- 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
Nadelman’s first one-man show, at the Galerie Druet in 1909, generated a great deal of excitement. Several related styles and subjects were in evidence, all in plaster: curvaceous nudes in relaxed yet classical poses; a coarser style of nude, large-hipped and small-headed with smooth joints; pseudoclassical heads formed of intersecting curves and concavities; and figure drawings in which careful, almost geometric plottings of curves and hatching created features and shading. Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, bought a revolutionary featureless head from the back room of the gallery.
One of the great controversies surrounding Nadelman’s sculpture developed from one of the styles in this show. Leo Stein is said to have taken Picasso to Nadelman’s studio in 1908, where they saw a head created from alternating curves. Picasso’s own bronze sculpted head of a year later, consisting of interpenetrating planes and curves, is credited with ushering in cubist sculpture. Whatever the truth of that, or of Picasso’s borrowing, the later claims by Nadelman that Picasso had stolen ideas about cubism and abstract art from him can be seen as a somewhat desperate effort simply to gain some credibility in a critical scene increasingly dominated by Picasso and other cubists. Nadelman may never have really understood cubism and its motivations, but he did know that a certain type of abstraction was at the root of his own figurative art. In one of the obligatory artist’s statements that were so ferociously defended in the atmosphere of the time, Nadelman wrote: “I employ no other line than the curve, which possesses freshness and force. I compose these curves so as to bring them in accord or opposition to one another. In that way I obtain the life form, i.e., harmony.” The French poet and art critic André Salmon wrote in 1914, “Let us not forget that Nadelman sacrificed everything to the relations of volumes a long time before the Cubists.”
Meanwhile, Nadelman was written about in various journals; he had shows in 1911 and 1913 in London, in Barcelona, and again in Paris; his work was represented at the Armory Show in New York. Most of these early shows sold out; every work in the 1911 London show was bought by Nadelman’s compatriot Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics princess, who decorated her salons with his elegant marble heads. Comments abound about Nadelman’s own physical beauty and “godlike” qualities, which must have tied him in people’s minds to his own work. He is said to have exuded self-confidence and charm, and he could discourse in Polish, Russian, German, French, and eventually English. Henri Matisse was driven to post a sign in his studio: DÉFENSE DE PARLER DE NADELMAN ICI (Do not speak of Nadelman here).
In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Nadelman attempted to join the Russian army but was told it would be impossible for him to make it across Europe. He went instead to London, then sailed very soon for the United States.
In New York Nadelman’s sculpture sold well, largely through the gallery Scott & Fowles, and here he seemed a willing participant in the social whirl to which his work gave him entrée. Frank Crowninshield, the editor of the old Vanity Fair, regularly printed illustrations of his new work in the magazine. He became friendly with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the sculptor and founder of the Whitney Museum, as well as with numerous other artists. He was invited to join various advanced artists’ societies, some of which he eventually would serve as an officer. He was depicted in a novel about the high bohemian art world by Henrietta Stettheimer and in paintings of the same world by her sister Florine. He was given portrait commissions and commissions for garden sculpture, and he hired studio assistants to help him fulfill some of these orders.
The Nadelmans amassed a vast collection of folk art, for which they built a museum on their Riverdale property.
In the late teens he began to model the smooth and simplified figures of society types on whom he could now legitimately draw a good bead. When he showed these figures in plaster, and later in wood, they created a minor furor. Whether this was because they may have seemed to mock their subjects or because they were painted is hard to tell. But Nadelman had some answers for his critics. In a 1917 letter to the New York World, he wrote: “I have exhibited some works whose subjects are dressed women as one sees them in everyday life.
“Well, the majority of the visitors on seeing the dressed women found them indecent and were so shocked that they removed them from their original place to a remote corner where they could not be seen. This fact is significant.” And in a 1919 newspaper interview he said, “Ah, the blue hair! you, too, question that blue, though you never think of questioning the glaring white of plaster or marble, nor the metallic glitter of bronze. …”