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Reviews

Reviews of Sculpting a Life

Birnbaum has created a truly remarkable and compelling portrait of the internationally-exhibited multi-national sculptor who worked across—and fully participated in—the tumultuous decades of twentieth century Jewish, modernist and world histories from her elective home in Paris.  Wide ranging-research sustains subtle insights into the formal, historical and cultural significance of Orloff’s compelling portraits of her Jewish intellectual, political and artistic contemporaries that she created alongside a modernizing, feminist exploration of women’s subjectivities and life experiences through sculptural embodiment. A truly vital monument to Chana Orloff’s extraordinarily fascinating place in our extended, and fuller understanding of the art of the twentieth century and its creative communities.
Griselda Pollock, Professor Emerita of Social and Critical Histories of Art, University of Leeds
Paula Birnbaum’s well-researched study of Chana Orloff is a tremendous achievement. In this pathbreaking, first book-length biography of the unfairly neglected sculptor, Birnbaum places Orloff securely in the company of her School of Paris contemporaries. Even more, she illuminates and contextualizes Orloff’s multiple identities as a cosmopolitan émigré, woman, and Jew. This wide-ranging book is a major contribution to our understanding of Jewish art, feminist art, and Israeli art.
Samantha Baskind, Distinguished Professor of Art History, Cleveland State University
Paula Birnbaum’s lucid and engrossing biography of Chana Orloff (the first of its kind) restores the artist to her rightful place among the 20th century’s foremost sculptors. More than this, through meticulous research embedded in a lively, engaging narrative, a complete portrait emerges of a sublime artist negotiating the difficult balance of her diverse identities. There is also a distinctively Jewish story told here, one of a life’s journey touched, shaped and bruised by late 19th and 20th century social and political upheavals from Ukraine to Palestine, France and Israel: a life that incorporated extraordinary highs and lows including a six-year close friendship with Modigliani and a courageous last-minute border-crossing escape from Nazi pursuers. Both art and artist are brightly illuminated in this vivid record of Chana Orloff’s intense, crowded and extraordinarily creative life.
Jonathan Wilson, author of Marc Chagall
In Sculpting a Life: Chana Orloff between Paris and Tel-Aviv,  Paula J. Birnbaum offers readers a deeply researched, beautifully illustrated, and engagingly written biography of a cosmopolitan and once-renowned sculptor who deliberately resisted categorization.  In the world of art, Orloff (1888-1968) became an outsize figure with a multi-faceted hybrid identity; she was tenacious, resilient, and enterprising, overcoming multiple historical obstacles (ranging from pogroms to two world wars and persecution of Jews) that not only disrupted her professional development as an artist but also threatened her very survival.  Orloff’s strong emphasis on motherhood as central to her artistic expression is particularly noteworthy, as is her fascination with the female body.  This book also reminds readers of the relative marginality in Paris of the subsequently famous circles of émigré artists in which Orloff traveled (including Picasso, Modigliani, and Chagall, who hailed from Spain, Italy, Russia, and Palestine) and the difficulties of “defining” French art during the first half of the twentieth century.  Particularly noteworthy are Birnbaum’s efforts to ground Orloff’s extraordinary life and ultimately successful career in historical context and to probe the meanings implied in her sculptures and drawings.
Karen Offen, The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University; Author of European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, The Woman Question in France, 1400-1870, and Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920.

Birnbaum weaves together pioneering research and analysis into a compelling narrative of Orloff’s life and work, a story about the courage, perseverance, and accomplishments of an artist who overcame the dislocation of multiple migrations and trauma of forced exiles, facing anti-Semitism and gender bias. This exemplary biography is a model for analyzing the complexities of an artist whose multiple migrations, identities, and the tensions between cosmopolitanism and national identity deeply informed her work.

Ruth E. Iskin, Professor Emerita in Art History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Birnbaum’s deeply researched study rescues an extraordinary artist from obscurity. Triumphing over infinite odds, Chana Orloff, a Russian Jewish émigré, became an original and compelling artist in modern Paris during and between the world wars. This book brilliantly restores her resilient voice and amazing story.

Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University

Sculpting A Life offers a fascinating case study of an artist whose life and work embodies themes of gender, migration, displacement and belonging. This first of its kind biography explains the extraordinary conditions in which Chana Orloff lived and carried out a long and prolific career in Ukraine, France, Palestine, and later Israel. By analyzing her hyphenated identities from an intersectional point of view, Birnbaum captures the complexities and tensions between cosmopolitanism and national identity for women artists who live and work in diaspora. 

This book is an important contribution to the history of modern art, as well as Jewish history, while highlighting the many layers of gendered issues that impact women’s careers in an age of transnationalism. Although Orloff does not fit neatly into the discipline of art history, which is normatively written according to fixed notions of national style grounded in a stable idea of the nation-state, its enormous contribution is correcting the canon of modernity and offering a more inclusive history of art.

Tal Dekel, author of Transnational Identities: Women, Art and Migration in Contemporary Israel

 

Paula Birnbaum’s biography of Chana Orloff offers a timely and much-needed intervention into the narrative of modern art. Orloff’s life is a perfect model for the study of artistic practice within the contexts of forced displacement, voluntary immigration, transnationalism, and the multilinguality so pervasive in the 20th century.

Alla Efimova, Author and Curator

This is the first biography of Orloff (1888–1968), a Ukrainian-born Jewish sculptor whose work is part of collections in Israel, Europe and the United States. Birnbaum. . . traces the artist’s multiple migrations — from Ukraine to Palestine to Paris to Switzerland and back to Paris while establishing a second home in Tel Aviv after World War II — and the impact these migrations had on her career.

J. The Jewish News of Northern California

Praise for Women Artists in Interwar France

Ambitious and uniquely thorough in scope... a valuable contribution to the literature on motherhood and artistic production by women.

Anna Novakov, St. Mary's College of California, USA

Drawing heavily on archival resources and feminist scholarship, Paula Birnbaum brings to light a rich cultural history of the interwar period often overlooked in histories of the avant-garde. The fact that the majority of artists will be unfamiliar to contemporary readers in no way undermines the importance of their collective endeavor, one that - carefully elucidated and beautifully illustrated in this handsome publication - sheds new light on issues of gender, modernity, female embodiment and diasporic identity during the interwar period.

Whitney Chadwick, author of Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement

This book is an important contribution not only to a broader understanding of interwar French art, but also to the continuing need to research such hidden feminist histories.

Burlington Magazine 

The book provides the first history of Femmes Artistes Modernes (FAM), an exhibiting society established in 1930 and directed until its demise in 1938 by the artist Marie-Anne Camax-Zoegger. The Appendix, listing the names and biographical information of 181 FAM artists, is in itself a considerable contribution to scholarship. Moreover, the book is extensively illustrated, enabling analysis and comparison of previously unpublished works.

French Studies 

Women Artists in Interwar France not only restores to cultural visibility a number of women painters and sculptors who have been largely overlooked by historians of early-twentieth-century avant-gardist art, but also provides a critical framework through which to read a substantial body of art practice that does not readily conform to the stylistic and theoretical concerns of modernism as it has been canonically constituted. Informed by both primary archival research and key concepts in feminist scholarship, in this lavishly illustrated volume Paula Birnbaum illuminates the diverse representational strategies deployed by those women artists who exhibited with the Societe des femmes artistes modernes in their negotiation of both social and art critical constraints in the interwar period. The sustained interrogation of questions of femininity, modernity and (self-)representation in the work of these artists is made to seem all the more startling when set against a backdrop of rising nationalism and the resultant desire for state control over the female body in France during the 1920s and 1930s.

Woman's Art Journal 

Women Artists in Interwar France, by Paula J. Birnbaum, is an ambitious project aiming to recover the artistic lives and cultural achievements of members of a group called the Societe des Femmes Artistes Modernes (FAM), who exhibited in Paris between 1931 and 1938. By reconstructing this "little-known chapter in the history of French modernism," Birnbaum brings to light a rich socio-cultural history largely overlooked in histories of the avant-garde (p. xvii). Joining scholars working over the past four decades in gender and modernism studies, Birnbaum offers a fresh critique of women's contributions to visual culture between the wars, and attempts to unravel why so many of them have been excluded from the canon of art history. Her new book adds to a growing literature in this area.

H-France 

... abundantly demonstrate[s] the importance of going beyond well-known artists, probing instead the social, economic and political contexts that defined what was and what was not available to women artists in general at particular places and times.

Art History

Praise for Essays on Women's Artistic and Cultural Contributions 1919-1939

...explores from a number of disciplinary perspectives, the many facets of what it meant to be a woman actively engaged in cultural production during a time of great social opportunity, but also economic collapse and a series of conservative backlashes that often played out in the arenas of sexual politics and equality.

Whitney Chadwick, San Francisco State University

The collection’s emphasis on discovery asks the reader to consider, or indeed reconsider, prejudices regarding ‘canonical forms of cultural expression’ (p. i). As a result, the collection presents a rich patchwork of art historical, literary history, and women’s social history methodologies in order to explore film, literature, sport, and art spanning the Americas, Europe, and Asia (in fact nine countries in all). It successfully helps to articulate original and at times compelling epistemes around the work of well-known artists such as Frida Kahlo and Hannah Ho ̈ch, as well as lesser known Bauhaus photographers such as Ivana Tomljenovic and invites us to recognise contributions further in terms of anonymous female marching teams. Karen Offen, The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University; Author of European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, The Woman Question in France, 1400-1870, and Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920.
Camilla Smith, University of Birmingham
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