Alexander Archipenko

Alexander Archipenko

Alexander Archipenko was a Ukrainian-born avant-grade artist, one of the founder of Cubism in sculpture

Early years and Parisian Period

Alexander Archipenko was born on May 30, 1997 in Kyiv. His father, a professor of the University of Kyiv, was a son of an icon-painter, so the boy revealed interest in art from early on, acquainting with great Renaissance masters, copying their pieces and learning secrets of their drawing and painting technique that way. Between 1902 and 1905 he studied at Kyiv art school and later (in 1907 – 1908) enrolled the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. In 1908 he left Russian Empire and settled in Paris – the international capital of art at that time. There the young artist lived in the famous artist’s colony La Ruche, among such prominent colleagues as March Chagall, Ossip Zadkine, Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani and others. He participated in the at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne and established his own school in 1910.

Experiments with space

At the same time Alexander found time investigating various physical phenomenons and reading technical literature. It was then, when the master referred to the idea he had originated in his childhood. Archipenko himself claimed that around 191 – 192 he “deeply realized the role of empty space”, as hollows “become the source of associations and feeling of relativeness”. Overcoming all traditional canons the author created new plastic form, accentuating through holes, which underlined silhouette and sometimes even replaced faces. The piece’s material was a frame for space endowed with symbolical meaning; relief parts were substituted with contra relief. The sculptor believed that “the world would like the artist to represent everything clearly. So public could come and get everything at once… But in that case there would be no creativeness and artist has to create. An artist, who creates, compel a viewer to creation. He gives an impulse to a viewer that prompts him, a viewer, according to the laws of universal movement. When you give a symbol to a viewer, he has to start thinking creatively himself”. As a son of icon-painter, Archipenko knew the value of symbol.

Developing cubistic principles in sculpture and “Sculpto-painting”

Searching for new ways of artistic expression, Alexander experimented with decomposing objects into geometrical figures, combining 3-dimensional ones with planes. Admiring, first of all, everything that was “clear and simple”, the innovator preferred elementary shapes. Hence he became one of the first to apply cubistic principles in sculpture. Archipenko wasn’t merely influenced by a new movement, but revolutionized common notions of this kind of art. He often repetead “I haven’t inherited from Cubism but I’ve added to it”. “Blue Dancer”, “Boxers”, “Pierrot-carrousel” (1913) brightly illustrate artistic principles the master had developed by that period.

Soon, since 1914, Alexander Archipenko started experimenting with various materials (tin, wood, carton, textile, wires, glass), mixing them in the most unpredictable ways. He often brightly painted his works and fastened them to a plank as a background. This technique, introduced by the master was called “sculpto-painting”. Some of the works, executed in that series continued subject of Circus, others belonged to nude and still life genre – “Medrano” (1912), “Woman in Front of Mirror” (1915), “Espanola” (1916), “Life with Book and Vase on Table” (1918) and others.

His innovations quickly attracted attention of the exacting Parisian public. Guillaume Apollinaire left highly positive notes on Archipenko’s works in his review of at the Salon des Indépendants in 1914.From 1919 and further on Alexander was on two-year exhibition-tour across Europe: Zurich, Geneva, Brussels, London, Athens, Berlin, Munich and Venice (a solo-show during the Venetian Biennale). In 1921 Archipenko’s first exhibition in the USA was organized.

American period

The artist’s restless creative personality that always longed for new impressions to inspire with, prompted him to move to Berlin. On a new place he established a new school. Yet, “the feeling of nostalgia for something me, myself, don’t know”, as the sculptor used to say, didn’t allow him to be satisfied with what he reached and stop in his creative searches. In 1923 he left for New York. “America excites my imagination more than any other country”, Archipenko commented on his choice.

In the USA he continued his teaching activity along with completing his creative experiments. It was at the end of the 19th cent, when famous scientist Kirpichov once mentioned that American air inspired for mechanical inventions. Whether it was the atmosphere of the country, which held record for most invention’s patenting, or not, it was there the sculptor presented his technical conceptions and decided to protect them with patents.

Experiments with motions sculpture

The artist tried to realize his conception of the “mechanical picture” for several years and to make image move. The idea, as Alexander Archipenko stated, had appeared in Berlin in 1922, casually, while watching tree branches swinging on the wind. After countless experiments, it was finally embodied. The author patented two inventions between 1925 and 1927 – first, “method of decorating changeable display apparatus” and second for “Apparatus for displaying changeable pictures”, known as “Archipentura”.

The first one was described as a new way of using illustrations and texts with dynamic effects on flat surface; the second one as a machine, that moves a depicted object analogically to a slow-motion cinematographic effect. In fact, it was a big box with a moveable frame inside. Dozens of narrow stripes of metal and Plexiglass with fragments of painting were attached to it and were set in motion with electric motor.

What about the image itself, Alexander remained faithful to the main motif of his oeuvre – “Woman – Mother – Goddess”. On that “moving canvas” he depicted an elegant female figure in a fashionable dress of 1920s. After receiving the patent, the artist displayed his invention in New-York gallery of Anderson, personally demonstrating it in action. One cannot say, introducing of “Archipentura” made a furore at that time, yet it’s widely used in advertising bill-boards even today.

Close observation of nature the Archipenko always considered his source of inspiration, led to another innovation. That time it was glass. The master presented “light modulators” – Plexiglas sculptures illuminated from within – in 1947. Futher experiments were connected with “sound sculpture”.


Persistently trying to make public accustom to new forms and unusual spatial dimensions, the Alexander was forced to prove rationality of his achievements every time, receiving not only positive reaction of his admirers, but encountering categorical rejection and even curses. In 1914 Lunacharsky, who would become the commissar for cultural matters and education in the USSR’s government in future, wrote in his review of the thirteen Salon of the Independents: “Renown buffoon Archipenko, who is strangely, despite his laborious vagaries (or even due to them), some people believe to be a sincere searcher, this time contrived some pieces from tin and wood, painted in various hues. The greatest absurdities of such Cubism, which is admitted to be charlatanry by more serious Cubists themselves, have leaped out from canvases into the world of objects. No great merit. In what miserable time we live! That talentless poseur finds himself students. And take a notice that not only among those, who want to learn self-promotion with absurdities from him, but among those, who sincerely hope to reach the unknown temple of a new beauty under his guidance”.

In 1920 during his personal exhibition at the Venetian Biennale his pieces were “honoured” with damnation from a cardinal. Anyway, “history proves that spiritual content of artistic works remains untouched by criticism”, ‑ the sculptor replied to his opponents. He was against intrusion of politics in art. “Contemporary art isn’t connected with communism or with any other political doctrine or religion. It’s self-sufficient and gives practical benefits for developing intellect and creative skills”, ‑ the master wrote, summing up 50 years of his artistic explorations.

Alexander Archipenko died on February 25, 1964, in New York City.