Isamu Noguchi’s Humpty Dumpty (1946) is a masterfully constructed work of art. Comprising five interlocking stone pieces, the sculpture fits together through carefully placed notches without the use of any fasteners or glue. Although Noguchi’s focus on old-fashioned modes of construction went against the postwar emphasis on industrial production, the artist’s motivations and concerns were current and contemporary. From 1945 through 1948, Noguchi made more than fifteen interlocking sculptures, all resembling fragmented figures made up of rounded biomorphic forms. Created during the immediate aftermath of World War II, these works expressed the fragile state of humanity, especially as an outcome of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Born of an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi sought to express humanity’s common origins through art.
The title of this sculpture references the popular children’s rhyme in which an unfortunate character falls off a wall, concluding, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” An illustration in English author Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) popularized the notion of Humpty Dumpty as an egg. Noguchi’s Humpty Dumpty recalls the image of the egg, in both its rounded forms and its highly breakable material, ribbon slate. By emphasizing the tales and organic roots of civilization, Humpty Dumpty, while vulnerable, also provides a glimmer of hope for renewal.
Isamu Noguchi worked in a variety of media, including sculpture, ceramics, architecture, garden and theater design, lighting, and furniture-making. He found inspiration in both Japanese techniques and American modernity, and collaborated with many artists, including choreographer Martha Graham (1894–1991) and composer John Cage (1912–1992). As the son of Japanese writer Yonejirō Noguchi (1875–1947) and American writer Léonie Gilmour (1873–1933), Noguchi often traveled between Japan and the United States. He worked as an intern for the monumental sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867–1941) in 1922, and after taking sculpture classes he abandoned his premedical studies at Columbia University in 1924 to pursue art. Noguchi received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1927 and assisted in the studio of Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) in Paris for two years. His own first sculpture commission was News (1938), symbolizing freedom of the press for the Associated Press building at New York’s Rockefeller Center. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the backlash against Japanese Americans caused his work to become more politicized and he requested placement in an internment camp in Arizona. Noguchi received many important prizes for his work; he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1986.