Eliasz ‘Elie‘ Nadelman was a sculptor, born in Warsaw on 20th February 1882. He created his works in Poland, Germany, Paris, and New York. He died in Alderbrook, New Hampshire in 1946.
He was the youngest of jeweller Philip Nadelman’s seven children in a family of assimilated Polish Jews. He was originally to become a singer, but after graduating from junior high school he started drawing classes in Warsaw. After giving up on decision to study at the School of Fine Arts in Kraków, he became involved with the Warsaw community.
He made his debut at the Krywulta Salon, with a now lost, satirical drawing composition entitled Pochód Modernizmu (March of Modernism, 1901-1902), made together with Witold Wojtkiewicz. For a few months in 1904 he stayed in Munich, where he studied ancient sculpture in Glyptothek, and in the Bavarian National Museum he studied folk art and its collection of dolls. In the Bavarian capital, he encountered modernist journals as well as the theory of sculpture by Adolf von Hildebrand, suggesting classic clarity and order. He moved to Paris when he became one of the laureates of the Chopin theme contest organised by Antoni Potocki's ‘Art’ in Paris.
Nadelman was introduced to Polish and international artistic and intellectual circles by Tadeusz Natanson and his brother Aleksander, Adolf Basler, and Mieczysław Golberg, who were collectors, art dealers, and theorists. The latter proclaimed in La Morale des Lignes (Morality of the Line), a work important for modernist theory from the borderline of the aesthetics and philosophy, the autonomy of the laws of art based on the independent expression of the line. In the texts published in Lviv, London and New York, Nadelman referred to Golberg's views, sanctioning the primacy and perfection of the ‘form of substance’ only. Only from them, away from the imitation of nature, the artist can make beauty emerge.
In Paris, Nadelman was a friend of André Salmon, Bela Chobel, Amedeo Modiglianim, and Jules Pascin. When it comes to the Polish art colony, he had close ties with Leopold Gottlieb, Mela Muter, Gustaw Gwozdecki, Szymon Mondzain, Eugene Zak, Jerzy Merkel, Moise Kisling, Louis Marcoussis, and Alicja Halicka. He was a co-founder of the Society of Polish Artists in Paris, and in the play Szopka (Farce, 1912), a kind of satire on the environment of the Polish artistic emigres performed by the society, he appeared as Eliasz Praksytelman. He exhibited in the Parisian Galleries, as well as Berthe Weill and Eugéne Druet’s important galleries.
During one of the exhibitions in London, Helena Rubinstein, the ‘queen of cosmetics’ noticed Nadelman’s work and supplied the artist with her patronage. From then on she decorated the salons of her company with Nadelman’s sculptures. She also helped the sculptor after the outbreak of World War I in getting through London to New York. In the United States, Nadelman’s work was known before his arrival, as his work (as one of two Poles) was presented at the famous New York International Modern Art Show, known under the name The Armory Show (1913). After initial problems in acclimatisation, the artist was appreciated by public institutions, including museums, which increasingly bought his works. He often made individual orders for portraits and freestanding outdoor sculptures. At an individual exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession 291 Gallery (1915/1916), Nadelman showed the widely commented-on work Man in the Open Air.
Together with his wife, Viola Spiess Flannery, Nadelman had a rich social life. He travelled to Europe, bought his earlier works from the Paris and London galleries. The Nadelmans collected glass and porcelain of the ancient Near East, medieval crafts, but above all they created a collection of American folk art that served as the foundation of a private museum. They lived near New York, mainly in Riverdale-on-Hudson and Alderbrook. The stock market crash put an end to Nadelmans’ prosperity, forcing them to sell the property and the collections of the Museum of Folk and Peasant Art (among others to Abby A. Rockefeller). His few public orders did not meet the needs and ambitions of the sculptor, who with time almost completely withdrew from public life.
After the outbreak of World War II, Nadelman volunteered for civilian air defence, then taught sculpture for art therapy at the Bronx Veterans Hospital. At the end of his days, he had not forgotten his family members and Polish and Parisian friends in need. Keeping in contact with his son John, fighting in Europe in the ranks of the U.S. Army, he received increasingly tragic news about the fate of his family in occupied Poland. Elie Nadelman took his own life at his Alderbrook studio on 28th December 1946.
Nadelman’s first sculpture, now known only from a photograph, was impregnated with early Expressionist pathos and revealed inspirations in the accomplishments of Xawery Dunikowski. Leaving Poland changed his art, although it is emphasised that even near the Vistula river he was interested in folk crafts, especially those made of polychrome wood. Both in Munich and in Paris he was struck by the achievements of the masters of Greco-Roman antiquity, and under their influence he decided to revive the classical tradition and shape its modernist face. But he did not remain indifferent to contemporary trends, his drawings and similarly shaped plaster sculptures showed affinities with the visual language of the cubists, although he never crossed the boundaries of abstraction and spatial deconstruction of the structure.
His heads, busts or full-body figures – regardless of the degree of synthetic generalisation, skipping of unnecessary detail – were characterised by elegance based on the structure of gentle arches and curves, harmonically rhythmic draperies (a standing female figure in draped robes) or a dancing figure frozen in counterpose (Orantka / Orant Woman). Bronze or marble, rarely wooden figures referred to antique and renaissance-mannerist sculpture with an almond eye pattern, a twist of a long neck and elongated proportions, a gesture full of distinction and a decoratively rhythmic hairstyle, and above all unchallenged tectonics.
In the American period in his work, Nadelman had already added to his dense, intricate figures details relating to modern customs. Naked goddesses and forest nymphs, who exchanged Greek chitons for evening dresses, transformed themselves into elegant women with their hair bent in a bun, often tied with a bow. Men’s heads were covered with bowlers or caps, a bow tie, or a bow made up the indispensable tuxedo. Thus, one of the art deco protoplasts established a canon of sculptural elegance, to which he himself could refer to with, for example, when he inked a bow tie of a polychrome figure of a gentleman. The rudeness of the silhouette with its often corpulent proportions did not interfere with the decor. Nadelman's figures referred thematically to his favourite types of art: circus, dance, ballet, vaudeville, preserving each of them grace and rhythm (Tango, Acrobat).
The sculptor took care of getting the right texture – he polished the surfaces to get the perfect shine of marble or bronze, and sometimes he archaised the coating of galvanoplastic sculptures (gypsum covered with thin metal) to absorb and reflect light, like freshly excavated by archaeologists (Woman's Bust, Woman with Raised Leg).
In the second half of the twentieth century, Nadelman’s sculptural language underwent changes: the clearly delimited, idealised forms that had occupied him earlier, surrendered to amorphous contours and faces with dented features. At that time, he began working on life-sized sculptures of circus artists made of paper-mâché and soon also with much smaller ceramic statues, directly inspired by late-Tanagari terracotta figurines, which served as vases and decorations but also toys, presenting elegant ladies in exquisite poses.
Nadelman individualised his own figurines, multiplied in the ceramic furnace, by painting their surfaces before glazing in various ways, or leaving them matte. Their form, gesture, spatial context provoked another kind of contact than in the case of classic works; They were fascinating because of the mystery of the sensuality vailed into the scant proportions at a small scale.
Their continuation (but in a sense contradiction) were figures about a dozen centimetres tall, also of post-Tanagra provenance, shaped in plaster, sometimes taken from the mould in such a way that they have broken or unfinished limbs, blurred contours and facial features, ‘worn out’ details. Their shape and expression were influenced by the fate of the sculptor, who, as a result of financial failures, had to leave his studio equipped with a ceramic oven. These last figurines were never shown during his life; He claimed to have been trying to fill the void after a lost folk art collection. Their psychological aura is influenced by the peculiar eroticism of women-children (referring to the beauty that was then promoted) and the fragility of the material from which they came into being.
The Polish-Jewish-American sculptor had a personality as original as it was impassive and impulsive. He often defended his views in public appearances in the press (sometimes offensive), ironising from his audience's criticism and triviality.
Selected works on Nadelman:
- Lincoln Kirstein, Elie Nadelman, The Eakins Press, New York 1973
- Suzanne Ramljak (and others), Elie Nadelman: Classical Folk, American Federation of Arts, New York 2001
- Barbara Haskell, Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, exhibition catalog, Whitney Museum of American Life, New York 2003
- Cynthia Nadelman, Elie Nadelman, Art History Bulletin 1994, No. 1-2, p. 1-13
- Artur Tanikowski, Metamorfozy Apolla w cylindrze, Format 2004, No. 45 (3-4), p. 46-47, 103
Author: Artur Tanikowski, November 2009.