Chicago's Field Museum of natural History knew exactly what it was doing in the early 1930s when it commissioned Malvina Hoffman to travel around the world to record its various human inhabitants in bronze.
Over a period of five years she went to every conrner of the globe in search of different human types. Her final group of 104 sculptures, scientifically accurate to satisfy the purpose of the commission, and of high aesthetic quality to satisfy herself, became a central feature of that museum's Hall of Man.
While these studies of Semang pygmies, Sakai warriors, Chinese merchants, Hammite Abyssinians, etc., are probably her best-known works, they represent only a fraction of her total production.
A good sampling of the full range of Hoffman's art is on view at the FAR Gallery here. The first major exhibition of her work in over 40 years, this intelligently chosen and well-mounted show includes reduced versions of her ethnographic sculptures, works related to the art of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, early marble groups, figure studies, and a series of bullfight figures. Also included are five plaster panels never exhibited before. They were originally designed to be cast into a permanent material as a 50-foot-long frieze depicting Pavlova and dance partners in one of her most popular ballets.
Malvina Hoffman was born in New York in 1885 and studied at the Art Students' League before traveling to France to become a pupil of Rodin. During her first year in Paris she saw a performance by Pavlova that triggered her enthusiasm for dance. Inspired by Pavlova, Hoffman executed "Russian Dancers," a bronze that won first price in the 1912 Paris Salon -- the first of many awards she was to receive during her career.
Once assured of her professional standing, Hoffman expanded her creative pursuits. She mastered the art of portraiture, as her portrait busts of Paderewski, Boldini, Katharine Cornell, Pavlova, and many others testify. And she tackled several large architectural decorations.
She lived to be 81, of which more than 50 years were spent as a professional sculptor. Although her production was large, her high standards prevented her from doing hack work.She was an enthusiastic, disciplined, and greatly talented artist, a fact that should be obvious even to those who consider her hopelessly old-fashioned.
From our "modern" viewpoint, Hoffman was indeed old-fashioned, and was so even at the time of her youthful Salon triumph in 1912. In that year Brancusi's "The Kiss" was already four years old, and Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" had just been painted. Modernism was erupting all around her, but she was having none of it --
Hoffman was a realist with Romantic overtones. She saw art as a dialogue between what she could see and touch and what she felt within herself. To create meant first of all to respect the appearance of the world around her. Art, she believed, resulted from grappling with nature's laws and effects, and not from the imaginative invention of a personal pictorial system or imagery.
But that didn't mean slavish copying. On the contrary, it meant intense study to master the mechanics of nature, to understand why things acted and looked as they did. To create ment to re-create, and that could be accomplished only if one understood how something had originally been fashioned.
Creating art demanded total empathy with her subject, to grasp its personality and character as well as its form. It meant becoming something or someone else for a period of time, meant bringing all her skills and sensibilities to that encounter, and then transferring as much of that "other" as possible to the clay or stone with which she worked.
As an artist she was at her best when working directly from a model, and weakest when consciously trying to create something beautiful or important. Impressive as the panels for her intended Pavlova frieze are, they don't rise above being good examples of lace 19th-century neo-classicism. As such they are period pieces of charm and delicacy -- but they remain outdated and somewhat stilted to our taste.
The two early portraits of her mother -- although obviously influenced by Rodin -- are impressive pieces in which sentiment and character and sculptural power have been sensitively fused. The other portraits hold up equally well, in particular those of Boldini and Marcel Griaule.
The gallery has done an impressive job of displaying the various small bronzes. With the exception of the bullfight groups, which are energetic but empty, these small pieces are the highlight of the show. They are superb examples of delicate modeling and precise and loving attention to detail. They are beautiful objects one would love to hold.
I was particularly struck by "Shilluk Warrior," a smaller version of one of the group she did for the Field Museum. Standing on one leg, and with the other bent and resting on his knee, this young warrior represents what is best in Hoffman's art. He is accurately portrayed, warmly and sympathetically perceived , and beautifully designed and modeled. -- He is also very much alive.
This exhibition will remain on view at the FAR Gallery through May 24.