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Done Into Pictures: A New Graphic Biography Celebrates Isadora Duncan’s Feminism

Spring is finally here, and with it, loose clothing, sandals, and frolicking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. A nice time to channel the memory of Isadora Duncan, barefoot “Mother of Modern Dance,” champion of free love and unbound expression, and yes, dress reformer. Sabrina Jones’s Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography, released by Hill and Wang last fall, celebrates her life and legacy in visual form.

Illustration is an ideal medium for relating Duncan’s life and art. Lacking video recordings or action photographs, her dances have been haphazardly preserved, with only a hazy resemblance to her original performances. Eyewitness sketches give the most accurate representation of how she moved and the feelings she evoked, and Jones uses these, particularly renditions by Abraham Walkowitz and José Clara, as a guide. The head thrown back in ecstasy, or her whole body whooshed sideways as if caught on the wind—here a picture speaks a thousand words.

The actual story of her life, retold by over forty biographers (according to the forward by Lori Belilove), is sensational. Born to a poor freethinking family in Oakland, California in 1877, young Isadora was sent to charm the butcher so they could eat. She remained breadwinner of the family for most of her life, whether begging for money from New York’s social elite or earning tremendous sums from her celebrated performances. Resourceful but never practical, she feasted when times were good (acquiring a taste for fine champagne), attempted to build a temple on an arid hill in Greece, single-handedly financed a school of dance, and supported lovers and friends as well as her family. She found marriage oppressive to women, and her affairs titillated and scandalized the public. The tragic death of her children cast a shadow over the latter part of her life, and her own bizarre death brings her tale to an eerie close.

Jones, a Brooklyn resident whose career as an illustrator began with radical feminist comics in the 1980s, recounts Duncan’s life with an emphasis on her gusto. Always in her Greek tunic, Jones’s plucky Isadora trots across the world merrily, crossing paths with a host of eccentric personalities. It’s a long and complicated story to cover in merely 125 pages, and Jones sacrifices a lot of passion to keep things moving. The heights of love and lust are glossed over as quickly as the depths of loss and despair, as Jones focuses instead on the political implications of Duncan’s behavior and accomplishments. Jones reminds us: “Some of her liberties we take for granted, like comfortable dress and serial monogamy, but others, in art, education, and motherhood, are still every bit as hard to pull off.”


Mary Love Hodges


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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