Malvina Hoffman Considered

Marianne Kinkel‘s new book, “Races of Mankind: The Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman” is ultimately less about the sculptor and more about theories of racial equality in the United States during the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966) was both a consummate sculptor and a consummate self-promoter. In 1929, Hoffman was at the height of her fame, with studios in both New York and Paris. She approached Stanley Field, president of Chicago’s Field Museum, with the idea of representing the races of the world in sculpture. Soon, Hoffman had a very lucrative contract to produce 147 sculptures for the Museum, many of which are still on display.

As ethnographic representations, the set of sculptures embodied then-current notions of race, including assumptions of white superiority. The lifesize bronze “Nordic Type,” for example, was modeled after Rodin’s “Age of Bronze,” showing a muscular, nude caucasian man with upraised arms. Other races hold attributes of primitive technology, like baskets or spears, and are shown crouching, or with downcast eyes, making clear visual statements about their inferior culture and status.

Hoffman’s methods of gathering information, and her research, which included gathering widely-reproduced ethnographic images of the day, is written about in some detail. The process of making the sculptures, and the organization of her large-scale studios, however, is not given the same consideration.

I was hoping to find out about Hoffman’s day-to-day life as a sculptor, and how she managed her studios, assistants, and foundries, but was disappointed. This is not to say that the book is not an extremely well-written investigation of an era of American cultural history that many people would rather forget. But in the end, it is less about Malvina Hoffman’s work than the society she lived in.

“Races of Mankind: The Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman,” by Marianne Kinkel, Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2011: 260 pages, $40.


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