“ALTINA”— A Woman and a Paradox



A Woman and a Paradox

Amos Lassen

Altina Schinasi was something of a paradox during her life (1907 – 1999). She was simultaneously seductive and reserved; she grew up sheltered and this was in direct opposition to her sexually explicit artwork. In the 1930s, she caused a fashion sensation when she designed Harlequin eyeglasses. The film, “Altina” is “an affecting, provocative, and richly informative documentary about an American trendsetter-a woman before her time.” Altina was free of constraints of any kind; she had a bright and keen mind. She sculpted and her sculptures defined her worlds—surreal and original. Her art originated from social issues and she even had an Oscar nominated for the film she made George Grosz and it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Altina was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and supported his struggle; during the Communist scare she hid John Berry- who was blacklisted for having directed a documentary on the Hollywood Ten-in her Beverly Hills home.


I happen to love documentaries, especially those that are a bit eccentric and perhaps that is why I like this film so much. Altina’s life moves through chapters marked with husbands and whenever we meet a new one, we are happy to cheer for her and her new beau. Altina was constantly searching for new inspiration, something to paint or create or stand behind.

The documentary uses still photography, period footage, an interview with Altina filmed when she was 84 years old, and extensive commentary from an assortment of her colleagues, friends and family. The film was made by Peter Sanders, Altina’s grandson  and he has created a vivid portrait of a woman whose personal and artistic life often flaunted the conventions of the 20th century. Sanders says that the film is “an homage to women and their struggles and challenges during that period … Tina broke free from most of the confines that most other people lived with.”


Altina was born into wealth—she was the daughter of Turkish Jewish émigré parents. Her father inventing the first cigarette-rolling machine — the patent and subsequent production leading him to magnate-level status and a huge, still-standing mansion on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive. Tina was economically privileged as a young girl. But she nonetheless went forward with her own creative ability and energy. She charted her own path while she was alive.

“Obviously her economic situation helped her make decisions,” Sanders says, “but it didn’t lock her in any way.” After an early marriage, followed soon after by a highly unusual for the day divorce, Schinasi charted her own path. She was, indeed, a free spirit. Her behavior was a result of her own desires. She married four times. She traveled a great deal and spent time in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Throughout these years, Schinasi was consumed by her art. She worked in a variety of media, primarily sculpture and painting, and also filmmaking, she was always seeking new forms, moving from one to the next when curiosity overtook her.

Though the film moves chronologically through Schinasi’s life, Sanders says he “made her art life anachronistic. He used her husbands as goalposts and the cities she lived in told me of the different lives she led, but I kept the art anachronistic because some of it never changed. As far as the creation of “Harlequin” cats-eye glasses, she claimed to be inspired by Venetian masks. She thought the standard glasses of the day were unattractive and, after coming up with her novel design, she tried and failed to interest manufacturers before walking into an upmarket Madison Avenue shop and convincing them on the spot. The glasses became popular and this led to Schinasi’s formation of a company, based first in New York, and then Los Angeles, which produced the frames.


She did not care for running the business and she objected to the racial segregation of worker so she shut down the business and turned to film.Schinasi’s social justice concerns are touched upon in the latter part of the film. I could say so much more but I am sure you would rather see the film so do not miss it—it is a prize.

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