‘For me, Laurens' sculpture is, more than any other, a true projection of himself in space, a little like a three-dimensional shadow. The way he breathes, he touches, he feels, he thinks, becomes an object, a sculpture’
Alberto Giacometti, January 1945 (quoted in Laurens and Braque, exh. cat., New York, 1971, p. 13).
One of the pioneers of cubist sculpture, Henri Laurens’ Homme à la pipe is among the finest of the artist’s work in stone. Encouraged to adopt a cubist idiom in his sculpture by his friend Georges Braque in around 1911, Laurens created a number of polychrome paper and cardboard constructions and assemblages, before taking up stone and terracotta as his mediums in 1917. From this time on, he created a series of cubist inspired pieces, such as the present work, which combine both the wit and playfulness of his earlier Picasso-inspired multimedia constructions with a sense of grandeur, simplicity and geometric lucidity that served as the embodiment of the prevailing wartime and post-war stylistic tendency: the ‘Return to Order’.
Taking as its subject an instantly recognisable cubist motif – a man smoking a pipe – the present work demonstrates Laurens’ deft ability at creating a paradoxical sense of wholeness from an assortment of fragmented planes, protrusions, cubes and hollows. Created to be regarded fully in the round, Homme à la pipe is composed of angular, geometric facets of smoothly carved stone, interspersed with semi-circular shapes to demarcate the figure’s eyes, ears and his pipe. Zig-zagging carvings signify the man’s hair, these identifiable attributes serving, as in cubist painting and drawing, as recognisable features amidst an otherwise abstract arrangement of simplified forms. In many ways reminiscent of Picasso’s Tête de Fernande, in which Picasso created the head of his lover with a series of faceted planes, here Laurens has conveyed multiple viewpoints of this male figure. In so doing, the sculptor has imbued this piece of carved stone with a sense of dynamism and movement, as if the character is caught in a moment of animation or expression.
Laurens’ move to more traditional materials and methods of sculptural construction was, it has been suggested, a result in part of a trip that he made to Chartres in the spring of 1918. It was Chartres Cathedral, particularly the Romanesque parts, that most interested Laurens, the weight, texture and colour of the limestone inspiring him to adopt this in his own practice (I. Monod-Fontaine, in Le Cubisme, exh. cat., Paris, 2018-2019, p. 180). As a result, Laurens continued to expand the boundaries of cubist sculpture.