Friday, March 8, 2013

Malvina Hoffman: Artist of the World

Malvina Cornell Hoffman
Malvina Cornell Hoffman was an American sculptor and author. She was born and grew up in New York City. Although she was primarily a woman of the East, she spent a good deal of her life traveling to look at, photograph, and sculpt people of other ethnicities, including Native Americans in the western United States. Her father, Richard Hoffman, a British-born,  prodigy, was a pianist with the New York Philharmonic at just sixteen years old. Three years later he was hired by P.T. Barnum as an accompanist for Jenny Lind, the so-called Swedish Nightingale, on her first American tour.[1] The Hoffmans' Manhattan home on West 43rd Street was a popular gathering place for artists and musicians and, as a result, Malvina was exposed to creative people from a young age.

A precocious child, Hoffman showed an early interest in art and, at fourteen, began taking classes at the Woman's School of Applied Design to study drawing and painting. She soon added classes at the Art Student's League where artists such as Raphael Soyer, Isabel Bishop, and  Kenneth Hayes Miller, taught and studied. In addition, Hoffman spent time in Paris where she was a student of French sculptor Auguste Rodin from 1910 until his death in 1917, and she is recognized by some as "America's Rodin."[2] Hoffman first won acclaim for her bronze sculpture of Russian dancers Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin. Her sculpture, Russian Dancers, the study of Pavlova and her partner, received a first prize at the Paris Salon in 1911. Hoffman also studied Gutzon Borgium, sculptor of Mount Rushmore at the Women’s School of Applied Design and the Arts Students League. Hoffman had firmly established her reputation as a sculptor by the mid-1920s.

Stanley Field and Malvina Hoffman at her Paris Studio. © The Field Museum
Malvina Hoffman
Semang Pigmy
 ca. 1930
27 1/4  x 7 7/8 inches
Edition 1 of 5
In the 1930s, anthropology became a recognized discipline at the University of Chicago, with many prominent figures in the field in residence. Working closely with the anthropologists, Stanley Field, director, and the nephew of the founder, of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago commissioned Hoffman to create sculptures of people representing members of the diverse groups of humans in cultures around the world. She received an offer to join four other sculptors in a project that would represent all of the world's ethnic groups to be finished in plaster. Hoffman convinced the museum directors that the project should be completed by one artist to guarantee consistency of style, and cast in bronze to ensure permanency of the figures. 

Her monumental bronze series, The Races of Mankind, included one hundred five busts and full figures of typical types of people from Africa, Europe, Asian, and the Americas.[3] In preparation for the exhibit, Hoffman and her husband, S. B. Grimson, traveled throughout the world to find authentic models for the sculptures, which took five years to complete. The collection became a permanent exhibition at the Field museum, which was popular for both for its artistic and cultural values, however, it was not without controversy.

The Races of Mankind, located in the Chauncey Keep Memorial Hall. The exhibit was visited by over 2 million people in its first year.
© The Field Museum,

At that time, Hoffman's work was criticized by social scientists as too reliant on physical over cultural characteristics. The prevailing abstract artists of the day saw her work as either too realistic or too romanticized.[4] At the end of the project, she felt “this collection of bronze figures and heads is a sculptor’s interpretation of Humanity, studied from three angles—Art, Science, and Psychology. It represents not only the actual study and work of the past five years, but the result of my observations and study over a period of many years previous to 1930.” (Hoffman, 1936) [5]Although her western sculptures, done as part of the Races of Mankind project, are a small component of the overall project, her studies of Native Americans of the Southwest, South Dakota, and Montana have been shown widely.

Malvina Hoffman
Apache Man
ca. 1934
No size given
The ensuing years have found both critics and the museum itself taking a less judgemental position on the Races of Man project. Hoffman's work is now seen not as a simplification of ethnic types, but as extraordinary recreations of vibrant individuals from different cultures. The figures reveal more than just technical prowess and anatomical detail; they express a feeling of movement, and they exude life. Hoffman also spent time painting and drawing in the west and her titles included John McCormick, Cowboy, Sage Brush, California; Ranch, Sierra Nevadas; May Night, Sierra Navadas; and Spring in the Desert, Southern California.

Malvina with her close friend, Ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Hoffman wrote three books about her life and her career: Heads and Tales (1936), Sculpture Inside and Out (1939), and Yesterday and Tomorrow (1965).  Malvina Hoffman died at her studio-home in New York, New York, on July 10, 1966. Her work is represented in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, New York; American War Memorial Building, Epinal, France; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Glenbow Foundation, Canada; Luxembourg Museum, Paris; Memorial Chapel, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Imperial War Museum, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Stockholm Museum, Sweden.
1., Malvina Cornell Hoffman, (accessed March 7, 2013).
2. Ibid.
3. Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 145.
4. Sandy Cline, Soapstone Sculpture, Malvina Hoffman, A Tribute, (accessed March 8, 2013).
5. Kovinick, 146.

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