A debut biography focuses on a path-breaking sculptor.
This account chronicles the vibrant escapades of the American artist Malvina Hoffman. At 25 years old, the sculptor, “pretty, slim, and eager,” arrived in Paris to sit at the feet of Rodin. The year was 1910, and Rodin was busy seducing acolytes, breaking their hearts, and creating some of his greatest works. In tribute to Hoffman’s background and connections—along with her talent—Rodin instructed her and allowed her free use of his studio. As she perfected her own art, creating fine likeness of Anna Pavlova, whom she befriended, and the ballet dancers around her, Hoffman mingled with the great (Gertrude Stein, Constantin Brancusi) and the rich (royalty, diplomats, CEOs around the world). She also developed her signature realistic—and flattering—style: “Unlike Rodin, she created what her clients expected.” Commissions arrived, connections proliferated. Hoffman visited a surgical college to study dissection, traveled through the Balkans in the years after World War I, and dined with powerful men like Stanley Field. In 1930, her trademark project was commissioned by Field for the Chicago museum that bears his name. She created a “Hall of Mankind”: scores of sculptures depicting different “racial types to be modeled while traveling round the world.” Though Field was originally interested in hiring five artists to split the task, Hoffman convinced him to commission her alone, with only her husband, Sam, as assistant. The great adventure of her life thus began, and the gallery of “racial types”—long controversial, despised, and perhaps misunderstood—came into being. Exploring the life of a woman she so admires, Didi Hoffman clearly felt the pull of hagiography (Malvina was her husband’s great aunt). The author did not resist. The artist is repeatedly described as brave, courageous, creative, a woman “who always came from a place of love.” Sourcing may have something to do with this breathlessness. Two books by the sculptor account for over 80 percent of the references in this biography, which features black-and-white photographs of her art. Still, Didi Hoffman undoubtedly adds something unique to the picture, convincingly liberating the artist’s own, ecumenical feelings on biology—that all of humanity springs from the same root, that people are all brothers and sisters—from the racist ways in which her work has been used. This is valuable.
A loving tribute to an innovative artist.