Out of Africa, 1926: Malvina Hoffman and a Senegalese Soldier

In his newly opened installation Rumination, Raw/Cooked artist Duron Jackson has included Senegalese Soldier(28.385), a remarkable work by the early-twentieth-century sculptor Malvina Hoffman.

Placed in close proximity with Jackson’s Blackboard Paintings—abstracted aerial views of American prisons—Hoffman’s larger than life-sized bust portrait stands in for the historical black male body, and by extension, the slave trade. Jackson has created a compelling space in which to contemplate race and culture, and Senegalese Soldier has an important backstory. The Museum purchased it and Hoffman’s Martinque Woman (28.384, which was prominently featured in our recent exhibition Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties) in 1928, almost immediately after they were finished. Both are absolutely exceptional works in Hoffman’s career for two reasons that I will explain after this background on the artist.

Hoffman, Martinique Woman

Malvina Hoffman (American, 1885-1966). Martinique Woman, 1928. Black metamorphic stone, 22 x 14 1/4 x 15 1/4 in. (55.9 x 36.2 x 38.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 28.384. © Estate of Malvina Hoffman

If you’ve heard of Malvina Hoffman, you may have seen the famous photograph of her astride the shoulders of one of her monumental figures with a chisel in hand wearing her signature velvet tam on her head. Hoffman was undaunted in her pursuit of a career as a sculptor at a time when it was still an unusual one for women. She tapped her family’s close ties among New York’s cultural elite in order to achieve her goal, seeking lessons and critiques from several prominent New York sculptors. But Hoffman set her sights high and in 1910 took off for Paris with hopes of studying with the great Auguste Rodin—and she did, eventually, receiving critiques and earning status as an assistant. Although Hoffman never adopted his dynamic style, (Rodin’s bronzes suggest movement), she was inspired to pursue similar subjects, including lovers and dancers.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 forced Hoffman back to New York and changed her outlook on life and art. In 1919 she served as director of the National and Foreign Information Service of the Red Cross in New York and also made a life-altering trip through the Balkans with the American Relief Administration. Unable to happily continue her routine of work, in 1926 she embarked on a trip to North Africa to retune her eye through experiences which were entirely new to her.

Hoffman, Senegalese Soldier

Malvina Hoffman (American, 1885-1966). Senegalese Soldier, 1928. Black stone, 20 x 10 x 15 in. (50.8 x 25.4 x 38.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 28.385. © Estate of Malvina Hoffman

Which leads us to the Senegalese Soldier.  Early on, in Tunisia, Hoffman traveled south from Tunis by train to Gabé where, on arrival, she encountered Senegalese troops under the command of a French colonial officer. Her later account is tinged with the language of exotification so common in Eurocentric descriptions of African places and people. Finding the features of the soldier “startlingly impressive,” Hoffman exercised her privilege as a westerner in the French colony to gain access to the soldiers whose physiognomy interested her—an arrangement only marginally redeemed by her interviews to determine their willingness to sit for her. Interestingly, however, in the clay model for Senegalese Soldier, Hoffman agreed to the man’s conditions that she never show the work in Africa nor ever associate his name with it.

Hoffman thus began her focused attention on the portrayal of racial types—and that is the first reason the two Brooklyn works are exceptional. The second is that in producing the marbles in fine, black stone, she broke with her previous naturalistic style and adopted a monumentality and idealism in keeping with a broader aesthetic trend in the 1920s—one that celebrated and perfected physical presence. And herein lies the second reason for their exceptional status: these works constituted an effort by Hoffman to modernize her aesthetic.

Hoffman Getty

Malvina Hoffman, Les races humaines, Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadero de Paris (November 1933). Malvina Hoffman papers, Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (850042). © Estate of Malvina Hoffman

Just how unusual these works are in her production has been obscured by their association with the much larger commission she undertook in 1930 for Chicago’s Field Museum. It involved the production of nearly 100 bronze sculptures of the “races of man” for a physical anthropology display similar to a type popular at the time. As Marianne Kinkel discusses in great detail in her publication Races of Mankind: The Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman (University of Illinois Press, 2011), these installations were underpinned by theories about fixed racial identity—based in everything from geography to hormonal patterns. Hoffman won the commission through her social connections and, for her part, ignored much of the current science in producing the works. As Kinkel explains, she rejected ideas about establishing racial types through “composites” of many individuals. She based most of her sculptures on anthropological photographs (she personally traveled only to Asia for the global project) and stated that racial identity was better defined by gesture and action.

Her works for the commission are as photographic as bronzes can be. The differences between these literal works and Brooklyn’s two impressive heads did not stop her from exhibiting them together in several exhibitions, including one in Paris’s Trocadero Museum of Ethnology in 1933.