Sculptor of abstract human figures, Elie Nadelman (1882–1946) applied aesthetic theories he learned in Europe to American subjects and popular culture. His work seems a combination of classical methods and folk art, which merge to create a unique fusion of traditional and modern.
Eliasz Nadelman was born on February 20, 1882, in Warsaw, Poland. The youngest of seven children of Philip and Hannah Nadelman, Eliasz grew up in Poland’s Russian zone, where the tensions of anti-Semitism existed. His parents decided to raise their children relatively secular and they owned a jewelry shop.
In 1899, he graduated from the Warsaw gymnasium and enrolled in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. Nadelman enlisted in the Russian Imperial army to avoid a draft, which would have required four years of service. Returning to Warsaw the following year, he worked on his own for two years and then headed to Munich, drawn by German Romanticism. There he was exposed to an array of historical styles and artworks and at the time his work remained in the Symbolist style. In 1904 he entered a drawing competition and earned second prize, receiving five hundred francs, which enabled him to move to Paris in autumn 1904.
There he settled into the Polish art colony of Montparnasse. Nadelman began to exhibit in group shows and met Leo Stein, Andre Gide, and Eugene Druet. Druet eventually gave Nadelman his first solo exhibition, featuring thirteen plaster sculptures and 100 of his “radically simplified drawings.” His drawings “so bordered on abstraction that he would later use them to support his claim that he, not Picasso, had invented cubism (Hankins).” Another supporter of his work was Alfred Stieglitz who featured Nadelman in his October 1910 issue of Camera Work.
The following year, Nadelman had a one-person show at the William B. Paterson Gallery in London. This show included ten female heads chiseled in marble and was purchased in its entirety by Helena Rubenstein.
Nadelman constantly experimented with materials, working with wood, bronze, and marble or gilded gold. He also experimented with the scale and sizes of the figures. His subject matter was inspired by dancers, jugglers, and acrobats of the circus and other forms of popular entertainment at the time. He also began to use figures dressed in modern everyday clothing, which was unheard of at the time.
Alfred Stieglitz offered Nadelman his first one-person exhibition in New York, featuring two new plasters, a series of drawings, and earlier sculptures and reliefs in December 1915 at his gallery, “291.” Nadelman continued to exhibit and had great success with sold out shows of his genre subjects composed of simplified geometric forms and stylized animal bronzes.
In 1925 he exhibited his bronze and wood versions of stylized plaster genre figures, and classical heads, that used stains, gesso, and paint. These wooden figures were very unpopular during his lifetime but now are among the most valued works of Nadelman’s.
“Relatively impoverished,” Nadelman had not exhibited between 1927 and World War II and became isolated. At the time, the Abstract Expressionists were making their mark on the art world. The fate of Nadelman’s relatives in Poland at the time of the war spurred him to work for the war relief service as art instructor at Bronx Veteran’s Hospital from 1942–1945. He was later weakened by a heart condition that limited his mobility.
Elie Nadelman committed suicide on December 28, 1946.
Evelyn C. Hankins, “Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life” American Art Review June 2003