Chana Orloff was a Ukrainian Israeli Jewish figurative sculptor, one of the many Jewish artists who flocked to Paris in the early twentieth century, but also a member of the pioneer art community in Palestine under the British mandate. Orloff’s preferred medium was wood, but she also worked in stone, marble, bronze and cement. She is best known for her sculpted portraits of famous people, most notably those from the art world in Paris in the early twentieth century. Her subjects included the painters, Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, the poets, Fleg, and Mac Orlan, the architects, Chareau and Auguste Perret, and future Israeli Prime Minister Levy Eshkol. Orloff also enjoyed sculpting animals, especially birds, ordinary men and women, and women as mothers.
Orloff was born in 1888 in Ukraine, where Jews suffered severe persecution, and pogroms were a reminder of the fragility of their situation. She and her family immigrated to Palestine in 1905 when Orloff was eighteen. She was already familiar with Hebrew since she had learned the language in a “reformed cheder” in Ukraine, and she found a job as a cutter and seamstress in Jaffa. Orloff also joined Hapoel Hatzair, “The Young Worker,” and helped in guiding and instructing young girls who had just arrived in Palestine.
After five years in Israel, Chana Orloff was offered a job teaching cutting and dressmaking at a Herzliyah high school and decided to go to Paris to get certified in those subjects. Once in Paris in 1910, Orloff discovered her passion for art and never returned to teach cutting and dressmaking. At the time, Paris was considered the art capital of the world and the city attracted many foreign artists, including many Jewish ones, who Orloff came to know in Montparnasse. Orloff studied sculpture at the Russian Academy in Montparnasse and became friendly with Modigliani, Soutine, Pascin, Zadkine, Lipchitz, and Chagall. In 1913, heavily influenced by cubism, Orloff took part in the Salon d’Automne and exhibited her work several times in Paris. The same year, she returned to Palestine for a brief visit with her family, but soon returned to Paris.
Over the next few years, Orloff matured quickly as a sculptor in Paris and her work was soon being displayed at important art exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam and New York. In 1916, Orloff married Ary Justman, a young Warsaw-born writer and poet. Together they published a book of Justman’s poetry accompanied by photographs of Orloff’s first sculptures. Justman died of the post-World War I influenza epidemic just three years after his marriage to Orloff, who then resigned to devote herself entirely to art and to raising her son.
By the 1920s, Orloff’s reputation was already well established, especially for her portraits. In 1928, Orloff’s sculptures were exhibited in the United States and in 1937 an entire room was devoted to her works in the Petit Palais in Paris.
The early twentieth century saw the beginning of sculpture in Palestine. At the time, artists in Palestine struggled in a region devoid of suitable conditions for creative work and a distinct local sculpture culture was yet to materialize. For these reasons, Palestinian artists were very mobile, often traveling to world art centers. As such, Palestinian artists not only had their own distinct Palestinian artist identity, but also identified with Jewish artists from around the world, also traveling to be part of world art centers. While Orloff settled in Paris, she maintained a constant link with the land of Israel.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Orloff frequently received visits from Palestinian artists, Zionist leaders, students, and Palestinian art lovers in her Paris home. The first exhibition of Orloff’s work in Palestine was in the spring of 1935 at the Tel Aviv Museum, which had been opened in Dizengoff’s house. It was in Orloff’s home in Paris, while the Mayor and his wife were visiting, that the idea to convert the house into a museum was originally envisioned. The exhibition included portraits of Hava Chabor, Reuven Rubin, the Jewish painter Reisin, Shalom Asch, Bialik, as well as several others. Following the exhibition, it was decided that the sculpture of Bialik should remain in Palestine, and thus, it escaped the fate of Orloff’s other sculptures that were destroyed in her studio during the German occupation of France during World War II. The sculpture is now on permanent display at the Bialik House in Tel Aviv. Also in 1935, Orloff’s works were exhibited at the Steimatsky Gallery in Jerusalem. The exhibition was well received and attracted a record number of visitors.
Chana Orloff fled Paris for Switzerland with her son and the Jewish painter Georges Kars when the Germans invaded Paris during World War II. In 1945, Kars committed suicide and Orloff returned to her home in Paris with her son. Her house had been ransacked and the sculptures in her studio destroyed. After sculpting “The Return” and many drawings depicting a person coming back “from there,” Orloff went to the United States where she worked and held exhibitions around the country. She returned to Paris in 1948.
Following Israel’s independence, Orloff spent an increasing amount of time in Israel. In 1949 the Tel Aviv Museum held an exhibition of 37 of her sculptures. She remained in Israel that year to complete a sculpture of David Ben-Gurion. Orloff also completed the portrait of “The Hero,” a monument to the national resurgence and agreed to design a monument for the defenders of Ein-Gev, eventually sculpting the “Motherhood” monument, in memory of Chana Tuckman, who had fallen during the War of Independence.
While visiting Israel in 1955, Orloff received another official commission to create a monument to the Hebrew Working Woman, to be placed in front of the Histadrut building in Tel Aviv. She created many different versions of the figure, including “The Bearer,” “The Sower,” “The Gatherer,” and “The Mower,” for the committee to choose from, and eventually “Woman with a Basket” was chosen.
Over the following decade, Orloff’s works were exhibited numerous times throughout Israel. In 1968, Orloff fell ill when she returned to Israel to organize a retrospective exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum. She was taken to Tel-Hashomer Hospital, where she passed away on December 16. Orloff was buried in Israel at the Kiriat Shaul cemetery.