Obituary: Fredda Brilliant

Patrick Reade
Monday 21 June 1999 23:02

FREDDA BRILLIANT was a sculptress whose gypsy creativity drove her to all corners of the world, crossing political barriers without regard. In the Thirties in Moscow, she embarked on her career, which flourished in India in the Fifties and Sixties, with moments of personal triumph in London, and which she later took to the United States.

She had about her a hectic Middle European style that exasperated and entertained all who knew her, from Stalin apparatchiks to fellow artists. She was an emigree Pole born in 1903 of a Jewish diamond family in Lodz. She went first, in 1924, to Australia with her parents and after a period in Melbourne theatre moved to New York in the late 1920s.

Here a spell of operatic training was added to a latent talent to perform and a life on stage appeared to beckon, but instead she began exploring sculpture. When she won a competition to sculpt the Russian politician Vyacheslav Molotov she was swept up in the socialist dream and travelled to the Soviet Union.

Although Molotov refused to sit for her, she managed to work on a bust of the poet Vladimir Maya-kovsky and met the great film director Sergei Eisenstein at the Moscow Film School at a point in his life when the Soviet system was slowly beginning to strangle his genius. Bronzes of both men by Fredda Brilliant were acquired by Moscow museums 25 years later, and the monumental bronze which she made of Eisenstein stood at the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London during an exhibition of his drawings held in 1963.

In 1935 she married the documentary film-maker and translator Herbert Marshall and a political naivety allowed them to survive in Moscow until 1937 when they left, before the second major Stalinist purge. Back in London, Fredda Brilliant and her husband engaged in a support of left- wing artistic activities which included writing the original filmscript for The Proud Valley in 1939, in which Paul Robeson starred.

During the war years she worked in a touring theatrical company and appeared in 1947 opposite first Michael Redgrave and then Albert Finney in Robert Ardrey's anti- Fascist play Thunder Rock, under her husband's direction, at the Globe Theatre in London. An encounter with Picasso was less happy - having asked her to portray him and to visit him in southern France, he pinched her bottom and she refused to have any further dealings with him.

From the 1940s Herbert Marshall and Fredda Brilliant travelled to India, where he lectured extensively and made government films, and she began to record the features of all the great dynastic political players of that age - again in some cases casting monumental bronzes. Only on one occasion did she stray from the political arena when she captured the glossy muscular torso of the Maharaja of Baroda.

By straying into other cultures she sometimes found her work unappreciated and there is little doubt that the powerful images which she created did not always capture the sitter's humanity, although Gandhi's quiet compassion and resilience are certainly evident in her statue as he sits cross legged, wearing a dhoti. This statue was unveiled by Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, in 1965 in Tavistock Square, London. Brilliant's bust of the former Indian Defence Minister Krishna Menon presents a powerful presence in Fitzroy Square, while busts made in 1948 and 1951 of Nehru manifest the pensive solemnity of a man burdened with the challenge of an impossible job. While Brilliant was working on the busts of Nehru, ants destroyed one bust and the intense heat desiccated another.

Among others to sit for her was Indira Gandhi; Brilliant created only half a face, as if seen above a veil, which forced the viewer to concentrate on the eyes; it was entitled The Eyes of India. She had been commissioned to make a 7ft bronze statue of Indira Gandhi but when Gandhi lost the 1977 general election Brilliant was asked instead to immortalise her successor Morarji Desai.

Brilliant had an incessant urge to portray the figures who peopled the artistic and political life of her age. In turn she portrayed Buckminster Fuller, Maurice Bowra and Francis Warner and, from her Sussex converted barn studio, sculpted Duncan Grant. In exchange for the work she did on this piece, which the family declined, Grant gave her his 1921 Baptism of Christ which was the first painting to depict a completely nude Christ.

In 1966 Fredda Brilliant followed her husband to the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, where he was offered the professorship in Soviet and East European Studies. They returned to Sussex in 1989 where they faced a bitter fight to reclaim their home from tenants and lived in a very reduced state for many months.

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.

Her speech was peppered with Polish sayings: "If you're born a donkey you can't become a race horse"; and, vis-a-vis her recalcitrant tenants, "No greater tyrant than a slave who becomes a master." With her emotions unleashed, her language let loose and her clothes trailing behind her, she became something of a local legend. The memory of her standing stranded behind a giant copy of the statue of Gandhi stuck between the front door and her studio remains a telling image of her constant struggle with her art and the world about her.

Brillant wrote Biographies in Bronze (1986), a catalogue of her surviving works, The Black Virgin (1986), a novel, Women in Power (1987), a series of interviews with political leaders, and Truth in Fiction (1986), a selection of stories. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors.

Fredda Brilliant, sculptor and actress: born Lodz, Poland 7 April 1903; married 1935 Herbert Marshall (died 1991); died Carbondale, Illinois 25 May 1999.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in