One of the first sculptors to apply the principles of Cubism to his work, Ossip Zadkine created striking compositions that reduced the human figure to geometric forms and emphasized the dynamic interplay of concave and convex surfaces. Over the course of his lengthy career, Zadkine earned international acclaim for powerful, bold visual statements that addressed, among other topics, twentieth-century atrocities, some of which he had witnessed during military service in World War I. Despite those traumatic experiences, towards the end of his life, Zadkine wrote in his memoir: “But it is in any case very beautiful to end your life with a chisel and mallet in your hands.”

Zadkine was born in the Russian city of Vitebsk (present-day Belarus); over time, the accuracy of his birth year has come under question. His father was a professor who found his son’s interest in clay art—rather than academics—dismaying. At the age of fifteen, Ossip was sent to live with relatives in Britain in hopes that the teenager would “learn English and manners.” After bring introduced to woodworking, Zadkine found employment in a London cabinet-making shop and proved especially adept at carving furniture ornamentation. Evening classes at the Regent Street Polytechnic further honed these skills. Yet a stiff rejection by the young British sculptor Jacob Epstein prompted Zadkine to return home. Recognizing his son’s artistic talents, Zadkine’s father sent him to Paris in to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts. Years later, he would learn that his parents died during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Zadkine arrived in Paris at the height of Cubism in 1910. A movement pioneered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, Cubist artists—working in both two and three dimensions—fractured subject matter into abstracted geometric elements presented from multiple vantage points. After six months at the École, Zadkine left to join avant-garde artists Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani at La Ruche, an artist’s enclave, in the Montparnasse area of the city. Throwing aside his “academic uniform” in order to place himself “at the service of the wood,” Zadkine began direct carving, a method in which the actual process of carving determines the final shape of the work, whether in wood or stone.

Following the outbreak of World War I, Zadkine enlisted with the French Army in 1916. Serving with the First Foreign Regiment, a division of French Foreign Legion, his assignments centered on the medical transport and care of wounded soldiers. After being severely gassed himself, Zadkine was discharged in 1917 and returned to Paris. Describing himself as “physically and morally devastated,” Zadkine documented his harrowing experiences on the front in a series of etchings published the next year. The year 1920 brought better days. In May, Zadkine held a one-man exhibition of forty-nine sculptures at his Parisian studio to critical acclaim. In the preface to the exhibition catalogue, French art historian George Duthuit praised the works’ powerful “bare simplicity” and ranked Zadkine as one of “the greatest craftsmen of the moment.” That August, Zadkine married a fellow artist, Valentine Prax. As the decade progressed, Zadkine began to experiment with plaster or clay models that were subsequently cast in bronze and solidified his reputation through successful one-man exhibitions in London, Brussels, and New York.

As the Nazi regime encroached on France, Zadkine, who was of Jewish descent, fled to New York in 1941, traveling on one of the last American passenger ships to depart from Europe. Although he was able to bring only his most essential art tools and supplies, a few months after his arrival, Zadkine exhibited a series of gouache paintings at the Galerie Wildenstein in New York. When asked about his four years in the United States, Zadkine recounted that his “life in America was spent in a fog. My imagination was dried up. It was as if the truest part of me, the most precious part of my soul had been left behind in France.” In spite of these difficulties, his career as an art educator flourished during his American exile. As an instructor at the Art Students League, Zadkine taught Elizabeth Catlett, encouraging her to embrace abstraction in her sculpture. He spent the summer of 1945 in North Carolina after bring invited to teach sculpture at Black Mountain College, where his colleagues included Jean Varda and Leo Amino.

Upon his return to Europe in the autumn of 1945, Zadkine’s reaction to his own trauma and the continent’s devastation was channeled into works characterized by fractured forms, voids, and contorted poses. The war-torn city of Rotterdam commissioned him to create a monumental public sculpture. Two years in the making and standing twenty-one feet, The Destroyed City depicts a distorted figure with the head tilted back and arms reaching towards the sky. Infused with palpable anguish, The Destroyed City (unveiled in 1953) is heralded as Zadkine’s masterpiece, a work he described as “a cry of horror against the inhuman brutality of this act of tyranny.”

From 1946 to 1958, Zadkine served as a professor of sculpture at L’Académie de la Grande-Chaumière in Paris. Eager to apply the innovative pedagogical practices he had been introduced to at the Art Students League, the artist opened the Ossip Zadkine Studio of Modern Sculpture and Drawing in 1948. The school, which was approved for GI Bill tuition funding, attracted numerous American pupils, including Black Mountain College alumnus and veteran Kenneth Noland. Zadkine continued to received accolades for his emotive artwork, was honored with a major retrospective in 1949, and received the sculpture prize at the 1950 Venice Biennale and the French Grand Prix National des Arts in 1960. Zadkine died in 1967 after undergoing abdominal surgery. His widow later donated his artwork and their home to the city of Paris in 1978 where it became the Musée Zadkine in 1982.