Summary

Head of Young Woman bears the hallmarks both of Laurens's Cubist works made between 1915 and 1919 and his more classical sculptures of the 1920s and 30s (see Tate T00361 and T01111). The angular structure of the woman's face contrasts with the soft waves of her hair and the gentle curve of her left shoulder. Her right eye is delineated by a simple incised mark, whereas her left eye, although equally schematic, protrudes from the flat plane of the cheek. This contrast characterises the rich vocabulary of carving techniques that Laurens used in this work, many of which he had learnt during the years he spent working in the studio of a sculptor of building ornaments in Paris between 1899 and 1906.

In 1919 Laurens ceased making the constructed polychrome sculptures and papiers collés (paper collages) of his Cubist years and began working on three-dimensional and relief sculptures in terracotta and stone (see also Tate T06833). This change can be seen as part of the widespread movement among artists working in Paris in the late 1910s and early 1920s, away from the fragmentation of Cubism towards a more classical style. This so-called 'rappel à l'ordre' ('return to order') has often been interpreted in terms of a desire for stability and tradition after the disruption and chaos of the First World War (see Elizabeth Cowling and Jennifer Mundy, On Classic Ground, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.11-30). Although a terracotta version of Head of Young Woman is in the collection of the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Laurens' choice of stone as the material for Tate's version indicates a new interest in permanence and timelessness that can be seen as a direct reference to classical sculpture. His decision to leave the stone unpainted also implies a concern with purity, as well as an interest in exploring the effects of light and shade more fully. 'When a statue is red, blue and yellow, it always stays red, blue and yellow', he wrote in 1951, 'but a statue that isn't polychromed is affected by the alterations of light and shade on it and changes all the time' (London 1971, p.18). The use of stone and the elongated and stylised features recall the carved stone heads made by his friend Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) during the early 1910s (see Tate T03760). Like Modigliani and numerous other artists working in Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, Laurens was influenced by the decorative character of tribal sculptures from Africa and Asia. The art historian Reinold Hohl has commented that, 'in the period of the "rappel à l'ordre", the term "decorative" had nothing pejorative about it - quite the opposite. It expressed the effort by sculptors to integrate their works into the contemporary architecture of elegant living.' (Lugano 1986, p.24.)

Commenting on Laurens's move away from the angularity of Cubism towards more organic forms, the art historian Elizabeth Cowling has written: 'The first clear sign of a new orientation in Laurens' work had occurred in 1919, in the more voluptuous and relaxed forms of "Woman with a Fan" [whereabouts unknown, illustrated Lugano 1986, p.48] and in subsequent related reclining nudes. In these, curves multiply, forms are more volumetric, and there is a general softening of mood - although the break up of the body into large areas, which are then juxtaposed against one another at different angles, betrays the continuing role of Laurens' Cubist style.' (On Classic Ground, p.130.)

Further Reading:

Werner Hofmann, The Sculpture of Henri Laurens, New York 1970
Henri Laurens 1885-1954, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain, London 1971
Laurens cubista, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Pieter Coray, Lugano 1986

Sophie Howarth
August 2000