From the Archives: Representing Race

View of the Hall of the Races of Mankind. © Field Museum, Chicago, 1933.


In the 1930s American sculptor Malvina Hoffman, who studied with the likes of Auguste Rodin, undertook a series of 104 bronzes depicting racial types for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. The resulting ethnographic exhibit, the Hall of the Races of Mankind, opened in the charged year of 1933. After decades of revised thinking about race and difference, the museum removed the “scientifically indefensible and socially objectionable” bronzes (per curator Donald Collier) from view in 1969, though their legacy has lived on as a subject of cultural critique.  

The Field Museum has mounted a new exhibition, “Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman” (Jan. 15, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017) that aims to recontextualize Hoffman’s production, featuring 50 examples from the series. As the New York Times reports, the show “[explores] both Hoffman’s artistry and the vexed history of the dubious scientific ideas that her talent was enlisted to serve.”

In our November 2011 issue, art historian Sue Taylor tackled the subject of Hoffman’s infamous bronzes in a book review of Marianne Kinkel’s Races of Mankind: The Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman. Taylor praised Kinkel’s “provocative new study,” which “shows how the images contributed to a contentious and mutating discourse on race through the end of the 20th century.” At the opening of the Field Museum’s show about Hoffman’s contentious work, we present Taylor’s 2011 review below.  —Eds.


WITH STUDIOS IN New York and Paris, a band of assistants, gold medals and other distinctions, sculptor Malvina Hoffman (1885[?]-1966) was at the height of her career when, at a dinner party in Chicago in 1929, she importuned Stanley Field for work. He was president of the city’s Field Museum of Natural History and grandson of department store mogul Marshall Field, the museum’s first major benefactor. Hoffman’s boldness paid off: within months, she had a contract to produce 147 sculptures for $109,000 to $125,000, a massive sum at the outset of the Great Depression.

Generations of museum visitors would come to know the images she created for the Field—Bushman Family, Chinese Jinriksha Coolie, Bengali Woman, Sioux Indian Male and others—as handsome examples of the waning tradition of ethnographic sculpture. The details of this commission unfold in a provocative new study by Marianne Kinkel, professor of art history at Washington State University. In Races of Mankind: The Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman, Kinkel shows how the images contributed to a contentious and mutating discourse on race through the end of the 20th century.

Among the actors in this epistemological drama are European and American anthropologists, curators, publishers and critics. Hoffman comes across as a dogged careerist who manipulated them all. With steely determination and supreme indifference to the authority of museum curators, Hoffman imposed her own artistic will on the Field commission. The original agreement called for full-length figures, busts and facial masks in “durable colored materials with real hair” for a Hall of Physical Anthropology, but by the time the new exhibit opened in June 1933, Hoffman had renegotiated her contract. Instead of delivering painted figures with glass eyes or face masks cast from life, she produced bronze sculptures (and, for variety, a few carved in stone). The Hall of Physical Anthropology became the Hall of the Races of Mankind, with the installation designed not by curator Henry Field (Stanley’s cousin, an Oxford-trained anthropologist charged with overseeing the project) but by Hoffman herself.

She must have infuriated him and his fellow curator Berthold Laufer, while appealing to Stanley Field’s preference for entertaining spectacles for general audiences over what he denigrated as “old fashioned dry as dust scientific treatments.” The curators wanted a display exploring physical variations among human populations, with taxonomies based on scientific observations and measurements. Their goals were thwarted at every step. Most obviously, the shift to bronze figures erased all differences in skin tone. To compensate, Hoffman hand-colored a set of photo transparencies that would supplement the main sculptural display along with cases of bones, casts and diagrams.

The artist conceived a central group of three male figures on a plinth, arranged around a column supporting a globe, which dominated and thematized the exhibit hall. Titled Unity of Mankind, this monument represented yellow, black and white races. Hoffman sketched the figures in clay with what she thought appropriate attributes—an ax, spear and book, respectively. Laufer balked. He protested that any use of attributes would be faulty, tying each racial strain to just one time and place, and one phase of cultural development. But Stanley Field deemed the maquette “a very beautiful thing.” The matter was settled when Laufer allowed the props to remain if, for thematic consistency, the ax were changed to a bow and the book to a sword.

WITH ITS THREE emblematic figures, Unity of Mankind contradicted the four-race scheme presented elsewhere in the museum, where Australian Aboriginal joined Mongolian, Negroid and Caucasian as a distinctive type. This inconsistency was not Hoffman’s fault; it reflected confusion among anthropologists themselves as they attempted to systematize an inherently elusive concept. Kinkel describes the motley theories of race offered by experts Henry Field consulted, including famed anthropologist Franz Boas, who questioned notions of fixed racial types, and the now deservedly more obscure British anatomist Arthur Keith.

Convinced of the advanced evolutionary progress of the white race, Keith held that antipathy among races was natural and adaptive, indeed that individual racial prejudice was “part of the evolutionary machinery which safeguards the purity of a race.” Nationalism was a function of this bias, and Keith regarded war as “nature’s pruning hook.” We know where this leads, and his critics in the field quickly made the association with Fascism and Nazism. Keith authored an essay in the guidebook to the “Races of Mankind” project and was memorialized in the bust exhibited as Nordic Type, Great Britain.

How this portrait came about illustrates Hoffman’s working methods and canny political strategy. She went to London to meet Keith, commissioned photographs of him and a cast of his face, then left to model the bust in her Paris studio. Keith was flattered; Hoffman sent him a plaster replica of the bust as a gift, ingratiating herself with an influential authority. Her artistic self-perception resonated with his theory of “race recognition” as an inborn skill, more developed, Keith maintained, in certain sensitive individuals than in others.

Hoffman thought she possessed a divinatory power by which she could discern the “essence” of a person’s character. Highlighting her role as medium, she even referred to her portrait sittings as “seances.” This special talent supposedly authorized her to identify certain individuals as racial types and to depict them as such. Including Keith’s bust as a representative type in the “Races of Mankind” effectively promoted the whiteness he worshiped as an ideal from which all other types deviated.

Hoffman’s research entailed travel to Asia to select subjects, hold seances and take pictures, casts and measurements. She also worked from ethnographic materials already circulating, for example George Specht’s widely reproduced photograph, ca. 1924, of a stunning Mangbetu woman named Nobosodrou, familiar to contemporary audiences from Carrie Mae Weems’s “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” (1995-96). In that series, Weems juxtaposes the Specht image with photo enlargements of slave daguerreotypes taken in 1850 in South Carolina for the scientist Louis Agassiz, who employed the pictures in his efforts to establish racial taxonomies.

Identifying with Nobosodrou (note the “I” of the title), Weems imagines the woman lamenting the fate of fellow Africans as she gazes on the images of the naked subjugated ones and addresses them: ‘You became a scientific profile, a negro type, an anthropological debate, & a photographic subject.” With these words etched in glass over the Agassiz studies, Weems points to the dehumanizing effects of such taxonomic investigations and even, potentially, of representation itself. Speaking through Nobosodrou across history, Weems attempts to recover the subjectivity of those objectified in projects like Agassiz’s-and Hoffman’s.

ALTHOUGH KINKEL DOES not frame the collection in these terms, Hoffman’s “Races of Mankind” exemplifies a last gasp in visual art of the Euro-American orientalism that thrived in the 19th century, from Ingres and Delacroix to Jean-Léon Gérôme and Hiram Powers. Kinkel’s account belongs to the histories of art and science but also to postcolonial studies, as we see how the construction of otherness shores up fantasies of Western superiority. Hoffman modeled the standing Nordic Type—also with Keith’s features—after Rodin’s Age of Bronze (1876), but with both arms raised to suggest spiritual aspiration and upward striving. It is the only full-length figure in the collection without accoutrements such as drum, basket or spear. When Hoffman exhibited small-scale reproductions of her sculptures at the Trocadero Museum in Paris in November 1933, critic Jean Gallotti expressed surprise at the appearance of this “American of Nordic Origin [alongside] specimens of humanity that were all but animals, and on the point of disappearance.” In his review, Gallotti used Hoffman’s Sakai Warrior and Sara Girl (Daboa) as occasions for airing self-indulgent, racist dreams of the primeval forest and “seductions of the black world.”

Kinkel’s restraint in all this is remarkable. She could have punctuated her book with exclamation marks and editorial asides; instead, she exposes bogus artistic and pseudoscientific theories and lets readers snort and wince on their own. Somewhat assuaged, we learn how scientists in the later ’30s, recoiling from Nazi ideas of “race hygiene,” abandoned racial hierarchies even while they continued to grapple with difference.

By 1943, with the Nazis wielding their bloody pruning hook in Europe, anthropologists were wary of Hoffman’s new project, a proposed chart titled Races of the World and Where They Live. Ever the entrepreneur, she generated a large world map embellished with photographic reproductions of her sculptures. Thus images of Native Americans ran along the left side of the map, Asians on the right, Africans at the bottom and Europeans (where else?) at the top. Labels beneath each figure inconsistently invoked nationality (“Italian Man”) or culture (“Navajo Man”) or social status (“The Untouchable”).

[pq]Hoffman’s “Races of Mankind” exemplifies a last gasp in art of the Euro-American Orientalism that thrived in the 19th-century, from Ingres and Delacroix to Jean-Léon Gérôme and hiram Powers.[/pq]When Hoffman’s publisher, C.S. Hammond and Company, sought advance endorsements for the map, Field curator Paul Martin insisted on revisions, including a new title. Though ultimately published simply as Map of Mankind (1946), the chart was nevertheless advertised as an aid for diagnosing race, even as antiracist anthropologists proclaimed the indeterminacy of the concept. Wilton Krogman, for example, Martin’s consultant at the University of Chicago, asserted: “We are not agreed what a race is, we are not sure when and how races arose; we do not know the precise hereditary mechanism in race . . . In very truth we know little about the bio-genetical aspects of race.”

Still, as Kinkel reports, Hoffman’s problematic map enjoyed mass circulation, and photo reproductions of her sculptures appeared in atlases and encyclopedias for decades, while at the museum the Hall of the Races of Mankind remained unchanged, until it was belatedly dismantled in 1969. The most pointed and effective critique of Hoffman’s project came that year, from a poet. On letterhead emblazoned with the Black Power salute, Amiri Baraka wrote to the Field’s director denouncing the map as “white racist pseudo anthropology.” In that volatile era of racial struggle, Field curator Donald Collier responded that “Races of Mankind” was in fact both “scientifically indefensible and socially objectionable,” and C.S. Hammond immediately withdrew the map from circulation. By this time, Hoffman was dead, though Kinkel does not mention her 1966 demise. Indeed, the artist vanishes from Kinkel’s narrative in later chapters, her absence pervading the book’s final pages. Meanwhile, however, her sculptures’ saga takes a fascinating turn.

IN 1971, FIELD CURATORS dispersed 35 of the sculptures as ornamental accents throughout the museum’s hallways and lounges, to celebrate cultural diversity. That same year, Chicago’s recently renamed Malcolm X College requested 11 full-scale plaster replicas, tinted black and brown, of Hoffman’s African and Oceanic figures for display in its main building, to complement the school’s Afrocentric curriculum. Here the images were inscribed with fresh political significance, reminding students that “Black is beautiful.”

This creative redeployment of Hoffman’s work resumed in 1994, when artist Fred Wilson borrowed 16 of the busts for an installation at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Wilson used the sculptures to expose the museum as a racialized space with whiteness at its center, symbolized by the dominant position in the gallery of John De Andrea’s Standing Man (1970) from the MCA’s collection, with the Hoffman busts looking on from the periphery. Considering the original stipulations of the Field commission, the irony of bronze images of people of color juxtaposed with De Andrea’s painted-polyresin depiction of a white male—with real hair and glass eyes—is striking. Enlisted in Wilson’s trenchant institutional critique, the bronzes, Kinkel notes, became “uncomfortable presences in the modern museum setting.”

In addition to Wilson and Weems, Kinkel mentions Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson as artists who demonstrate “how historical practices of visualizing racial difference resonate in the present.” Ligon and Simpson have occasionally sought to avert the reifying potential of representation by denying viewers access to the subject’s face: Ligon gives us the back of his head in Self-Portrait (1996) and Simpson similarly shields her anonymous black female figures by turning their backs or cropping their heads. In these instances, frustrated curiosity prompts us to interrogate assumptions about what kinds of information, insights and gratifications figurative images, especially portraits, can or should deliver.

One of the most intriguing problems addressed but not resolved in Kinkel’s book is the status of Hoffman’s sculptures as portraiture. The contradiction between the specific and the general, the portrait and the type, was subordinated in the 1930s and 1940s to claims that the artist’s skill in penetrating the “inner character or soul” of the sitter could reveal the essence of a group as well as the peculiarities of an individual. “In her one Balinese,” a critic opined, “you see all Balinese.” Such obfuscations hardly fly today.

Perhaps we can envision a continuum from portrait to type, with dignity and personhood at one end and the humiliation of being reduced to a specimen at the other. A given representation might be situated at one or several points along this continuum, depending on authorial intention, conditions of display and changing modes of reception. From this perspective, it’s telling that the Field Museum now offers selected Hoffman sculptures as “portraits of people from around the world.” Similarly, some contemporary artists embrace ennobling associations that still adhere to the genre. One thinks of Kehinde Wiley’s ambitious paintings of black men, especially his “Hip Hop Honors” series (2005), where subjects assume the trappings of power familiar from grand portraits of the past—Ice T, for instance, as Ingres’s Napoleon enthroned.

[pq]The Field Museum now offers Hoffman’s sculptures as “portraits of people from around the world.” And some artists, like Kehinde Wiley, embrace the genre’s more ennobling associations.[/pq]As correctives to the canon, Wiley’s lavish celebratory portraits find a parallel in Dawoud Bey’s quieter photographs of urban youth. Devoting his practice to adolescents of diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, Bey expands a genre whose subjects have historically been privileged and white. Moreover, his museum interventions empower such teens as co-curators; in “Portraits Re/ Examined” (2008-09), he and a dozen Baltimore high-school students chose examples from the Walters Art Museum collection to juxtapose with Bey’s own portraits, showing paintings and drawings of European aristocrats cheek by jowl with Articia, Muhammad (Chicago), and Rafael & Juliana (Watsonville Series).

Like Bey and Wilson, Kinkel mines the museum to yield entirely new perspectives on its holdings. If we understand Hoffman’s sculptures as relics of a discredited Eurocentric paradigm, Kinkel also indicates how liberatory meanings can issue from their inspired recontextualizations. “Races of Mankind” becomes instructive once again, albeit in a dramatically different way from what Hoffman and the Field’s early curators intended. Though demolished by genetic science as a biological classification, race still operates, inescapably, as a salient social fact. Artists and viewers (with the museum as their collective institutional agent) and scholars like Kinkel (with their rigorous research and analyses) all play a role in this ongoing, shifting cultural formation.

SUE TAYLOR is professor of art history at Portland State University in Oregon.