Jacques Lipchitz’s first life-size sculpture, Bather, represents a nude figure standing in a relaxed pose with fabric draped behind their back.
Bathers are a common motif in Western art, from ancient Greek vases to Renaissance masterpieces to the canvases of Paul Cézanne. (More recently, the tradition has been criticized for its tendency toward voyeurism and objectification, as the subjects have tended to be women seen in idyllic landscapes.) Lipchitz returned to the subject repeatedly during the ten years before he made this work. Here, his take on an individual bather retains a sense of allure, rendering ample curves and flowing hair, and yet it presents his Cubist style at its purest and most rigorous, reducing the natural forms of the human body—feet, limbs, torso, head—to their essential architecture.
The work was modeled in plaster before being cast in bronze. Its installation on a low pedestal in a courtyard encourages contemplation from all sides and in relation to a viewer’s own body. The bather’s feet, perhaps the most recognizable element, suggest a contrapposto stance, but seen from different angles, the figure fragments into blocky shapes that resolve into an image only if a viewer turns a corner. The result is a representation of the body as a calm but shifting structure of interpenetrating planes and volumes.
Jacques Lipchitz (1891–1973) was born in Lithuania as Chaim Jacob Lipchitz. After studying engineering at a secondary school in Vilna, he moved to Paris in 1909, where he attended classes at the city’s prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, Académie Julian, and Académie Colarossi. From the stylized figurative sculpture of his early years in Paris, Lipchitz’s work gradually developed as he absorbed ideas from Cubist painters of his time. He had extensive contacts with other artists and writers and formed friendships with poet Max Jacob and painters Diego Rivera, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Pablo Picasso, and Juan Gris. By 1915, he had developed a fully Cubist sculptural idiom. Lipchitz worked in France until the German invasion in 1940, after which he immigrated to New York. From that point on, his sculpture became more narrative and autobiographical, emphasizing biblical or personal themes. Lipchitz exhibited regularly in exhibitions in Paris beginning in 1912, and received the first of numerous solo exhibitions in 1920. His works have been displayed at the Petit Palais, Paris; Portland Museum of Art, Maine; Museum of Modern Art, New York; the 26th Venice Biennale (1952); Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Detroit Institute of Arts; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and numerous other international venues. Lipchitz is especially remembered at MIT for his support of the Institute’s program in the arts. In 1965, students enrolled in Professor Stanford Anderson’s seminar on modern art were invited to tour his studio in New York.