Sunday, September 16, 2018

"BEAUTIFUL BODIES": Review of a book by Didi Hoffman

Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966), the woman and sculptor, has been an important figure and guide in my life for all my years as an adult.  It might be surprising to those who like their categories neat and unchallenged that she was the same and more for Bob Scriver -- in fact, the subject of our first conversation and eventually she was a person we visited with flowers in our arms as she lay on her divan in Sniffin Court, close to her end.  

When I went back to her Hall of Man at the Field Museum in 1978 I was affronted and confused that the Hall, created with so much effort, hardship and idealism, had been broken up and dispersed through the museum, on grounds that it was racist, that everyone everywhere is the same.  Showing differences was belittling.  At the time, as I recall, the museum founded and funded by Marshall Field had his name removed because it was prideful and arrogant for anyone to be above others.  Now it is restored.

Admittedly, Field and Hoffman and most of the people in their lives were exceptional, wealthy, accomplished, famous and loved -- but old-fashioned.  This small attractive book about Hoffman was written by Didi Hoffman, Malvina's niece by marriage.  It approaches hagiography (a book about a saint) but that's okay.  This is the kind of woman and the sort of work that persists, no matter the changing cultures of the times.  If this is a "Masterpiece Theatre" kind of book, it balances some of the attacks.  But I still wish for something a little deeper, something that could explore why a neophyte theatre student (me), her near-retirement professor of acting (Alvina Krause, who used the portraits to train actors), and a mature musician and cowboy sculptor (my husband) could find her and her bronzes so meaningful.  The work is nothing shocking --- she was quite realistic.  But it's deeply appealing.

This book presents -- without much investigation --- two shaping situations in Hoffman's life, one at the beginning and one at the end.  The first was her privileged beginning among socially dominant and culturally nearly-worshipped people because of their love of the arts.  In this first part it was Rodin and Pavlova.  

When I was a child, an exhibit of Rodin bronzes came to Portland, Oregon, and I was impressed that my mother wore a midnight blue velvet evening dress, which was highly unusual, but I couldn't go because the sculptures were nude.  There was more to it than that, but I couldn't be told that either.  Rodin was famously, prodigiously sexual and seduced as many women as interested him.  Like Picasso.  Like Scriver, to tell the truth.

This was power and glamour that was not virtue-based but about passion and eros, the wildly Dionysian side of Art, which excused all ordinary rules, but was justified by extraordinarily hard work and exceptional achievement.  Because ladies are not supposed to know much about this sort of thing, Malvina's sex life was never really explored, but always hinted at.  Didi Hoffman follows that tradition.  Exploring possible affairs and the shading of hero worship into physical seduction remains for someone else to report, but they'll have a hard time finding much evidence.  These people were discrete.

The #meToo crowd may be revealed as simply thinking that even big powerful men are not good enough for them.  The contradictory valence of sex is that it is a sign of power, entitlement and high value, but as well an indicator of low status and vulnerability to abuse.  Everything depends on context, even the binary assignments of the people involved.  If Malvina had an affair with Pavlova, it is surely an intensification of their work together to portray a unique and artistic body in motion.

The second complex is indeed around the Hall of Man portraits of so many peoples of the world, but they are not political -- simply realistic portraits of people as they were before globalism blurred the special adaptions to place and occupation.  The 19th century was a time of astonishment at cultural difference as people began to realize just how various the world was, with bodies developed by adapting to environments and occupations.  That humans could be so different was a shock to some and a fascination to others.  

The paradoxical same/different tension has worked out very differently from one time to another.  When hierarchies and individualism have dominated, people want status and use differences to justify shoving others out of the way.  When the emphasis has been on survival our energy has pointed away from competition to larger issues, the benefits of cooperation, thinking about our commonality.  Popular movements come out of these basic rhythms, taking major parts of the population to extremes like racism and some feminisms.  Groups proclaim themselves concretely as they can with processions and destructions, graffiti and symbols.

Hoffman was not an elitist.  Every sculptor knows dependence on the skill and dedication of the people in the atelier, those who constantly clear up the debris, clean the clay, store the molds, and then turn to the creation of some new large shape.  But she was sometimes dependent on her aristocratic friends for money and influence.  This is another paradox of artists, that they must constantly cope with personal poverty while often consorting with very rich people who like to demonstrate their superior assets by helping worthy artists.  Hopefully, the dynamic is more of a collaboration than an oppression.  Consult "Masterpiece Theatre" plots.

A cluster of high status female sculptors has been identified, exhibited, and discussed by the Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc. in New York in 1984.  The essay is by May Brswley Hill and the title of the catalogue is "The Woman Sculptor: Malvina Hoffman and Her Contemporaries."  The same sculpture of an Asian archery dancer is on the cover, but the contents are quite differently engaging.  Brearley School alumni were featured, so the school opened up their photographic archives.  We confront a roomful of women: some nude models, some smock-wearing artists, and some nude but in clay.  Hoffman's own books are still the best access to her work.  Necessarily it is about human flesh, sometimes dressed, sometimes in chain mail, sometimes dead, a riveting focus for human beings of all kinds.

Didi Hoffman has had a long career in merchandizing and this shows in the book, but it would be silly not to mention all the honours and awards Hoffman was given. is a short video about the book.

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