Biographies in Bronze, by Fredda Brilliant
May 12, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
I am ashamed to admit that, as recently as one week ago, I’d never heard of Fredda Brilliant. My life was the poorer for it. Born in Poland to a Jewish family in the diamond trade, Brilliant was an actress, novelist, screenwriter, and activist who died in 1999. According to the dust jacket of her 1986 memoir-cum-art-book Biographies in Bronze, “She also composes the music and lyrics for songs which she herself sings at concerts, radio, and TV.”
She was best known, however, as a sculptor and personality. As the Independent related in her obituary,
Nehru once said of Fredda Brilliant that when at work she looked like a mad woman—in day-to-day life she would without restraint sing out loud in public—tears would flow as easily as laughter and anger. She promenaded around the Sussex village of Henfield dressed in long black dresses, tasselled shawl about her shoulders and brilliant headscarf encircling her dark hair and small face—in winter she would wear a fur coat to the knees.
The dust jacket intrigued me, yes, when I came across Biographies in Bronze on the dollar cart at Unnameable Books. But it was not until I actually opened the book—specifically, to the picture of Brilliant’s bust of one Tom Mann—that I knew it must be mine.
Here is the author’s caption:
Tom Mann, an old Communist, who also knew Lenin, was a pioneer Trade Union Organizer. He helped to start trade unions in Australia and China. He became the leader of the Amalgamated Engineering Union.
In 1938, at the age of eighty-four, whenever he came to a sitting, he would bring me a bunch of flowers from his garden, picked by himself. It was very sweet but he didn’t seem to realize they were more weeds than flowers. Whenever I asked him about how he started to organize these trade unions he would always reply: “You can read about that anywhere. But I’ll tell you about Peeping Tom—as the girls called me.”
It’s all like that. Associative, gossipy, curiously flat.
The book contains no fewer than five introductions by notables, including Brilliant’s husband, Herbert Marshall. “With a vision that is objective even as it is compassionate, and vibrant even as it is serene, Fredda Brilliant’s bronzes have become grand forms that tell the stories of their subjects’ inner lives. Hers are great works, reflecting a love for humanity and a passion for art.”
Brilliant did manage to attract a pretty amazing roster of sitters, from Gandhi to JFK. However varied the accomplishments of her subjects, they are, in her telling, almost uniformly moved to tears by her portraits of them. Emotions in her studio could run dangerously high—as when a pair of artists from the Georgian republic watched her model “Medusa,” the bust of a female colleague:
The two artists watched as I worked and seeing the results very soon these volatile Georgian artists behaved as if at a football match; they clenched their hands, stamped their feet, raised their voices, shouting:
“Give it to her! Give it to her, that sweet bitch!”
Their egging me on didn’t directly influence my work, however, but it did give me confidence to continue revealing what I saw without inhibitions, without second thoughts.
Of all her anecdotes, perhaps the most memorable involves the sitter whom she calls “Baby Bernstein,” and his mother, Ruby:
Alas, Ruby, had a nose beyond imaginary proportions. The type of nose the Nazis attributed to Jews. Yet her father, a Rabbi, and her mother and sisters had normal features. In spite of her intellect and a pleasant personality, I understood from her mother that the nose was a drawback to her getting married.
I pondered how to approach Ruby. I then took courage and told her to have her nose remodeled. But Ruby found all sorts of nonsensical excuses against it. I then approached her parents, explaining the psychological effect on her and the impact on others. We pressurized her until her nose was in harmony with her face. Shortly after, she married a Bernstein, of the Film and Television family. I was happy and felt inwardly good.
Then Ruby had a son. I was thrilled, and proposed a sculpture of him. The baby was then six weeks old. As I understand it a baby that old has no clearly focused vision. But it was lovely to watch him during breast-feeding —hypnotized, looking into mother’s eyes. A sort of first love! And it was a very succulent baby at that. The nose—beautiful.
Needless to say, I have ordered her next volume, Women in Power.