- Historic Sites
The Shocking Blue Hair Of Elie Nadelman
He ignored the conventions of his day and became one of the greatest American sculptors of this century
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
I find myself sketching a top hat on a snapshot I’ve taken of a former pasha’s obituary photograph. I marvel at the resemblance between Abbas Hilmi II, the last Turkish ruler of Egypt, who died in exile in Geneva in 1944, according to the encyclopedia, and my grandfather Elie Nadelman’s painted bright-bronze sculpture Man in a Top Hat. The pasha, who was photographed in 1930, is not wearing a top hat, but his face, seen above a formal Western suit, is uncannily like the sculpture: a strong, aquiline nose; dark, piercing eyes under clearly defined, dark eyebrows; and a well-trimmed beard completely surrounding a mouth that is a barely visible straight line. I have found the yellowed obituary photo loosely filed in a scrapbook of black-and-white postcards of classical statuary that my grandfather kept in the upstairs library of his house in Riverdale, New York. The sculpture in question, made three years before the photograph, is not, to anyone’s knowledge, a portrait, but rather an imaginary or archetypal figure, like so many of Nadelman’s subjects. The artist was intrigued to find life imitating art, and he collected visual evidence to back up this regularly occurring phenomenon.
Nadelman was also fascinated by the connections among epochs and cultures and by modern-day manifestations that echoed the ancients. On the same bookshelves as the scrapbook there are illustrated volumes cataloguing German, French, and British collections of Greek terra-cottas, Near Eastern bronzes, and the like. Lodged in the pages are cut-out advertisements for bathing suits and corsets, and photos of plump chorus girls —all suffused with the smell of Plasticine from little pellets stuck to the pages. In his later years Nadelman would often sculpt in the library, one of the heavy tomes resting on a knee as he talked and modeled all at once, consulting his books and clippings for references. The pasha in formal Western attire is the embodiment of Nadelman’s notion of endowing Greek gods or heroes with modern-day attributes, or vice versa. Top hats and bowlers and bow ties for men, little pyramidal caps or buns and ribbons on women: these were the modern equivalents of archaic headgear and other adornments. Nadelman was fascinated by the correlations. By extension, generations of sculotors were linked.
I was born too late to know my grandfather, who lived from 1882 to 1946 and is now widely recognized as one of the finest American sculptors. When I evoke my first memories of that upstairs room, I see my frail and aging grandmother under a yellowish light, teaching me to play solitaire. My grandfather’s square worktable was in the room then, as it still is, but the house was in subdued disrepair at the time. It had a reputation as a haunted house, my brother and I were told by the neighborhood children on our summer visits. Lifelike sculptures with strong silhouettes perched on sheet-draped sofas, austere or bemused heads gazed out of windows, and in niches and alcoves marble and bronze nudes could be vaguely discerned. We ourselves eyed these sculptural presences with respect but spent most of our time in the kitchen with the eccentric Irish housekeeper.
At the time of his death, Nadelman’s house was full of unsold sculptures from most of the various artistic periods of his life.
Over the years, perhaps because of more and more frequent exposure to my grandfather’s sculpture, perhaps because his work seemed to be given a new lease on life when my family moved to the house in 1972 and made it a more hospitable place, I feel I have grown into a very natural understanding of the work and perhaps the man.
Nadelman was an individual as an artist, not remembered for ushering in or symbolizing any particular movement. During the 1930s and 1940s, with the arrival in this country of new groups of European modernists and the rise of abstraction, Nadelman, along with other artists whose reputations had been formed earlier, tended to be eclipsed, even neglected, in the market, the media, and the history books. At the time of his death, Nadelman’s house was full of unsold sculptures from most of the various artistic periods of his life. He had not shown his work in more than fifteen years, turning down requests from the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art to borrow early work for display in group exhibitions. To the Whitney Museum in 1944 he wrote, “If I break my silence, which I am planning to do in the near future, I must show my latest work, and I therefore prefer not to come out at this time with work done long ago, and already shown.” This work was never exhibited in his lifetime.