Elie Nadelman stood convention on its head

THE sculpture of Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) light-heartedly undermined the solemn expectations that still weighed down sculptural conventions even in rebellious pre-World War I Paris. Something in the Polish-Jewish artist's character wanted to deflate romantic solemnity.

Before emigrating to New York in 1914, he had become a notable figure in the Paris avant-garde, though not a groundbreaker such as Matisse or Picasso. Patrons Gertrude and Leo Stein helped promote his reputation in the United States, and he was soon exhibited. But New York was not Paris. Some of his sculptures roused ridicule and indignation.

Oddly, one objection was that his figures - despite their clear admiration for the curve and balance of classical or neoclassical sculpture - wore clothes. These clothes weren't classical togas, but everyday dresses for the women, and such modernities as bowlers or top hats for the men.

His bronze acrobat shown here, an epitome of arrested vigorous movement, is also dressed, as befits an agile circus performer. At his neck is a telltale bow. Such bows were virtually a Nadelman signature, appearing on many of his sculptures. In her catalog essay for the recent traveling Nadelman exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts in New York, curator Suzanne Ramljak says his "trademark bows ... reveal the primacy of decorative form in his art; they are less descriptive than they are a formal means of tickling our sensibility."

Nadelman courted misunderstanding. The charm of his work belied his seriousness. Folk art and folk "theater" (circus and vaudeville) appealed to him, and he saw his art as akin to that energetic "low life."

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