are they shut, or almost so? Concentrated or rather, immersed in his playing and singing, he doesn't let his eyes wander. Or stare at something. 

The positions of the arms reflect the need to hold the lyre properly while playing. There is nothing gratuitious in them. The left arm is raised; it forms an angle of about 90 degrees. The right arm is in a slightly curved and a lower position. The tension between the positions of both arms is clearly determined by the playing and in a way, the hands and the mouth form  an invisible but intuitively sensed 'connecting line.' It reflects, I would say, the 'oneness' of the act of playing and singing.

In spite of what I said about a necessity to be firmly anchored while playing, I ask myself, noticing the position of the feet, whether Orpheus isn't slowly walking? Moving on, among the trees, ever so lightly, slightly, while he sings and plays...

The legs support that assumption. While Orpheus has turned the head toward us, he seem to move sideways.
The legs, incidentally, are showing soft, smooth lines and a slightly curved surface. Their segmentation is visible - but only as a 'somewhat hinted at', mild fragmentation, at least when the figure is perceived in the way of the first photograph. The second one reveals, in the case of the left leg, the hiatus, the jarring way of joining its parts at the knee - a much clearer break with any (even if only faintly) 'naturalistic' way of modeling the human body than we note in the case of the other, the right leg. 

   Link to another image in:
Great Orpheus (Grosser Orpheus) 
Photo by Gerardus (taken in 2008)*

It is also in this second photograph that the ripped-open chest becomes much more visible. In the other photo, that is to say, from the location where it was taken, we can only 'guess' or 'surmise' the opened chest and if we look carefully, it seems to us perhaps that we are permitted to look inside the human body. The movement of the line inscribed into the right leg is carried upward, way above the hips and merges with and is continued by the curved plane that forms the figures 'back'. In fact, looking from the front, we are allowed to see the 'inside' of Orpheus' back. It is as if we were looking into an elongated, open bowl, seeing its bottom. And at the same time, a clearly structured surface stands out in front of it. Ribs? Or a part of the musical instrument?

Whereas the first photo gives us a certainly 'deformed' but nonetheless recognizable semblance of a male figure, this semblance fades in the second photo, at least from the waist upward, if we exempt the bent arm. Isn't this strange? A way of 'making' our perception feel (or appear) 'strange' to us? A way of making the object of our perception 'strange'? Yes, certainly. Though it has perhaps very little to do with Brechtian Verfremdung [making-strange]... For Brecht, the insight that sprang from 'hearing' something in a way that placed the ordinarily 'well-known' (as we mistakenly thought) in a new light was what mattered above all. And Zadkine? Does he aim at emotions rather than thought? Or perhaps both? We don't hear words, don't watch a play; we see a visual, three-dimensional work of art. What does it 'tell' us? That the singer, Orpheus, isn't whole and harmonious anymore because he has seen the horrors of a century?

We may have to ask ourselves this question.

Picasso's fragmented, torn, dissected, re-combined human forms, present in two-dimensional works, already echoed the disaster of the approaching and then, the suffered war of 1914-18. Europe had become a place of skulls, of murderous confrontation. After 1945, a new, more barbaric experience had been added and Zadkine has chosen, has been compelled to become a concious witness of it.


  Great Orpheus (Grosser Orpheus). 
  photo by Daniel Ulrich (taken in 2005)*

In the same year that 'Great Orpheus' was cast in bronze, Zadkine did a sculpture entitled 'Hommage à van Gogh'. It can be seen in the Parc Van Gogh, in Auvers-sur-Oise.
In contrast to 'Great Orpheus' (which really is closer to the spirit of 1948), the sculpture dedicated to the menory of van Gogh strikes many of us as almost conventional, perhaps. The organic is very prevalent in the bark-like surface structure. But the tension that goes with it in 'L'arbre de vie,' another work showing a texture that reminds me of the bark of a tree, is missing here. Or at least I fail to notice it.
What I notice is the expressive face; the face of a man facing resistance. Confronting the world, the Others, with great seriousness, courage, skepticism, probably in the way of someone thrown back onto himself. And isn't the upper part of the body, as well as the face, reclining backwards, ever so slightly? A small, but revealing nuance. 
His tools, the tools of a painter, the easel above all that allows him to paint outdoors instead of in a studio (a fact as radical at his time as it was when film directors in Hollywood, like Henry Ford, left the studio in order to shoot their films in the open countryside?), they are tools that appear to me like his pile of weapons, worn on the back. And the crossed leather belts visible on his chest might remind any one familiar with John Ford's movies of belts that are full of ammunition. Isn't he appearing here, like James Fenimore Cooper's trapper, Leatherstockings, as a man who just stepped out of the immense forest? Standing, watchfully, intent, in the middle of a lighting. A lonely man, I thought, like all trappers and pathfinders. All those who are traversing as yet unknown territories.

Van Gogh, Vincent Van Gogh Park in Auvers-sur-Oise.
Photo by Jean-no  ? (2005?)*

L'arbre de la vie (1957)

The tree of life (L'arbre de vie) is a sculpture completed by Zadkine in 1957. A rough, very organic, bark-like surface structure, not unlike that witnessed in some sculptures of Giacometti, is characteristic of the work. It is present in the surface of  the 'tree-trunk;' it is covering the skin of its 'branches' that are metamorphosing into human arms; but it can also be discovered in the case of a pair of wild, skinny, nasty dogs at the foot of the 'tree,'  furiously barking at something way up high.
Perhaps, apart from the balanced proportions, this common surface structure is one of the elements that gives the work unity. The other 'element' that gives this work unity is the after-image it leaves on our inner, mental 'retina' - that of a religious object, a candelabra. Instead of its candles, we see raised hands. The branches of the 'tree,'  the candle-bearing arms of the candelabra, are repeating in a way the well-known form so familiar to those who were raised in the Mosaic faith. They are fairly thin, and the raised hands therefore rest on other 'arms,' as well: not the curving ones that branch off the trunk further below - but thicker, stronger, horizontal ones. Strange addition to the 'after-image' that forced itself on me, they leave me with a strong impression. It is as if the trunk divides its force of growth, suddenly continuing this growth both leftward and towards the right. Why? Because the hands and arms need to be joined. They need to join; they need to link up. A strong expression of togetherness, of human solidarity. I think of survivors, united by brotherhood,  by sisterly ways of mutual help, of strong dedication to a human project. And the dogs, below? Yesterday, they were the fascist henchmen, the murderers bringing death to those transported to the sites of slave labor, to the children, the women and men in the death camps. Celan spoke of the smoke that was left of them. Zadkine speaks of the resistance of the living who, victims once, have survived.
The strength of their solidarity, this sculpture seems to say, will resist all assailants. And they will survive.

You can see a good photo of the "Tree of Life" 
if you visit the Tjerk-Wiegersma website:

Zadkine, L' arbre de la vie

Ossip Zadkine (Russian/French, 1890-1967) 
L'arbre de vie, 1957
72 x 74 x 51 cm
28.3 x 29.1 x 20.1 inches
Signed and numbered 2/5
Foundry: Modern Art Foundry, NY

Commissioned by the American architect 
Daniel Schwartzman in 1957





In 1946, Ossip Zadkine had done a gouache he called 'La Forêt Humaine' (The Human Forest). Perhaps a title like 'Human Jungle' would have been too revealing, too outspoken. The war was just over. The suffering, the millions who were dead now, still fresh in the mind. And for Zadkine as so many others, what had happened to the member of the Maquis caught by the Nazis, to villagers like those in Oradour, to Jews and Communists, Social Democrats and Homosexuals, Sinti and Roma in the death camps, was something that was worse, more disconcerting, perhaps more traumatic than any bloody battle of armies because it was even more hideous, more terrible.
          La Forêt Humaine, 1946
             Gouache, India ink and wash
The work shows that Zadkine has returned from starkly abstract, geometric forms to flowing, organic lines. A few, nearly straight, diagonal lines that are strongly visible are the only trace left of his earlier formal preoccupation. They are in part covered by other forms, and the overall impression is that of a maze, a tangle, a confused, in places perhaps slightly loose yet in its effect terrible knot of people. We see elongated hands and arms, as if beckoning, crying out, asking to be saved, waving and calling for help. We see, dimly visible, a head, a bald head - that of a victim, a prisoner. It must be the head of the beckoning man. Is he tied to beams, wooden beams that form a cross - like that Jew from Galilee was tied to them, according to the narrations of the Christians, the Jew-Haters? No, I assure you, not all of them were or are jew-haters - I know it. And yet, the anti-judaism, wasn't it inscribed into their religious statements, for century after century? And exploded into something new when racism seemed to conquer a 'scientific' language, in defense and supposed justification of its obscenities? The obscenity is present in  this work. It is present in the form of a naked woman who attempts to take hold of the crucified man, the tortured one, the victim. A pig's face stares at the victim. The face of evil? The face of fascism? 
No, this, to my mind, is hardly about sex. Or gender. Not about "man and woman." It is about the beast. The perverse, obscene beast of fascism. And about the men and women (perhaps, men, above all) who desired a 'leader' and who were ready to obey the commands of a brutal, barbaric State. 
Source of image:   :

In 1960, Zadkine realized a sculpture bearing the same title and, in fact, the theme suggested by it in the gouache seems to be taken up indeed, although in a different formal (i.e. aesthetic) language. I see a mechanical, mechanized, "machine man." Limbs, without doubt. The bent legs of a seated human being. His left arm. Another, smaller arm, perhaps that of a child, is stretched out toward him, as if imploring.  A hand, perhaps - no, probably - that of the large man, the "machine man" (as I suggested, quite hurriedly) holds something. A weapon? And the horns that pierce the light-grey air of the sky, are they too indicative of a world filled with too many weapons? 

The Human Forest / La forêt humaine (1960), sculpture 
in the garden of the Van Leer Institute,Talbiya, Jerusalem 
Excerpt of photo by Deror Avi.*


'La demeure humaine' (The Human Habitat) was created in 1963/64. The sculpture can be seen in Amsterdam, Holland. In this work of tangled yet faintly geometric metal 'beams' (some of them bent into round curves, but most of them fairly straight), a vast house can be seen and in it, in fact, on the top, two relatively tiny human beings. It is as if makers of houses have lost all sense of human proportions, creating vast 'machines' intended as habitats. The Germans have an adequate word for it, Wohnmaschinen. 'Dwelling machines,' or 'machines for living' are clumsy terms, by comparison. To my mind, the sculpture reveals Zadkine again as a critical, committed artist, with a sharp sense for what is wrong in our world today, a sense which is also revealing another trait of the artist: his sense of 'humor.'  A black humor.

lLa demeure humaine (The human habitat) (in Amsterdam) (1963/64)
Photo by Pjotr P. (2009)*
* All photos marked with an asterisk are licensed by their authors according to "GNU" licenses 
(creative commons).


The photo of L'arbre de la vie (1957) is copyright material and so is the photo of the gouache
La Forêt Humaine (1946).
They have been included for art scientific purposes because their presence is vital for the discussion of Zadkine's work in this article.
Links to the URL-site where these two photos appear have been included but the size of the gouache shown there is too small to recognize all the details discussed.
The photo of L'arbre de la vie that is included in this non-commercial, non-profit art journal is included for the purpose of orientation only. It is very small but the photo offered by the Tjerk-Wiegersma site which is larger can be accessed by way of the link.
We thank the copyright owners for being able to use these two digitalized images.


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