June 4, 2009
Abraham Walkowitz's iconic sketches of dancer Isadora Duncan capture her spirit, passion, and zest. They also reveal her sturdy physique, which is the opposite of the balletic ideal. While ballet dancers strive for perfection in a kind of rarefied air, Duncan—considered the mother of modern dance—refused to wear shoes while she performed and relished her bare feet touching the earth. Poet Walt Whitman may have heard America singing, but Duncan heard and heeded the call for a unique, American style of movement.
Duncan's garment of choice was the Grecian tunic. In 1921, Edward Steichen photographed her in Greece. In one of these photos, she stands between two columns of the Parthenon like a heroine from another time. She believed in devoting her life to art and was inspired by the music of Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Her personal life was marked by both triumph and tragedy. Her autobiography, My Life, was published shortly after her death and remains one of my favorites.
Artist Abraham Walkowitz was born in Russia but came to the States and became involved in Alfred Steiglitz's circle, which formed around his 291 Gallery in Manhattan. Walkowitz met Duncan at Auguste Rodin's studio in Paris and would create thousands of drawings and watercolors of the dancer in motion.
In addition to art, dance, and painting, Duncan and Walkowitz had Russia in common. In 1922, Duncan married famed Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who would die too young in 1925 at the age of thirty. Duncan followed two years later in an ill-fated car trip. "I go to my glory" were reportedly her last words as her car sped away. Walkowitz, however, lived to be eighty-six and created a large body of work, including the images of Duncan—what I think of as his most resonant. They still dance.
To find out more about Abraham Walkowitz and his sketches of Isadora Duncan, check out his oral history interview at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. The Archives has posted a portrait of Walkowitz on the Smithsonian's Flickr set as well.
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