Travis Nygard, Art Historian > Malvina Hoffman Exhibition
Collection of the Library of Congress.
Although Malvina Hoffman was one of the most successful artists of her era she is largely forgotten today. Her best-known work, 120 anthropological sculptures for the Hall of Races at the Field Museum in Chicago, is now mostly in storage. During the 1920s and 30s, however, her exhibitions, travels, and social life were celebrated in national newspapers. Indeed, the New York Times mentioned her 196 times during those decades. She wrote a best selling autobiography, Heads and Tales, and she enjoyed numerous commissions both in America and abroad. Because of the Hall of Races she is occasionally remembered by scholars as part of the history of anthropology. This exhibit, however, focuses on a pervasive undercurrent in her work: ways that Americans understand death.
|Malvina and Mortality, hallway display cases.|
University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery.
Photograph by Travis Nygard.
Hoffman studied with some of the most highly accomplished artists of her era and was the antithesis of the avant-garde. Rather than being ahead of her time, she looked to the past. Rather than being abstract, she was representational. Rather than living in poverty as a bohemian, she enjoyed commissions and lived well. Her teachers included John White Alexander (who created the murals in the grand staircase of the Carnegie Museum of Art) and August Rodin (who created The Thinker). Because she followed in the tradition of her teachers her work was successful and displayed at the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris. With such accomplishments even her critics felt compelled to acknowledge her skills. After dismissing her work as “facile” in 1942 the critic Doris Brian conceded that “hers is probably the most fluent, fluid, versatile, and accomplished sculpture of today. It has everything but true greatness.”
The sculpture of Malvina Hoffman is as enigmatic as it is obvious, and this exhibition focuses on three examples. The earliest, a bust of the poet John Keats, was based on a vision that she had of his ghost and represents an idealized death. Her work for the Hall of Races is represented through widely disseminated ephemera, and it is framed as a reaction to the violent deaths of World War I. The last work, a relief sculpture of Henry Clay Frick, was finished one year before Hoffman herself passed away. It is fundamentally a memorial, and it conforms to the proper etiquette surrounding death and memory. A sub-theme of the exhibition are connections between Hoffman and the University of Pittsburgh. She was, in fact, a personal friend of Helen Clay Frick, the heiress who founded the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the school.