Travis Nygard, Art Historian > Malvina Hoffman Exhibition > Violent Death

Malvina Hoffman, book, The Races of Mankind.
Henry Field, The Races of Mankind, 1933, published by
the Field Museum of Natural History.
Collection of Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.
Photograph by Travis Nygard.

Malvina and Mortality


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Violent Death: The Hall of Races

“[Copies of sculptures from the Hall of Races] deal with the multitudinous shapes, sizes and types of that sadly incompetent, fanatically homicidal creature often referred to, satirically, as ‘man.’ […] Miss Hoffman's studies, executed in comparatively imperishable bronze, might, if “man” continues to nurture his mania for self extermination, provide the globe’s next inhabitants with a factual record of the creatures who once inherited the earth’s riches, and then, through avarice, ignorance and blind intolerance, destroyed them.”

-"Men of the World," Art Digest, April 15, 1942, 13.

Malvina Hoffman, photograph of an armless child in the Balkans during World War I.
Malvina Hoffman, photograph of an armless
child in the Balkans during World War I

The Hall of Races

Malvina Hoffman’s best-known work is a series of over 120 bronze sculptures created for the Hall of Races at the Field Museum in Chicago.  The Hall was overtly an anthropological display but implicitly an attempt to prevent war.  It is represented here through ephemera that was widely distributed by the museum, as well as the Encyclopedia Americana, which used her sculptures as illustrations.  The Hall displayed the people of the world in bronze—some as heads, some as busts, and some as full figures. Hoffman created these using live models on trips that she took around the world, perfecting them from photographic references and measurements upon her return to the studio.  Today the Hall of Races is remembered with mixed feelings.  Although progressive for its day, embedded in the layout of the Hall were racist and ethnocentric assumptions typical of anthropology during the 1930s.  These outdated views include a loose hierarchy of cultures progressing from “primitive” to “civilized,” as well as treating ethnic, linguistic, and national groups as “races.”  The Hall was thus dismantled during the 1960s and mostly put in storage.  A few of the sculptures remain on view at teh Field Museum, dispersed and minimally labeled. 

Malvina Hoffman, "The Races of Mankind," in the Field Museum.
Malvina Hoffman, "The Races of Mankind,"
installed in the Field Museum of Chicago during the 1930s.

World Wars

The connection between the Hall of Races and warfare is clear in the sculptures themselves, in Hoffman's autobiography Heads and Tales, and in the ways that the sculptures were used.  Her fixation on violence is evident in the central grouping, in which three men representing the “unity of mankind” as the three “great races” each hold their weapon of choice.  In the biography Hoffman states that she was inspired to study races while feeding war orphans in the Balkans as a volunteer for the Red Cross.  She reproduced a photograph of one of the war orphans she cared for in her biography, as well as a photo of a monk from a monastery in which all of his peers were massacred.  She described the rapes that occurred in a village, and the rampant diseases that resulted from poor sanitation.  She later created a series of small reproductions of the sculptures in the Hall of Races, which were displayed at the University of Pittsburgh in 1940.  It is at this time that she likely gave a signed copy of her autobiography to the Fine Arts Department.  Clearly Hoffman had come to understand the horrors of war, and she wished to prevent such acts in the future.  Ultimately it was her hope that by creating sculptures of the world’s people that understanding of humankind would increase and senseless violence would become ever more rare. 


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