Bequeathed by Elly Kahnweiler 1991 to form part of the gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler and accessioned 1994
Head of a Boxer was one of a number of sculptural reliefs Laurens made in Paris between 1919 and the mid-1920s. The practice of carving directly was familiar to him from the years he had spent working for a sculptor of building ornaments between 1899 and 1906. However, the shallow relief of such terracotta works as Head of a Boxer owes more to the papiers collés (paper collages) he had made between 1914 and 1919 (see Tate T06806). The way in which paint has been applied - in geometric areas with no tonal gradation - emphasises the similarly between these shallow planes and the cut-out and superimposed elements of a collage. The effects of light and shade falling across the different levels of the surface creates an additional play between flatness and volume.
The features of the figure are bold and simple: they seem to relate both to Cubist still-life objects (the mouth evokes the opening of a wine bottle) and to the so-called 'primitive' art of Africa and Asia, which interested a number of avant-garde artists working in Paris at this time. The disjointed lines of the boxer's nose can be seen as a reference to the risks of his profession. Although the austerity of Laurens's earlier Cubist collages is still recognisable in Head of a Boxer, the curved line of the black paint, which reads like a silhouette behind the figure, indicates the gradual softening of forms which was to characterise the development of his work during the 1920s and 1930s (see Tate T00361 and Tate T01111).
In 1970 Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), who was Laurens's dealer for a short time in the early 1920s, commented on the difficult conditions that influenced the artist's use of terracotta: 'Economic factors may certainly play a decisive part in an artist's work', he wrote. 'Why did he [Laurens] produce so many terracotta works in a certain period? Because terracotta is much cheaper than bronze. Neither he nor I had the money to pay for casting, so Laurens limited himself to terracotta.' (quoted in Hofmann, p.50.)
Werner Hofmann, The Sculpture of Henri Laurens, New York 1970
Henri Laurens 1885-1954, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain, London 1971
Christopher Green, Cubism and its Enemies, New Haven and London 1987