Painter, sculptor, illustrator and creator of tapestries and mosaics, Leon Zack (Lev Vasil'evich Zak) left a body of work which spans the scope of twentieth-century art history and is represented in many of the most important European public collections. From his early, Impressionist-influenced painting to late lyrical abstraction, however, all his work displays a particularly Russian sensitivity which is almost mystical in tone.
Born in Nizhni-Novgorod (Gorki), Russia, the son of a pharmacist, Zack took drawing lessons from a young age, having decided at the age of six to become a painter. He studied painting at various private schools and in 1907 was exposed for the first time to the painters of the Salon de la Federation in Moscow. At the home of the noted collector Serguei Chtchoukine he came across the Impressionists, Cezanne and Matisse – painters who undoubtedly cast influence over his early work and his subsequent decision to move to France. Whilst studying literature at Moscow University he came under the influence of Jakimchenko, who reinforced this interest in contemporary French painting. He then worked in the studios of Rerberg and Machkoff (the latter, of the ‘Jack of Diamonds’ group). Marrying in 1917, he left Russia for Rome and Florence, where he lived until 1921. In 1922 he went to Berlin to take up a commission designing the stage scenery for the Boris Romanoff’s Russian Romantic Ballet. The following year he moved to Paris, which, with the exception of the War years 1940-45 (during which he lived in Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Grenoble and in an Alpine village under an assumed identity), he would make his permanent home.
In Paris Zack exhibited at the Salon des Independants, the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Surindependants. In 1926 he had his first solo exhibition at the galerie d’Art Contemporain. The following year saw a one-man show at the galerie Percier. From 1930-37 he produced work that came to be associated with the ‘neo-Humanist’ group of painters (most notably Hosiasson, Eugene Berman, Christian Berard and Pavel Tchelitchev). After 1938 his painting, whilst figurative, became increasingly expressionistic. Returning to Paris in 1945, Zack continued to exhibit widely – including a solo show at the galerie Granoff in 1946 – and after 1947 his work turned to lyrical abstraction. Finding that subject matter was playing no specific or useful role in his painting, Zack eliminated it to concentrate on tones and forms; the muted colours, often blurred, and sensuous, sometimes indistinct lines hence came to convey a sensuous, evocative mystical quality.
Zack had a number of solo shows at the Bonjean and Beaux-Arts Galleries in Paris and took part in exhibitions in Basel, Brussels, Cologne, Copenhagen, Dublin, London, Oslo and Venice. With the advent of true lyricism in his work after 1955, he developed an emphasis on signs and forms which, in turn, made him a great pioneer of ‘cloud effects.’ Several of his paintings are in the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris. His work is also represented in the museums of Brussels, Anvers, Luxembourg and the Vatican; Tate Modern, London, and in the Philips Collection, Washington.