Sculpting a Life

Chana Orloff between Paris and Tel Aviv

Paula J. Birnbaum

In Sculpting a Life, the first book-length biography of sculptor Chana Orloff (1888-1968), author Paula Birnbaum tells the story of a fiercely determined and ambitious woman who fled antisemitism in Ukraine, emigrated to Palestine with her family, then travelled to Paris to work in haute couture before becoming an internationally recognized artist. Against the backdrop of revolution, world wars, a global pandemic and forced migrations, her sculptures embody themes of gender, displacement, exile, and belonging. A major figure in the School of Paris, Orloff contributed to the canon of modern art alongside Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall.

Stories from her unpublished memoir enrich this life story of courage, perseverance, and extraordinary artistic accomplishments that take us through the aftermath of the Holocaust when Orloff lived between Paris and Tel Aviv. This biography brings new perspectives and understandings to Orloff’s multiple identities as a cosmopolitan émigré, woman, and Jew, and is a much-needed intervention into the narrative of modern art.

Cloth: $45 | E-book: $44.95
ISBN-13: 9781684581139
Pages: 440 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: January 24, 2023

A truly vital monument to Chana Orloff’s extraordinarily fascinating place in our extended and fuller understanding of the art of the twentieth century and its creative communities.

Griselda Pollock
Professor Emerita of Social and Critical Histories of Art, University of Leeds


  • Birnbaum has created a truly remarkable and compelling portrait of the internationally-exhibited multi-national sculptor who worked across—and fully participated in—the tumultuous decades of twentieth century Jewish, modernist and world histories from her elective home in Paris. Wide ranging-research sustains subtle insights into the formal, historical and cultural significance of Orloff’s compelling portraits of her Jewish intellectual, political and artistic contemporaries that she created alongside a modernizing, feminist exploration of women’s subjectivities and life experiences through sculptural embodiment. A truly vital monument to Chana Orloff’s extraordinarily fascinating place in our extended and fuller understanding of the art of the twentieth century and its creative communities.

    Griselda Pollock
    Professor Emerita of Social and Critical Histories of Art, University of Leeds
  • Paula Birnbaum’s well-researched study of Chana Orloff is a tremendous achievement. In this pathbreaking, first book-length biography of the unfairly neglected sculptor, Birnbaum places Orloff securely in the company of her School of Paris contemporaries. Even more, she illuminates and contextualizes Orloff’s multiple identities as a cosmopolitan émigré, woman, and Jew. This wide-ranging book is a major contribution to our understanding of Jewish art, feminist art, and Israeli art.

    Samantha Baskind
    Distinguished Professor of Art History, Cleveland State University
  • Sculpting A Life offers a fascinating case study of an artist whose life and work embodies themes of gender, migration, displacement and belonging. This first of its kind biography explains the extraordinary conditions in which Chana Orloff lived and carried out a long and prolific career in Ukraine, France, Palestine, and later Israel. By analyzing her hyphenated identities from an intersectional point of view, Birnbaum captures the complexities and tensions between cosmopolitanism and national identity for women artists who live and work in diaspora.
    This book is an important contribution to the history of modern art, as well as Jewish history, while highlighting the many layers of gendered issues that impact women’s careers in an age of transnationalism. Although Orloff does not fit neatly into the discipline of art history, which is normatively written according to fixed notions of national style grounded in a stable idea of the nation-state, its enormous contribution is correcting the canon of modernity and offering a more inclusive history of art.

    Tal Dekel
    author of Transnational Identities: Women, Art and Migration in Contemporary Israel
  • Paula Birnbaum’s biography of Chana Orloff offers a timely and much-needed intervention into the narrative of modern art. Orloff’s life is a perfect model for the study of artistic practice within the contexts of forced displacement, voluntary immigration, transnationalism, and the multilinguality so pervasive in the 20th century.

    Alla Efimova
    Author and Curator
  • Paula Birnbaum’s lucid and engrossing biography of Chana Orloff (the first of its kind) restores the artist to her rightful place among the 20th century’s foremost sculptors. More than this, through meticulous research embedded in a lively, engaging narrative, a complete portrait emerges of a sublime artist negotiating the difficult balance of her diverse identities. There is also a distinctively Jewish story told here, one of a life’s journey touched, shaped and bruised by late 19th and 20th century social and political upheavals from Ukraine to Palestine, France and Israel: a life that incorporated extraordinary highs and lows including a six-year close friendship with Modigliani and a courageous last-minute border-crossing escape from Nazi pursuers. Both art and artist are brightly illuminated in this vivid record of Chana Orloff’s intense, crowded and extraordinarily creative life.

    Jonathan Wilson
    author of Marc Chagall
  • In Sculpting a Life: Chana Orloff between Paris and Tel-Aviv, Paula J. Birnbaum offers readers a deeply researched, beautifully illustrated, and engagingly written biography of a cosmopolitan and once-renowned sculptor who deliberately resisted categorization. In the world of art, Orloff (1888-1968) became an outsize figure with a multi-faceted hybrid identity; she was tenacious, resilient, and enterprising, overcoming multiple historical obstacles (ranging from pogroms to two world wars and persecution of Jews) that not only disrupted her professional development as an artist but also threatened her very survival. Orloff’s strong emphasis on motherhood as central to her artistic expression is particularly noteworthy, as is her fascination with the female body. This book also reminds readers of the relative marginality in Paris of the subsequently famous circles of émigré artists in which Orloff traveled (including Picasso, Modigliani, and Chagall, who hailed from Spain, Italy, Russia, and Palestine) and the difficulties of “defining” French art during the first half of the twentieth century. Particularly noteworthy are Birnbaum’s efforts to ground Orloff’s extraordinary life and ultimately successful career in historical context and to probe the meanings implied in her sculptures and drawings.

    Karen Offen
    The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University
  • Sculpting a Life is a thoroughly researched, scrupulous biography that will undoubtedly stand as the definitive study of Chana Orloff. At the end of this admirable biography, we’re left with the sense that Chana Orloff’s greatest creation was herself. She mastered the diasporic art world of the interwar era, fashioning a transnational and uniquely Jewish identity.


About the Author

Paula J. Birnbaum

Paula Birnbaum is the Academic Director of the Museum Studies Master of Arts Program and Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at USF. She is a specialist in modern and contemporary art and holds a doctorate in Art History from Bryn Mawr College. Professor Birnbaum is a former Fulbright Scholar and fellow at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University. She is the author of, among other works, Women Artists in Interwar France (2016).

Additional Images

Table Of Contents