Local Author Recounts the Adventures of a Great - and Almost Unknown - Artist

Jun 5, 2018

A Thomasville writer has penned an insightful biography of the “most famous woman sculptor you’ve never heard of.” That artist also had some very definite connections to the Tallahassee and Thomasville areas.

A Malvina Hoffman bronze sculpture entitled "Russian Dancers"
Credit christies.org

The book is the story of Malvina Hoffman. And don’t feel bad if you have no idea who that is. Didi Hoffman didn’t know either until she met the man who would become her husband – Chip Hoffman – some 10 years ago.

“I’d been to all the great museums,” she revealed. “I grew up in a family that loved art. I collected new artists and I felt that I really knew my stuff as an amateur art lover. And I never heard of her. And I tell everybody, ‘I fell in love with Malvina Hoffman!’ He just sort of came with the package. But she became my muse.”

Malvina Hoffman, the great aunt of Didi’s husband Chip, was a young, very ambitious American sculptor back in 1910. That’s when she went to Paris, determined to become a student of the man who was then the world’s most famous sculptor, Auguste Rodin.

“He had many mistresses. He was a lech. And she was 25 and he was 71 and he did try to seduce her like he did everybody and she wasn’t having it! And from then on, he treated her as his friend and protégé.”

Under the great Rodin’s totally platonic guidance, Malvina Hoffman sharpened her artistic and technical skills, even learning how to cast her own bronze statues; something women simply didn’t do back then. She also got caught up in the feverish explosion of art and literature that was sweeping Paris at the time. Among her friends was the great Russian prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova. That led to the creation of what many consider Hoffman’s masterwork.

“Malvina created a 26-panel frieze of Anna Pavlova dancing the ‘Bacchanal.’ It took her 15 years to complete it and Rodin saw the original drawings and helped advise her until the war came on how to proceed.”

This was among the works entrusted to the custody of Malvina’s family. Didi lamented that the massive frieze did not exactly wind up as its creator probably intended.

“When she died, Chip’s mother was from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Population 200,000. And she donated all of the work to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, who basically put it in the basement.”

Then there were other significant works by Malvina Hoffman that simply vanished. “She was the first sculptor –the first woman – in the Luxembourg Gardens. And nobody knows that because the Germans stole it in World War II, so that legacy’s lost.”

The combination of all these unfortunate circumstances has resulted in Malvina Hoffman’s almost complete obscurity. Didi Hoffman has tried to correct that injustice with her biography entitled: “Beautiful Bodies, the Adventures of Malvina Hoffman.” And there are definite connections between this groundbreaking artist and the Tallahassee/Thomasville area.

“She lived in New York and Paris, but she was in Florida all the time! One of her best friends was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and she would come and visit her. She had roots in this area; friends and family.”

For instance, Hoffman was linked to Tallahassee’s old Waverly property, which is now the Waverly Hills neighborhood. She accepted an important commission from the man who designed Pebble Hill Plantation. She was on good terms with families familiar to locals like the Fleischmann’s and the Maclay’s. Didi Hoffman is happy to discuss this and many more details of the rich and fascinating life of Malvina Hoffman. That opportunity will present itself during Hoffman’s book signing event next Tuesday, June 12th from 5:00 until 7:00 p.m. at Hearth and Soul at 1410 Market Street.