Her Body Was Music: Isadora & Abraham on the Page

By Victoria Looseleaf

Life is a dance, and in a perfect world it should be artfully executed. Though I’m not talking 32 fouettes, we do need to be reminded of this from time to time, especially now, when the Twitterati have taken over, and life’s passages – i.e. status updates – are constantly reduced to 140 characters. Okay, so I’m guilty of Tweeting, but I’m also a lover of art with a capital ‘A,’ dance in all its glories, and real books, those bound things found on shelves that contain the printed word – or images – on actual paper.

For an escape into that world, then, and a return to a more civilized time, I recommend Modern Gestures – Abraham Walkowitz Draws Isadora Duncan Dancing, by Ann Cooper Albright. New from Wesleyan Press, this little gem captures the love affair that the Early Modernist painter Walkowitz (1878–1965) had with the mother of modern dance, Duncan (1877-1927), after meeting her in Rodin’s Paris studio in 1906. How fabulous is that! Theirs was not a literal affair, though with Duncan who can ever know, but one expressed in over 3,000 paintings, sketches and photographs Walkowitz created in order to capture the free-spirited dancer with brushes and lenses.

Isadora With the Strokes of a Pen. Drawing by Abraham Walkowitz.

Bringing these two giants together is Albright, who delivers fresh insight into Duncan’s gestural movement vocabulary and Walkowitz’ divine art with her astute writing. Tackling an array of themes, Cooper breathes dreamy life into these historical figures. Included are the pair’s role in the broader cultural context of early modern dance (talk about a scintillating dialogue between motion and space), and the ways in which Walkowitz uses paint to capture a single movement, eventually creating kinetic narratives of Duncan’s steps.

Writer Gertrude Stein also weighs in, thanks to Albright. On similar artistic wavelengths, Stein, who befriended Picasso and crew, and, with her lover, Alice B. Toklas made hash brownies famous, also knew Duncan. Here several of Stein’s prose portraits complement Walkowitz’ drawings. In essence: This is beauty and truth at their most simplistic. Not exactly a flipbook, or what some might seek in Muybridge’s famous horse photography, this work speaks boldly in spare colors that, nevertheless, sweep the viewer away on waves of profound grace. Using the power of art to seduce, this tiny tome takes us back to beauty.