Alvina Krause, the legendary Method acting teacher, used as a teaching tool Malvina Hoffman's Hall of Man, sculptures of examples of human groups, life-size. Our assignment in 1957 was to go look at the bronzes, think about them and research them until we understood each of them as unique, thinking and moving individuals. It was one of the few times in my undergrad life when it was not assumed that all people were like the campus people, and that didn’t mean the janitor. But then, acting means accepting the idea that one might need to portray any one of the planet’s humans, including janitors.
This is about Malvina, not Alvina. Malvina Hoffman was a privileged woman in a high-culture context married to a violinist tuned so tightly that he spent much of his life in hospitals. She wrote three books: one about traveling around the world creating these portraits, one about how to create and cast bronze sculptures, and one that was a memoir. In 1961, when I came to Browning, MT, to teach high school English on this Blackfeet Reservation, I met Bob Scriver, a major sculptor of Western subjects. In our first conversation we discovered that Malvina Hoffman was an object of intense admiration from us both.
In the Fifties Bob had earned a Master’s Degree at Vandercook School of Music on the south side of Chicago. He was just transitioning from teaching music to running a taxidermy business and went to the Field Museum to visit their master taxidermist, who was from Billings, MT. Of course he explored the rest of the museum and was stunned by the beauty and understanding presented in the Hall of Man.
In the Sixties Bob’s work attracted the attention of Major Eric Harvey at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and we went up to tour their growing collection, still being curated in warehouses. Staggered by the amount of material for exhibits, we went up and down ramps, through doorways, through hallways. Bob was ahead of me. Suddenly he disappeared around a corner and then came back to grab me by the shoulders, thrust me around the corner for a few seconds, then pull me back. “What did you see?” he demanded. In that flash I saw the complete collection of Malvina Hoffman’s sculptures — not the Hall of Man, but portraits, maquettes for monuments, and so on. Hundreds.
We didn’t see them again until 1965 when Bob was on “To Tell the Truth” and we went to New York City. We had the address to Hoffman’s studio, which was in a mews, a place where horses were once kept in big spaces with strong floors. Sniffen Court had become famous for its community of prestigious sculptors. We made an appointment and arrived with our arms full of flowers as tribute. The entrance was into the studio space, dim and huge, with the small sculptures on tables, but we hardly had time to linger.
Upstairs Hoffman, dying of emphysema from stone dust, was on her “lit de repose,” and Guldie, her companion and guardian, took us to her side. Bob had brought red roses, the classic, and I brought anemones. We were dizzy with the reality of a figure that had been with each of us for so long and so intensely. We visited a little while and Bob showed her photos of his work, which she praised, saying he was particularly good at fetlocks on horses which so many get wrong. But then she was gasping and we had to leave.
In 1978 when I returned to Chicago to attend the U of Chicago Div School and Meadville/Lombard Theological School, at the first chance I got, I went to the Hall of Man. It was gone. I was stunned. In the cultural revolution of the Seventies it had been dispersed as racist. The revolutionaries of the time were Levelers, trying to put aside all differences in order to assure equality. Of course, that’s not what happened. Like my undergrad profs, they were simply trying to make everyone agree with them. As Malvina would say, which she DID say to us about some ridiculous edict we complained about, “Tell it to the Marines!”
Powered by the fear of stigma and the inability to tolerate difference, it is only now that society has recovered enough to reinstate the Hall of Man for its original purpose of celebrating variousness and the unique individual wherever they might be. Every acting student who did this exercise of empathy for Alvina Krause, still carries the strong memory of that portrayed body and the mind it carried through a space we could only imagine — but DID to the best of our ability. Of course, by now Alvina and Malvina are dead, so are the models for the bronzes, so is Bob Scriver, and so are many of Alvina’s acting students, even many of my students on the Blackfeet Reservation — not from a holocaust unless you count the truly universal scythe of old age.
Now that the sculptures have been brought up out of the Field Museum warehouse (where they might have been in danger of de-accessioning like so many fine artworks), people can again take into themselves the lives of people unlike themselves
The first book of Malvina Hoffman’s that both Bob and I had in our libraries when we met was “Sculpture Inside and Out.” It was one of our guides when we created the Bighorn Foundry in the backyard and learned to cast bronzes by using the classic Roman block investment method, not the modern chicken-fried bronze (dipped in glass batter) created from a kit. Those who know about my biography of Bob Scriver will understand the title: “Bronze Inside and Out.”
The second book we had acquired separately was “Heads and Tales,” the story of the making of the Hall of Man (that word “man” probably needs to be modernized to Human), named since most of the portraits are busts.
The third book is entitled “Yesterday is Tomorrow: A Personal History”. Besides carrying flowers to her “lit de repose,” we each carried a copy of this book and she signed both copies. Nothing fancy: “with cordial good wishes.” When she died, Guldie let us know, but we never sent any acknowledgment. There was no way writing could say what she meant to us. Time has helped.
My seminary in Chicago sold its building which his now occupied by the Neubauer Collegium, a center for reflection — a place where indeed “Yesterday is Tomorrow.” The following is quoted from their website.
Alaka Wali is curator and applied cultural research director at The Field Museum. She was the founding director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change from 1995-2010 and currently curates the sizeable North American collection which includes a contemporary urban collection. Her work concerns the relationship between art-making and the capacity for social resilience. She has curated over 10 exhibits for The Field Museum, with the most recent being “Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman.”
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Recent shifts in legal, political, and ethical demands on natural history museums have compelled them to open their institutional logics to interventions informed by indigenous peoples’ self-understanding—an understanding that makes specific interpretive claims about the meaning of given cultural phenomena, ontological claims expressed by their religious commitments, and even aesthetic and epistemological claims about the contributions contemporary Native American artists might make to the articulation of a long-standing historical tradition. Our interest, in short, is to understand how these interventions are playing out in the everyday work of the Field Museum and its efforts to engage, educate, and encourage the interest of an increasingly diverse public, Native and otherwise.
We endeavor to undertake this project in collaboration with the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, the Field Museum, and a growing pool of indigenous leaders, museum specialists, advocates, and artists in two ways. First, through on-the-ground participant observation of Field Museum staff as they plan, produce, and execute a major exhibition already under way in Hall 8, the North America Collection. And second, by staging conversations among invited Native American artists and advocates, Field staff, and scholars with a view to exploring how the future possibilities of ethnographic museums can be addressed through the specific efforts being undertaken by the Field in its renovation project. From questions concerning the status of indigenous cultural property rights, material and intellectual, to the enduring problems of reification and the marginalization of Native Americans, ethnographic collections like those at the Field have long been the focal point of debates about the relationship between scientific ethics, religious commitments, and aesthetics.
With its plans for renovation and its willingness to be the site and subject of this inquiry, the Field Museum stands at the forward edge of these questions and how their answers might offer lessons for the future of natural history.
I want to add that Malvina Hoffman would have loved to have portrayed Alaka Walli and her strong face.