Frances Archipenko Gray has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
“In sculpture, Archipenko seeks above all the purity of forms,” Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in the preface to the artist’s 1913 debut exhibition in Berlin at Herwarth Walden’s gallery Der Sturm. “He wants to find the most abstract, most symbolic, newest forms, and he wants to be able to shape them as he pleases... Passionately he works to create his ideal: ‘Reality’” (quoted in L.C. Breunig, ed., Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001, p. 360).
This “purity of forms” resulted from Archipenko’s striving for simplification, to distill freely from the figure the essence of clear, hard, and expressive line, which he animated with subtle inflections and–most innovatively at that time–the striking, contradictory notions of positive and negative space. It is for these reasons that Woman Combing Her Hair is “one of his most famous works,” as Jaroslav Leshko has written. “The popularity of the work stems from its accessibility. We recognize the toilette motif, admire the graceful feminine form and are aware of the hegemony of the pose–from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (circa. 1480) to Ingres’ Vénus Anadyomene (1808) and La Source (1856)” (Alexander Archipenko: Vision and Continuity, exh. cat., The Ukrainian Museum, New York, 2005, p. 76).
The creative evolution in Archipenko’s early modernist style in sculpture took a quantum leap during the years 1912-1915, as the young artist immersed himself in the milieu of Cubism while the immediate impact of this new movement was at its height, instigating a growing international avant-garde to transgress hallowed pictorial conventions that had been in place since the Renaissance. “Cubism will remain a document of the newly awakened spirit of the beginning of the mathematical and geometric twentieth century,” Archipenko wrote. “I cooperated in creating it, together with a small group of artists” (op. cit., 1960, p. 50). “I did not take from Cubism,” he claimed, “but added to it” (ibid., p. 49). But there was surely, as it happened in so many other instances during this tumultuous period of radical thought and invention, plenty of give-and-take all around.
When Archipenko arrived in Paris in 1908 from Kiev, his birthplace in Ukraine, to study at the École des Beaux-Arts (where, disappointed, he attended classes for only two weeks), the emotive, expressive art of Rodin dominated the realm of sculpture. In employing modeling to create form, Rodin adapted the fleeting effects of Impressionism to enhance the light-catching surfaces of his sculptures. Young modernists like Boccioni and Brancusi decried in turn-of-the-century sculpture the lack of architecture–that is, a cohesive structural discipline–in generating form. The evolving practice of Cubism, with its emphasis on employing multiple viewpoints, its signature concept of “simultaneity” in rendering form, had fostered the understanding that mass and space, solid and void, should be accorded equivalent value. These twin aspects of perceived reality each interpenetrated the other, and for the purpose of representation on the two dimensional cubist canvas, the functions and effects of positive and negative space were interchangeable.
This is the transformative principle that Archipenko found revealed in the paintings of his friends in the Section d’Or, or the Puteaux group of cubists, most notably the Duchamp brothers, Gris, Léger and Picabia, as well as the two great independent painters who avoided all such affiliations, together with their exhibitions–Braque and Picasso. Archipenko lifted, as it were, this idea from two dimensions, then translated it into modern sculpture, with significant innovations of his own. He called this concept “The New Concave.”
“In the year 1912, I conceived the way to enrich form by introducing significant modulation of the concave,” Archipenko explained. The modulation of the concave, its outlines and whole patterns became an integral part, symbolically as important as the pattern of elevations. This method I applied to reliefs and to three-dimensional figures. As a result of many experiments, I obtained an entirely new and original type of sculpture with new esthetic, optical and spiritual expressions. The combining of positive and negative forms evolved into a new modern style.
“There is no concave without the convex. Both elements are fused into one significant ensemble. In the creative process, as in life itself, the reality of the negative is a conceptual imprint of the absent positive... It is not exactly the presence of the thing but rather the absence of it that becomes the cause and impulse for creative motivation” (ibid., pp. 52-54).
Archipenko’s experimentation with concave and convex forms led him to a further step when he created the original version of Geometric Statuette in 1914. Having abjured the protruding convex shape that a head would have normally assumed in a conventional three-dimensional representation, the sculptor tunneled out this mass, leaving an empty hole instead of solid form (this hole was closed up in later bronze version). “The hole, the final outcome of the hollowing out process, is the absolute reverse of mass, and paradoxically becomes interchangeable with it,” Michaelsen stated. “This is Archipenko’s first use of this complete reversal” (Archipenko: A Study of the Early Works, Ph.D., Diss., Columbia University, New York, 1975, p. 66).
In Walking, 1914-1915, Statuette, and the present Woman Combing her Hair, both from 1915, the female visage becomes a shaped hole, a complete void, defined only by the arabesque of hair that surrounds it at the crown and along the sides. “The concave forms in Woman Combing Her Hair are artfully scalloped by forming a hard curving edge–a key requirement, according to the artist, in creating a concave shape,” Leshko has written. “The graceful curves animate the legs and torso, and play off contrapuntally with the convex shapes. Light is the critical player between form and the absence of form. In a daring gesture, Archipenko places the opening of the head on a concave neck and envelops the right side of the head with a concave arm” (op. cit., 2005, p. 76). “She stands upright and majestic, the left arm again fragmented,” Donald Karshan observed, “lest there be a distraction from the all-important activity which creates the negative form” (Archipenko: Themes and Variations 1908-1963, exh. cat., Museum of Arts and Sciences, Daytona Beach, 1989, p. 40).
“I established the clear conception of the materiality of non-being form,” Archipenko declared. “Traditionally there was a belief that sculpture begins where material touches space... Ignoring this tradition, I experimented, using the reverse idea, and concluded that sculpture may begin where space is encircled by the material” (op. cit., 1960, pp. 54 and 56)
“Archipenko is the first to dare what appears to be sculptural suicide,” Ywan Goll wrote in the Archipenko Album, 1921, the first monograph on the artist. “A deep philosophy emanates from his creations. Every object is also present in its reverse. Being and non-being. Fullness is expressed through emptiness. A concave form is inevitably also a convex form... Archipenko’s discovery–to stress the presence of something through its absence–makes even the unimaginable possible” (quoted in K.M. Michaelsen, Alexander Archipenko: A Centenary Tribute, exh. cat., The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 25).