In 1909, Zadkine left Belarus and his home town of Vitebsk to settle in Paris. There, he made a natural connection with the magnetic milieu of emigrant artists, following the example of Amedeo Modigliani, Jacques Lipchitz and Alexander Archipenko. In the years following the First World War, many artists sought to escape the brutality of their time and return to classical sources in their work. Greek and Roman statuary – a fortiori the motif of the head – was considered the height of refinement and beauty at the time, and became a preferred theme for avant-garde sculptors.
Although Ossip Zadkine's majestic Tête d'homme from 1928 was crafted in keeping with the classical canon, it also shows signs of this modernist style and constitutes one of the artist's most remarkable works from which emanates an elegance marked by the desire to revive the human spirit. In the present work, carved directly by hand, Zadkine appears to free himself from the severity associated with the intensely academic Cubist style which the artist felt did not leave enough room for human emotion. While some of the codes of Cubism's streamlined geometry can still be seen in the daring shaping of the nose and curve of the eyes, Tête d'homme primarily exudes a striking expressiveness more akin to the directness of the tribal art which remains the root of the movement's original inception, the medium enhancing the spontaneity with the handmade and organic qualities of its production. In his direct carving of the wood, Zadkine further recalls Amedeo Modigliani's characteristic stylisation, evoked here by the almond-shaped eyes of the model and the imposing nature of the neck.
While the two artists shared the same passion for woodwork and for the beauty and elegance of archaic forms, Zadkine's penchant for wood and the intimate link with nature began from his childhood spent on the banks of the Dnieper and near the forests of Russia, where his maternal uncle introduced him to the techniques of carving. The memory of the tree is apparent in Tête d'homme, preserved by the sculptor's gestures: at its base, the artist has left the trunk visible, and the majestic character of the bust, with its verticality, brings to mind the forest and the eternal presence of nature which, as with art, survives beyond mortal humanity.