Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Her True Identity

The Unknown . Cast Drawing

Today I made a big discovery. It was someone's true identity...

It all started when I had borrowed a lovely cast which I ended up drawing four times. It was the face of a delicate, graceful woman...not too young, nor too old. As I traced over her features in my mind - and sometimes with my fingers - and worked on transcribing them to paper, I began to wonder who this person had been. Upon asking I found out that she had been dubbed "The Countess." Her features certainly spoke of a certain elan and dignity. It was not hard to believe that she was titled.

Even so, it was not enough. Soon armed with the name of the company in Chicago that had sold her to her owner, I found out that her official name in their old catalogue was "The Unknown." Ah..."Unknown." Perhaps poor and penniless, her body had been washed up on the banks of a river or an illness had taken her life, but she had been pretty enough to have her death mask made for distribution to aspiring artists.

But then, I didn't like the idea of a death mask. Rather I made her a poor but willing person who had to make a few dollars, and patiently sat while her mask was being made for sale to art schools.

Without the facts, these were my conjectures until a few days ago. That was when the owner of the cast said excitedly, "I think we have a lead!" A classical musician friend of his, a man acquainted with culture and the arts, had seen the plaster cast and announced that he thought it was Anna Pavlova!

The Acclaimed Ballerina, Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova! She was the famous ballerina who performed for audiences in the early 1900s. Her most famous piece was The Dying Swan from Swan Lake. It had been choreographed specifically for her in 1905 to Le Cygne from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.

The Dying Swan from Swan Lake

"In 1931, she contracted pneumonia while touring in The Hague, Netherlands. Holding her costume from the Dying Swan, she said her last words; "Play the last measure very softly." She died, on 22 January 1931, in the Hotel Des Indes, in The Hague. On the day she was to have next performed, the lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and while the orchestra played Saint-Saëns, a spotlight moved around the empty stage searching in the places where Anna Pavlova would have danced."*

Anna's House Included an Aviary
Complete with Swans and Flamingoes

In Anna's day not only death masks, but also life masks were made of famous individuals. The plaster cast I used was made from a mask made by Austrian sculptor, Victor Frisch which is in the collection of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (input Anna Pavlova in the Search box). It is dated 1920.

Victor Frisch . Head of Anna Pavlova
Bronze on marble base, ca. 1920

Another life cast of Anna in tinted wax was made by artist Malvina Cornell Hoffman. She is the fantastic sculptor who created the ethnic sculptures at Chicago's Museum of Natural History.

Malvina Cornell Hoffman
Anna Pavlova Life Mask, 1924

Anna's death mask is displayed at the White Lodge Museum and Ballet Resource Centre, the home of The Royal Ballet Lower School (shown along with Margot Fonteyn’s ballet shoe).

It feels very different now when I see my cast drawings. I know who this person is...or rather, was. The knowledge of her name has changed everything...

* http://ann-lauren.blogspot.com/2009/02/19-20th-cent-ballerina-anna-pavlova.html
Also see this photo: http://gallery.ejwassoc.com/main.php?g2_itemId=339


  1. I was very moved when I read this. One of my FB friends danced the Dying Swan at Constitution Hall during the intermission of a performance of Handel's Messiah (Christmas portion) by the Asaph Ensemble. (Long time ago.)

    Much of the music that evening was choreographed, but none of the ballet matched her amazing performance.

    I'll never forget how she touched all of us. This post brought back the memory of being brought to another realm of knowing. Her performance brought many of us to tears -- choked up, our breath collectively stopped – we knew the inexpressible was shared in community with those around. The few tears that gently rolled down our faces brought release from gazing on the unexpected knowledge.

    Amazing how deeply true art can reach and remain.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. and also famously the name of a delicious dessert, the Pavlova, which is named after her by the Australians after she visited the country and quite liked the dish.

  3. The interview was very interesting

  4. I thought so, too, Dorothy. The film clips, photos and Sir Frederick Ashton's anecdotes on Anna Pavlova are very interesting...and seems to completely fascinate ballerina Natalia Makarova.

  5. Incredible! (I worked on a drawing of Pavlova last year as well, but I had no idea anything like these masks existed!)

  6. This has also been a series of discoveries for me, too...and I've enjoyed the journey!

  7. I was very interested to read your blog about the Frisch mask (my research indicates that four plaster casts were made from the bronze mask), as it is something I am researching as part of a wider project about sculptures of Pavlova. I wondered whether you drew, or photographed, the mask in absolute profile, and, if so, whether you would allow me to see a copy.
    Good wishes.

    1. The picture at the beginning of this post is a cast drawing that I did of an actual cast owned by a friend, who is also my teacher and a master artist. I have done four careful drawings from different angles of this cast. If you would be interested in seeing a photo of the cast itself, I can send you one.

    2. And I would love to see a copy of your paper and read what you've found if you wouldn't mind!

  8. The Dying Swan is, as you mention, from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. Originally named, The Swan or Le Cygne, it was choreographed on Pavlova in 1905 by Mikhail Fokine.
    However, The Dying Swan is a solo piece and has no relation to Marius Petipa's (and Lev Ivanov's) Swan Lake whose composer was Tchaikovsky and which was revived in 1895 for the Imperial Ballet on 15 January 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us!