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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
Fortunately, the past couple of decades have brought a loosening of the grip of abstraction on twentieth-century art as well as a willingness to reassess bygone careers. Nadelman has benefited. In 1973 Lincoln Kirstein, the art enthusiast and entrepreneur who co-founded the New York City Ballet, published a monograph on the artist that was instrumental in salvaging his reputation. The Whitney Museum held a major retrospective in 1975. High prices at auction have also played a part in bringing the artist to the public’s attention. In 1973 his painted cherry wood sculpture Tango , made about 1919, broke the auction record for an American sculpture at $130,000. In 1987 another version of that sculpture set a record again, this time selling for $2,800,000. The work entered the collection of the Whitney Museum, where it is currently on display.
Nadelman was born in Warsaw, Poland, the last of seven children, to an educated middle-class Jewish jeweler and his wife. They encouraged him in the liberal arts; he enjoyed singing, playing the flute, and, of course, art, which he pursued at Warsaw’s Gymnasium and High School of Liberal Arts. In 1900 he joined the Imperial Russian Army (Poles were, at the time, Russian subjects), receiving somewhat favored status as an educated volunteer. Among his primary duties, it seems, were providing flute and art lessons to the children of officers and making decorative paintings for the mess hall. On his return a year later to Warsaw, Nadelman attended the Warsaw Art Academy. In 1904, following in the tradition of Frédéric Chopin and many other Polish artists, he headed west. The trip began in Munich, where he came in contact with Jugendstil, the German form of Art Nouveau; the simplified and biting satirical drawings seen in intellectual and political magazines such as Simplicissimus and Jugend ; the museums of classical art as well as of German folk art; and ideas about new directions for sculpture. Supplied with this new knowledge, he arrived in Paris six months later.
Nadelman began by frequenting the Louvre, taking in antique Greek sculpture such as Praxiteles’ marble Aphrodite , Michelangelo’s bound slaves, and probably the sixteenth-century French sculptor Germain Pilon’s funerary sculpture combining marble and bronze. Elements of each of these works turn up in Nadelman’s later work: a beautiful classical marble torso with just a touch of streamlined jauntiness; drawings of women posed with an arm above the head and another across the chest; and a unique tableau combining a figure cast in dark bronze and one carved of white marble. Like Rodin, Nadelman was enthralled by what had been accomplished in the sculpture of the past and searched for ways to perpetuate and advance tradition, rather than cut himself off from it.
In Paris Nadelman seems to have isolated himself for the first few years, as if “nourished … on plaster alone,” in the words of the French writer and critic André Gide. Out of this period he emerged with a sensibility very much of his own making and a good deal of confidence. Because he was not an artist who spent time discussing and debating in caf»s, he may have missed out on or perhaps misunderstood some of the ideas that were prompting other artists’ work. While others were attempting to escape the Western tradition, he wanted to extract from it its pure essence; where others wanted to break down sculpture as it had been and re-piece it, he wanted to feel the tradition behind his own work. Nor did he question the traditional role of the medium as subservient to the artist. Rather than have marble, plaster, bronze, or wood dictate the kind of sculpture he was to make, he sometimes produced nearly identical pieces in each of these materials. He made them in small, medium, and large sizes to boot. When he could afford to, he would create them in multiples—even wooden pieces, which were fabricated with the help of studio assistants.
Nadelman saw nothing wrong with the idea of the sculptor as the head of a large, working atelier, filling the demand for sculpture as it arose. He didn’t worry about appearing more like a craftsman than a “genuine” artist, and he didn’t try to bring sculpture closer to painting. He did paint many of his works, though, in a time-honored sculptural tradition not much practiced at the time. Sometimes he ventured close to copying in his own borrowings from the Greeks, but that was the source of the excitement. A slightly exaggerated curve of the hips, a hat tilted ever so rakishly, facial features just on the knowing side of beauty, a hairstyle suited to modern urban life: all of these were backed up by a firm sense of sculptural form that was at once ancient and modern.
Not long after his arrival in Paris, Nadelman developed a following. Fellow Poles, the brothers Thadée and Alexandre Natanson, who had founded the Paris cultural journal La Revue Blanche and had been collectors of modern art since before 1900, became friendly with Nadelman and collected his work, as did the writer Octave Mirbeau, an early supporter of van Gogh.