DETAIL: Malvina Hoffman (American; 1887–1966). Anna Pavlova, 1924. Marble. El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas. Photograph by Elissa Eriksson.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
American sculptor Malvina Hoffman (1887–1966) was born with natural ability and into a culturally elite family that encouraged her innate talent. Along with private art tutors—including Mount Rushmore sculptor, Gutzon Borglum (1867–1941)—Hoffman studied at the The Art Students League. She began her studies in painting, but her true passion was for sculpture.
One of her first sculptural pieces—a portrait bust of her father—would not only inspire him to remark, “My child, I’m afraid you are going to be an artist,” but a year later, would impress the great Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) enough to take her on as a student. From 1910 to 1917, Hoffman studied under the great French master, eventually becoming an assistant.
“Although Hoffman never adopted his dynamic style, (Rodin’s bronzes suggest movement), she was inspired to pursue similar subjects, including lovers and dancers.” (brooklynmuseum.org)
With the onset of war in 1914, Hoffman returned to New York, although she did periodically return to Paris where she maintained a studio. She briefly studied at Manhattan’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an education that certainly refined her eye to the anatomical nuances of the human body.
“Hoffman’s subjects, frozen in a
moment of time, in joyous motion or
deepest concentration, exude life.”
John Yewell, metroactive.com
During the war years she served as the director of the National and Foreign Information Service of the Red Cross. (Hoffman remained active in the Red Cross throughout her lifetime.) Through the 1920s her reputation grew and she worked on many prestigious commissions, such as The Bush House in London, for which she created two monumental sculptures that rest in the street-facing portico, 80 feet above the ground.
A tour of North Africa in 1926 prepared Hoffman for what would lead to her greatest commission: The Races of Man for Chicago’s Field Museum. The sculptor toured the world 1930–32, consulting with anthropologists, and sketching and photographing the world’s racially diverse peoples.
Following this research phase, she set about creating 104 bronze sculptures: life-size, busts and heads. The completed works were unveiled in the museum’s Hall of Man to great acclaim—as well as controversy. Of the works, Hoffman wrote, “This collection of bronze figures and heads is a sculptor’s interpretation of Humanity, studied from three angles—Art, Science, and Psychology.”
In addition to The Races of Man, Hoffman is most celebrated for her work in portraiture, and has been described as “a portrait sculptor of pieces that expressed both fluid movement and lofty human values.” (crma.org)
Celebrities, politicians and historical figures comprise the majority of her subjects, including Henry Clay Frick, the actress Katharine Cornell, Thomas Paine, and Henry David Thoreau.
Hoffman was also a writer, publishing two memoirs: Heads and Tales (1936), accounting her experiences while producing The Races of Man and Yesterday is Tomorrow: A Personal History (1965), as well as an instructional book on sculptural technique.
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Malvina Hoffman first laid eyes on the famed Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), during a performance in London. Ultimately they would become friends, and Pavlova the subject of many of Hoffman’s most powerful sculptures, including this month’s Art Print.
Marble portrait busts have been executed since antiquity, yet Hoffman’s Pavlova owes more to the Italian Renaissance. Author Sharyn R. Udall, in her book Dance and American Art (2012) notes, “The sculptor carved Pavlova in a serenely detached manner reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance sculptor Francesco Laurana (c. 1425–1502). Like Laurana, Hoffman achieved elegance by reducing detail and concentrating on an harmonious balance. Still, despite her elegance, Hoffman’s marble Pavlova is not idealized; she is a real, recognizable portrait down to her uneven nose.”
Malvina Hoffman’s technical skill is on full display in this masterful piece. The graceful hands that rest gently across Pavlova’s breast, the subtly downturned shoulders, the prominent cheekbones, and pensive expression all combine to create a work of astonishing, restrained beauty.
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From The February 2016 Issue Of Arts & Activities
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