Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, Elie Nadelman was encouraged to study art and music from an early age. During his early twenties, he spent time in Munich, where the important collection of early classical Greek sculpture in the city’s Glyptothek museum made a deep and lasting impression. By 1904, he was living in Paris, where he became a part of the avant-garde circle of artists and intellectuals that included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Gertrude Stein (who wrote a prose portrait of Nadelman). At a time when many dismissed classical art as outmoded and inimical to modernism, Nadelman daringly asserted its enduring validity as the ultimate standard of aesthetic and formal beauty. In his own work, he struggled to discover and emulate classicism’s underlying principles of balance, harmony, and proportion. Intense and melancholic, poor but utterly passionate about his art, the young sculptor “seemed to live on plaster,” wrote the poet André Gide.
With the outbreak of World War I, Nadelman moved to New York. Although his first impression of the United States was not positive-he described it as “a country of bluffers and snobs”-he soon became enamored of the energy and optimism of American life. Thanks to the support of prominent New York art world figures, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, his career blossomed. His sources of inspiration also began to take on a new and decidedly American cast, and included the popular culture of his adopted country. Nadelman was delighted by vaudeville performances and other popular amusements, which he sometimes incorporated into his work. He was also fascinated by American folk art, which he admired for its directness of expression, simplicity, and charming lack of pretension. In 1919, he married a wealthy American widow, Viola Flannery, and together they formed a collection of American and European folk art that eventually exceeded 10,000 objects. In 1926, a portion of their country estate in Riverdale, New York, was transformed into the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts, the first museum of its kind in this country.
The crash of the stock market in 1929 devastated Nadelman financially and emotionally, and forced him to close his beloved museum. He became increasingly withdrawn, stubbornly refusing invitations to exhibit his work. The artist was, however, coaxed into lending three works to an exhibition of American sculpture at Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1938 after initially declining the institution’s invitation for submissions. In 1946, plagued by debts, illness, and depression, he took his own life. At the time of his death, Nadelman’s studio was filled with hundreds of small figurines-none of them ever exhibited-created during the last decade of his life.
Nadelman’s first fame and commercial success in America came from bronze and marble busts that overtly-in style, subject matter, and technique-paid homage to the classical past. A number of exceptionally beautiful examples are on view, among them his Woman’s Head (Goddess) (marble, ca. 1916), whose serene expression, idealized features, and crisply chiseled contours are derived from ancient Greek images of female deities. Although Nadelman soon began to experiment with subjects and forms derived from American culture, classical art remained-albeit sometimes quite subtly-a source of inspiration throughout his life. For example, the exhibition includes Woman with Leg Raised, a marble of ca. 1930-35: While the figure’s softly rounded, rather plump physique owes little to canons of classical art, her pose is modeled after the Thorn-Puller, a famous Hellenistic image of a young boy pulling a thorn from his foot.
Beginning around 1917, Nadelman began to incorporate references to European and American folk art in his sculptures. The apparent crudeness of these images, often made of painted wood and carved with doll-like features and limbs, startled many admirers of Nadelman’s classicizing sculptures. (One critic accused him of making a bizarre and grotesque joke.) Today, they are regarded as among Nadelman’s most original and visionary works. The exhibition features a number of these homages to folk art, including the celebrated Orchestra Conductor (Chef d’orchestre) (1918-19, carved 1919-23). In this deceptively simple work, the figure stands stiffly at attention, on clothes-pin like legs; and yet the image is imbued with an extraordinary elegance of line and economy of form.
Dancers and Performers
Another significant and very American source for Nadelman’s art were performers from the circus and vaudeville stage, who astonished him with their athleticism and feats of coordination. One of the most famous works in this genre is Dancer (High Kicker) (ca. 1918-19), in which a female figure is balanced on the tiny ball of one foot as she thrusts her other leg high in the air. Carved from cherry wood, the smooth, simplified forms of the dancer are reminiscent of American folk art. In fact, however, it is a work of enormous sophistication, whose carefully orchestrated curves and counter-curves emulate the formal harmony of classical sculpture. This section also includes The Acrobat (bronze, 1916-20) in which Nadelman captures the fleeting moment of equilibrium in a hand-stand.
Nadelman was an astute observer of the habits and fashions of contemporary life, which he often, quite wittily, transposed into classical high-art modes of representation. His Man in a Top Hat (bronze, ca. 1924), for example, is strikingly similar to antique conventions for representing great military leaders, which showed them bust-length, bearded, and with their helmets pushed high on their head. The exhibition also includes what is undoubtedly Nadelman’s most famous classicizing take on contemporary life-Man in the Open Air (1915). In this life-size bronze, a young gentleman wearing a derby hat strikes a casual pose against a stylized tree. The contrapposto stance, with the weight on one leg, is a hallmark of Greek sculpture. Specifically, the Nadelman bronze alludes to a well-known sculpture by the Greek master Praxiteles, showing a marble faun resting one arm on a tree trunk.
The Late Work
During the last decade of his life-a period of financial hardship and increasing ill health-Nadelman spent his time in seclusion, obsessively producing hundreds of small clay figurines of young girls. The exhibition features forty-three of these works, which were never exhibited during his lifetime and whose purpose remains a mystery. Most are small enough to be held in the hand, and, indeed, must be, for they cannot stand on their own. Plump and child-like in their proportions, some assume coy and flirtatious poses, others appear to be giggling, still others stare out in solemn silence. The so-called Tanagra figures, small clay sculptures of females produced during the Hellenistic period, have been cited as a possible classical source for these works. Some of Nadelman’s figurines wear the conical hat typical of many Tanagra figures. However, many of these diminutive nymphets also bear a striking resemblance to fun-house kewpie dolls. Once again, Nadelman seems to have deftly combined “high” and “low” art, popular imagery and classicism, in the creation of something totally original.