Whitney Museum of American Art/ Abrams, 239 pp., $39.95 (paper)
“Up like a rocket, down like a stick”—thus, roughly, the multinational career of the Polish-American sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882–1946), whose present extensive exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York projects, despite the jaunty flair and exquisite finish of many of its items, a shadow of melancholy. Nadelman was captivated by ideas, which inhibited and limited his work even as they inspired it. Born in Warsaw at a time when the Polish nation didn’t exist except as an idea, a language, and a fervent if wistful nationalism, and into an assimilated Jewish family whose one concession to their heritage was to name their youngest and seventh child Eliasz (Elijah), Elie Nadelman moved to Munich and then Paris in his early twenties, and to New York when he was thirty-two. He found the émigré artistic communities in these metropolises far from immune to the anti-Semitism that accompanied Polish nationalism; in later life he identified himself as a Pole rather than as a Jew, marrying a Catholic, Viola Spiess Flannery, in 1919, and raising their one child, a son, as a Christian.
In personality he was reticent, private, and formal; in a 1911 artistic credo he maintained, “The element that brings beauty in Plastic Art is logic, logic in the construction of form. All that is logical is beautiful, all that is illogical is inevitably ugly.” There is a hermetic quality to his statues, as if they have been sealed against infestations of illogical detail. In his later work, the layer of sealant gets thicker and thicker, and toward the end his figures, fingerless and all but faceless, seem wrapped in veils as thick as blankets.
Barbara Haskell’s catalog, in this day of ponderous catalogs composed like Dagwood sandwiches of disparate essays, has the rare virtue of being written by one person; with a brisk expertise she leads us through Nadelman’s early education and the artistic currents felt in fin-de-siècle Europe. Symbolism, the dreamy, semi-surreal countercurrent to naturalism, was felt to be expressive of the Polish soul as well as the individual inner life. Rodin’s contorted, vigorously thumbed forms dominated sculpture. Nadelman’s earliest three-dimensional works, three untitled plaster sculptures from 1903–1904 (lost but photographed for a Paris magazine), were Rodinesque in the extreme. But he had already received the aesthetic ideas of the Polish Stanisl/aw Witkiewicz, who wrote in 1891,
The value of a work of art does not depend on the real-life feelings contained in it or on the perfection achieved in copying the subject matter but is solely based upon the unity of a construction of pure formal elements.
In his six months spent in Munich, the young Nadelman encountered the rich trove of early classical Greek statuary in the Glyptothek, the decorative simplifications of German Jugendstil, and the theories of the Munich-based Adolf von Hildebrand, who in his 1892 book The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture proposed, much as Witkiewicz did, that, in Haskell’s paraphrase, “true art …