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Malvina Cornell Hoffman

 (1887 - 1966)
Malvina Cornell Hoffman was active/lived in New York / Europe.  Malvina Hoffman is known for ethnic portraits and figure sculpture, ballet dancers.

Malvina Cornell Hoffman

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following review by Jennifer Schuessler was published in The New York Times "Art & Design" section, January 20, 2016.

‘Races of Mankind’ Sculptures, Long Exiled, Return to Display at Chicago’s Field Museum

CHICAGO — For decades, the bronzes created by the artist Malvina Hoffman for the Field Museum’s “Races of Mankind” exhibit have had a ghostly afterlife at the institution. Hailed at their unveiling in 1933 as “the finest racial portraiture the world has yet seen” and viewed by millions of visitors, the sculptures were banished to storage in 1969, embarrassing relics of discredited ideas about human difference.
Some were later scattered through the museum, like the Australian aboriginal man who stood guard for a time outside a McDonald’s on the ground floor, minus his original boomerang and spear. But to curators they remained strangely compelling, if troubling, objects.

“When I first came here, I sort of fell in love with them,” Alaka Wali, an anthropologist at the museum, recalled recently. “But there was always debate about what the museum should do with them. They were problematic objects.”

Now the Field Museum has put 50 of the 104 sculptures back on display as part of “Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman,” an exhibition exploring both Hoffman’s artistry and the vexed history of the dubious scientific ideas that her talent was enlisted to serve. At the time of the bronzes’ creation, many anthropologists believed that the world’s people could be divided into distinct racial types, whose visible differences in skin tone, hair texture and bone structure explained differences in behavior.

It’s an idea, the show makes clear through wall texts and video touch-screen displays, that scientists have abandoned, though hardly one that has entirely gone away.

“It’s not as if just because scientists say race is not a biological fact, that it doesn’t continue to have an impact,” Ms. Wali, who curated the exhibition, said during a tour of the gallery. She stopped near a section discussing the legacy of scientific racism, which includes photographs of Black Lives Matter protests.

“Scientists can now show that human genetic variation doesn’t correspond to racial types,” she said. “But people don’t always listen to scientists.”

The new exhibition, which runs through the end of the year, was financed in part by Pamela K. Hull, a granddaughter of Stanley Field, the museum’s president from 1909 to 1964, who paid for the restoration of the bronzes.

It was Field who, in 1929, voted with the museum’s board to commission a group of artists to depict the world’s varied “racial types in a dignified manner.” Instead, the whole job went to Hoffman, a New York sculptor who had studied with Rodin, in what The New York Times called “probably the largest commission ever granted any sculptor,” male or female.

Hoffman traveled the world looking for models with her husband, Samuel Grimson, who took thousands of photographs and made film clips of potential subjects. Hoffman, who once studied anatomy by dissecting cadavers alongside medical students, approached the project with a meticulous realism, using different patinas to subtly suggest skin tones.

The “Races” exhibit, which opened in 1933, included both simple busts and elaborate life-size pieces showing people shooting arrows, climbing trees or posing with spears. In the center stood “Unity of Man,” showing noble figures representing what were believed to be the world’s three main racial groups shouldering the globe equally. But its overall thrust — driven home by diagrams showing different nose types and the like — was unmistakable: The world’s peoples could be arranged in a hierarchy, from the primitive to the most civilized.

About 10 million visitors viewed the exhibit over the next three decades, according to the museum, and a show of miniature reproductions traveled the country. But by the 1960s, the scientific theories behind the show had fallen into disrepute. In 1969, the exhibit was dismantled. The Field also halted publication of a “Map of Mankind” based on the exhibit, after receiving a letter from the poet Amiri Baraka (born LeRoi Jones), who denounced it as “white racist pseudo anthropology.”

Science has shown today that “we share a common ancestry and the differences among people are not as great as they seem,” according to the website for “Race: Are We So Different?” — a traveling exhibition created by the American Anthropological Association.

Hoffman, who died in 1966, was herself skeptical about the biological notions of race she was hired to illustrate. “I will leave the much-disputed subject of what is meant by the word ‘Aryan’ to be fought out between expert anthropologists and Mr. Hitler,” she wrote in Heads & Tales,”her 1936 memoir about the commission.

While a short video in the exhibition shows her measuring a Malaysian sitter’s head with calipers, the show emphasizes her differences with scholars like the British anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith, a leading exponent of the idea of racial typologies (and the model for Hoffman’s bust exemplifying the craggy Scot).

“These people are individuals,” not types, Hoffman said of the project in 1961.

To recover that individuality, Ms. Wali and colleagues did extensive research into the real people behind Hoffman’s sculptures, roughly half of whom have been identified by name.

The Hawaiian man shown on a surfboard was Sargent Kahanamoku, a member of a well-known Hawaiian family (and brother of the famous surfer Duke Kahanamoku). The model for a bust of a “man from eastern China” was Dr. Hu Shih, the diplomat and scholar who helped establish the modern Chinese script.

“One of our docents who is Chinese-American walked in and recognized him immediately,” Ms. Wali said.

The exhibition also corrects some muddled ethnic identifications, like the group labeled “Balinese cockfight,” despite the fact that one of the models was a man from Madura, another Indonesian island, whom Hoffman met in a Parisian restaurant where he worked as a waiter.

Then there’s the impressively muscled figure standing alone in a corner, looking like he got lost on the way to an exhibition of neo-Classical nudes. It was originally labeled “Nordic type,” even though the model was Tony Sansone, a celebrated Italian-American body builder from New York.

“We just call him Brooklyn man,” Janet Hong, the exhibition’s project manager, said with a laugh.

Taken together, the parade of faces could be seen as a retro equivalent to Crown Fountain in nearby Millennium Park, which mesmerizes visitors with its shifting video close-ups of some 1,000 contemporary Chicagoans of all ages, races and ethnicities, projected on two 50-foot-tall glass towers.

The exhibition “really shows the incredible diversity of human beauty,” said Jen Feasal, an industrial electrician from Lansing, Mich., who had come to the museum specifically to see the new show. She was particularly moved, she added, by the bust of Ota Benga, a Congolese man who was displayed for a time in the Bronx Zoo under the label “African Pygmy”; he committed suicide in 1916.

Asked how she felt about people who might skip the darker stories told by the wall texts and just get lost in the fascinating faces, Ms. Wali said it was understandable. She turned to a bust of Nobosodrou, a Mangbetu woman from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I could just look at her all day,” Ms. Wali said. “She’s just so beautiful.”

Biography from the Archives of askART
Born in New York City, Malvina Hoffman was a portrait sculptor of pieces that expressed the fluid movement of dancers and lofty human values.  She became especially noted for her hall-of-fame portraits including Paderewski, Pavlova, Wendell Wilkie and Katharine Cornell.

Many of her pieces she carved in stone, and some of them were enormous in scale including war monuments.  Her masterpiece is considered to be The Races of Man, done in 1933, commissioned by the Marshall Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  It had one-hundred five separate pieces, cast in bronze, depicting people from diverse cultures.

She grew up in an art-oriented environment in Manhattan where her father was a pianist and music filled the house.  She attended the Brearley School and took private art classes, first studying painting with John White Alexander.

Changing to sculpture, she did her first work in 1909, a portrait bust of her father who died that year leaving the family in financial straits.  However, his portrait was accepted for the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition and launched her career.

She studied with Herbert Adams and Gutzon Borglum in New York and in Paris in 1910 with Auguste Rodin from whom she learned naturalism and whose doorstep she sat on until he agreed to see her.  In Paris, she associated with numerous leading intellectuals including Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, and Anna Pavlova, and her bronze sculptures of Pavlova, Russian ballet star, won her much attention and many commissions.

Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, III
Malvina Hoffman (June 15, 1887 - July 10, 1966)

Malvina Hoffman was born in New York City, the daughter of the concert pianist, Richard Hoffman. She gravitated toward sculpture at an early age, demonstrating her talents. By the age of fourteen she was taking classes at the Art Students League of New York. She later received help from the sculptors Herbert Adams, George Grey Barnard, and Gutzon Borglum, who was a friend of her family. Another family friend, Alexander Phimister Proctor, allowed her the use of his MacDougal Alley studio for a summer.

In 1910 Hoffman moved to Europe at the age of twenty-three when her father died. Accompanying her mother, she first lived in Italy before moving to Paris. After several unsuccessful attempts, she eventually was accepted as a student by Auguste Rodin. He later convinced her to return to Manhattan to spend a year dissecting bodies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The education she received there was invaluable, honing her remarkable skill of rendering anatomical features that was evidenced highly when she embarked on her ambitious project to sculpt the anthropological series.

While working for the Red Cross during and after World War I, Hoffman traveled to Yugoslavia where she first met sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, with whom she would study a decade later. She was commissioned to execute several war memorials following WWI, both domestically and internationally.

In 1930 Malvina Hoffman began working for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, sculpting life-sized statues of members of the diverse human cultural groups and she eventually completed one hundred and five sculptures, including busts, full-length figures of individuals, and small family groups for the project. Her skill at representation of the human form allowed her to render the graceful beauty of her subjects during their daily activities. This project resulted in the largest single corpus of her work.

Initially, these sculptures were set up in the Hall of Man that was established at the museum. The stories of her trips to track down the various models for each cultural group form the basis of her first book, "Heads and Tales".

However, after 30 years of display, questions began to circulate regarding the relevance of the context in which the original display was exhibited. According to American Historical Review, "the sculptures in the "Races of Mankind" had perpetuated an older typological approach by presenting "race" in the form of literally static bronze figures depicting idealized racial "types.""(Brattain, 2007). The collection was dispersed around the museum, much of it being removed from public view and relegated to storage. The retention of the sculptures by the museum provides the potential for the redisplay of the figures, if an appropriate context were developed and agreed upon.

Many of a limited series cast of smaller versions of the Hoffman life-sized anthropological sculptures, Mankind, were purchased by well-known art collectors such as, Geraldine R. Dodge, however, so appreciation for her skill in this endeavor was not lost. Several were featured in an auction held at Dodge's New Jersey estate in the late 1970s and others remain held in other private collections.

Following World War II, Hoffman was chosen to execute sculpture for the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial near Vosges, France. This marks the site of bloody fighting that took place in December 1944, in what became known as, the Battle of the Bulge.

In addition to her professional talents, it is likely that Hoffman was chosen as the sculptor for this project because of the very active role she had played in the Red Cross during both WWI and WWII. Her selection also is symbolically meaningful because, during their occupation of France, the Nazis deliberately destroyed several of her commemorative works that were located in Paris.

Some of her later commemorative monuments stand at Harvard University and Syracuse University as well as at locations in London and Paris. Many of her portraits of individuals are among the collection of the New York Historical Society. She maintained a salon, a social gathering of artistic and personal acquaintances, at her Sniffen Court studio for many years.

Throughout her career, dancers fascinated Hoffman and they form the subject matter for many of her most well-known pieces although the anthropological works are the greatest in number for a single project. Many of her works were portrait busts: both of significant persons of the time and of working-class people she encountered in daily life. She often was commissioned to execute commemorative monuments and was awarded many prizes and honors. She was a member of the National Sculpture Society.

She was married to Samuel B. Grimson, often known simply as S. B. Grimson, who traveled with her during her search for authentic indigenous models for the anthropological series. Over 2,000 photographic negatives from that search are among the extensive documents of her career. Some are featured in her autobiographies.

In 1965 she published, Yesterday is Tomorrow, her final book. The next year, at the age of seventy-nine, Malvina Cornell Hoffman died while working in her studio in Manhattan.


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About  Malvina Cornell Hoffman

Born:  1887 - New York City
Died:   1966 - New York City
Known for:  ethnic portraits and figure sculpture, ballet dancers

Essays referring to
Malvina Cornell Hoffman

San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Women Artists