[This entry focuses on artists in Russian lands. For discussion of visual artists of other regions, see the biographical entries on those listed in the "Visual and Performing Arts" section of the Synoptic Outline.]
The history of Jewish participation in the making of East European painting and sculpture took shape against the professionalization of the fine arts in the nineteenth century. Prior to that century, under the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the production of painting and sculpture, not to mention the training of artists and sculptors, developed within the traditional system of urban craft guilds, and was officially and for all practical purposes off-limits to Jews.
The loss of Polish independence at the end of the eighteenth century fostered the growth of provincial artistic circles as well as interest in both contemporary and historical subjects. European romanticism shaped the visual investment in regional themes and in a new national iconography, associated primarily with the first school of Polish painting, around the charismatic figure of the painter Jan Matejko (1838–1893). With the founding of the first private art institute in Kraków and the creation of state-sponsored academies and art schools in Vienna, Munich, and Saint Petersburg—avowedly neutral sites for artistic production—it became theoretically possible for East European Jews to train and to earn a living as painters and sculptors. The process, which began with a small number of extraordinarily gifted individuals in the second half of the nineteenth century, culminated in the cultural emancipation of Jewish art by World War I. By this point, Jews had become participants in the creation and diffusion of East European art not only as producers but also as consumers: patrons, collectors, and critics. In addition, East European Jewish artists played an important role in the cultural politics of the Hebrew renaissance. Their work shaped Zionist iconography and contributed to the Jewish arts and crafts movement that, under the leadership of the sculptor Boris Schatz (1867–1932), eventually was transplanted to Palestine.
The break-up of the Romanov and Habsburg Empires and the subsequent reconstitution of nationalist Eastern Europe led to the initiation of Jewish painters and sculptors into the radical politics and experimental artistic practices associated with European modernism. The East European Jewish avant-garde invented a radically secular Jewish iconography, a singularly important aspect of the Jewish cultural revival of the interwar period. During World War II, Jewish artists and sculptors pursued some of the same artistic commitments, now endowed with a new sense of moral purpose. With the formation of Communist Eastern Europe, Jewish artists once again became, for all intents and purposes, invisible as Jews, their Jewishness confined entirely to their names. Although they played an important role in the creation of Soviet art, for example, most Soviet Jewish artists staunchly resisted the pull of origins. Paintings and sculptures that dealt with Jewish subjects, particularly with the agony of the East European Jewish experience of World War II, remained taboo.
The dissident movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which produced a Jewish revival of sorts in music and in literature, similarly inspired a subversive Jewish turn among Jewish painters and sculptors of the Eastern bloc. Stronger ties to the East European Jewish Diaspora in Israel, the United States, and Western Europe contributed further to the process of political and cultural self-assertion that bore fruit in the postcommunist period. Today, East European artists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, readily engage Jewish themes as part of the recovery of the imperial—multinational and regional—character of the region. Their contemporary work also invigorates the academic and popular interest in the Jewish roots of some of Europe’s most visible local artists. Both museum curators and scholars contribute in no small measure to the current rehabilitation of the Jewish past of East European painting and sculpture.
The Genealogy of Jewish Art in Eastern Europe
As was true of their contemporary successors, the first critics of Jewish art in Eastern Europe had difficulties conceptualizing their subject. While Majer Bałaban included any object that exhibited “features of Jewish creativity,” Abram Efros contended that “Jewish artists belong to the art of the country where they live and work” (Evreiskaia starina 1 : 55). When Jewish painters and sculptors began to enter into European artistic circles, they brought a new set of Jewish subjects, drawn from Jewish experience, into the contemporary repertoire of genre scenes. Nevertheless, there was nothing recognizably different in their manner of representation; in fact, the treatment of Jewish themes and Jewish observances implicitly drew on Christian visual vocabulary. Artists of Jewish origin likewise produced secular work—landscapes, historical scenes, and portraits—that had no manifest Jewish trace. All of this complicated the claim that a distinctive Jewish aesthetic even existed in Eastern Europe; some critics insisted, to the contrary, that an artist’s Jewish origins were enough to qualify the art as Jewish. It was not until the rise of Jewish nationalism at the turn of the century that the debate acquired a distinctly ideological cast. At this point, East European Jewish genre painting became a staple in the iconography of exile, wedded to the cultural politics of the Zionist revival.
East European Jews who first entered into the making of painting and sculpture in the nineteenth century did so within an imperial context. They began as Jewish provincials; in the professional pursuit of art lay their geographic and cultural emancipation from the social and confessional boundaries of their local Jewish communities. At the same time, their Jewish sensibilities, articulated in the visual idiom of history painting and rooted in the romantic interest in the Jewish origins of Christianity, reentered their art both as subject and as a personal style. For example, the work of Maurycy Gottlieb (1856–1879) blurred the line between the depiction of contemporary Jewish life and his heroic images of the Jewish Jesus. The unconventional engagement with Christian modes of representation on the part of the first professionally trained Jewish artists in Eastern Europe—Aleksander Lesser (1814–1884), Gottlieb, and Maurycy Trębacz (1861–1941)—actually laid the thematic foundations for Jewish genre painting.
Po pogromie (After the Pogrom). Maurycy Minkowski, 1905. Oil on canvas. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
The imaginative links between Jewish genre painting and the universal moral themes of Christian visual vocabulary were sustained by such artists as Szmul Hirszenberg (1865–1908) in Poland, Izidor Kaufmann (1853–1921) in Hungary, and Yehudah Pen (1854–1937) in Russia. Among the first generation of formally trained Jewish artists, they shared an interest in the sentimentalization of Jewish family life and in the melodramatic evocation of Jewish suffering. To the extent that the highly self-conscious treatment of Jewish subjects relied on the appropriation of the affective tradition in Christian painting, Jewish genre scenes actually vitiated the contemporary drive toward realism that inspired the turn toward Jewish themes in the first place. In this regard, Jewish painters in Eastern Europe drew closer to the modern Russian and Polish traditions of “secret romanticism”; in the second half of the nineteenth century, the artists associated with the Wanderers’ revolt against the academy in Russia and the Polish artists trained in the realist Munich School continued to rely on the allegorical potential of Christian symbolism in their search for an urgently contemporary pictorial language. Similarly, their Jewish colleagues sought to locate the trials of everyday Jewish life—poverty, antisemitism, old age, social conflict—in the stylized, dramatic idiom of religious painting. Perhaps the most striking example of this tendency is Po pogromie (After the Pogrom; 1905, Tel Aviv Museum of Art; see image above, left), by the Polish painter Maurycy Minkowski (1881–1930). The depiction of the modern victims of anti-Jewish violence implicitly invokes the image of the Holy Family. The central figure of the mother holding her infant explicitly suggests the Madonna and Child, while the recumbent pose of the sleeping boy in the background resembles the sagging figure of Christ in the Pietà.
Czarny Sztandar (The Black Banner). Szmul Hirszenberg, 1907. Oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York. Photograph by John Parnell. (Gift of the Estate of Rose Mintz, JM 63–67. The Jewish Museum, New York / Art Resource, NY)
The conventions established in East European Jewish genre painting became canonic in the Zionist mythology of exile. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a number of key motifs coalesced to form an easily accessible and very popular Jewish iconography. These included the representation of crowds, signifying the Jewish people in the process of migration or escape, Jewish old men placed in the role of biblical prophets, patriarchs, or martyrs, mourning scenes, and family groups typically centered on the mother-and-child pair. The work of Hirszenberg, for example, translated the singular tragedy of the Christ into a political allegory of collective Jewish suffering. Hirszenberg’s Jewish mass portraits Golus (Exile, 1904) and Czarny Sztandar (The Black Banner, 1907, Jewish Museum, New York) recapitulated on a grander, national scale the tension between death and resurrection so powerfully articulated in Christian imagery. In Czarny Sztandar (see image at right), which depicts a funeral procession, the face of the young boy, looking ahead past the mass of dark figures crowding the foreground, intimates redemption. In contrast to the others, who mostly look somber or horrified, this figure is prominently lit and bears a calm expression. The exaggerated, overwrought features of the Jewish crowd in Czarny Sztandar exemplify the tendency in nationalist iconography to endow the depiction of exile with features of the Christian grotesque, associated with the depiction of hell. For instance, Hirszenberg’s famous Żyd-Wieczny Tułacz (Wandering Jew; 1899, Israel Museum, Jerusalem)—a canonic image of the Zionist call for the Jewish departure from exile—bears a striking resemblance to the demonic faces that fill the Jewish crowds in the work of the early Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Le-Metim ‘al kidush ha-shem be-Kishinov (Dedicated to the Martyrs of Kishinev). E. M. Lilien. 1903. Illustration for Maksim Gorky’s Sbornik (Miscellany), St. Petersburg. (Image courtesy O. Litvak)
Hirszenberg was hardly idiosyncratic; similar motifs abound in the work of other East European artists who mobilized biblical material and the pious imagery of Jewish genre painting in the name of the national revival. These included, most notably, the sculptor Alfred Nossig (1864–1943), one of the leading advocates of Zionism in eastern Galicia, and the Polish painter Leopold Pilichowski (1869–1933), a committed Zionist who produced, among a variety of Jewish genre scenes, a pogrom painting known explicitly as Pietà (ca. 1911). Nossig and Pilichowski were the organizers of the first all-European Exhibition of Jewish Art in Berlin, in 1907. The Galician-born Jugendstil artist, E. M. Lilien (1874–1925), while disdaining the so-called “ghetto pictures” (Ger., Ghettobilder) of Jewish genre painters, created perhaps the most vivid and best-known merger between Jewish politics and Christian iconography in his frequently reproduced 1903 etching Le-Metim ‘al kidush ha-shem be-Kishinov (Dedicated to the Martyrs of Kishinev; see image at left). At the center, Lilien placed an erect figure of an old Jewish man, wrapped in a prayer shawl, tied to a burning stake and bound with rope across the chest and the feet. Positioned just behind and to his right is a winged angel, holding a Torah scroll and kissing the martyr on the forehead, a clear reference to resurrection. The feet of the angel, extending to the left, link up with the scroll on the right to form a diagonal line that resembles a cross. Lilien here invented a kind of Zionist crucifixion. His image went on to have a long life as a popular symbol of Jewish suffering in the exile of Eastern Europe, its traces evident in the fantastic wartime crucifixions of Marc Chagall (see, for instance, White Crucifixion; 1938, Art Institute of Chicago). Lilien was also responsible for the most famous “prophetic” photograph of the Zionist founder Theodor Herzl, overlooking the Rhine as if onto the shore of the Promised Land.
While their work contributed to the construction of a transnational Jewish iconography, Jewish pioneers of modern East European art, including the painters Isaak Levitan (1860–1900), Leonid Pasternak (1862–1945), and Sándor Bihari (1856–1906) and the sculptor Mark Antokol’skii (1843–1902) also brought contemporary experiments in technique to bear on the innovative treatment of local history and geography. In the process, these artists considerably expanded the scope of East European art. For instance, Levitan, who played a signal role in construction of a canonic Russian landscape, worked primarily in the style of the French Barbizon School. Bihari, likewise, conveyed the aesthetic values of German and French plein-air painting to his important regional studies of the Hungarian countryside. Antokol’skii produced some of the first examples of secular, historical sculpture in Russia. Much of his highly original contribution to Russian realist sculpture was devoted to epic Russian subjects; even the works that explicitly treated Jewish themes, such as the early and unfinished relief Napadeniie inkvizitsii na evreev (The Attack of the Inquisition upon the Jews of Spain; 1868), are more notable for being dramatic experiments in form and the use of material rather than for their Jewish content. Pasternak, an important Russian impressionist and art educator, produced salon portraits of a number of Jewish literary figures. Despite (or perhaps because of) his personal ambivalence regarding the relationship between Jewishness and what he called the “international” medium of art, Pasternak resolutely resisted the pious symbolism of Jewish genre painting; significantly, his pogrom sketches never made it to canvas.
Pasternak, Antokol’skii, Levitan, and others represent a much broader social trend than the small number of artists who embraced the aesthetic demands of the nationalist ethos. Scores of East European painters and sculptors of Jewish origin who comprised the first and second generation of Jewish artists formally trained abroad and at home, in private art schools, and imperial academies never addressed Jewish subjects at all. In fact, absent the visual evidence of investment in the late-nineteenth-century politics of Jewish iconography, the illustrious achievements of Jewish East Europeans such as Valentin Serov (1865–1911), Léon Bakst (1866–1924), Boris Anisfeld (1879–1973), Robert Fal’k (1886–1958), Naum Gabo (1890–1977), and Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) actively defy the loaded definition of Jewish art. At the same time, the appropriation of Jewish iconography by Russian artists such as Natalia Goncharova (see her Evreiskaia semiia [Jewish Family]; 1910–1911) demonstrates that within the increasingly cosmopolitan culture of East European art, Jewish subjects acquired a life of their own, as signifiers of imperial exotica. Mikhail Larionov’s provocative Evreiskaia venera (Jewish Venus; 1912, Ekaterinburg Art Gallery), for instance, represents a telling example of the ways in which Jewishness could function as a symbol of Russia’s own liminal position between Europe and Asia.
Vision in Time of Revolution
In the aftermath of war and revolution, many Jewish artists in Eastern Europe actively disengaged from both the national Jewish and the cosmopolitan imperial idiom. Like other members of the Jewish intellectual and cultural elite of Eastern Europe, some became active participants creating new artistic movements, completely divorced from the conventions of realism, romantic and otherwise, that had governed painting and sculpture in the nineteenth century. Drawn into the radical politics and poetics of contemporary art, primarily at the La Ruche artists’ colony in Paris, a new generation of East European Jewish artists became the authors of a modernist revolt against the lachrymose aesthetic of Jewish genre painting. In the experimental work of the Jewish avant-garde, the visible traces of Jewishness reflected the search for an alternative tradition of representation, rooted in the archeology of folk culture.
This transition in Jewish iconography is most readily evident in the cultural shift between Yehudah Pen and his students, in interwar Vitebsk. Pen himself was among the first generation of academically trained Russian Jewish artists who came from Lithuania; his cohort included Antokol’skii, Mordekhai Tsevi Mane (1859–1886), David Ashkenazi (1856–1902), and Moisei Maimon (1860–1924), all born near Vilna. Pen’s work owed a great deal to the conventions of Jewish genre painting; at the same time, a number of his paintings manifest a completely new approach to the treatment of Jewish subjects. Most important as a source for the coming revolution in Jewish style is Pen’s wartime masterpiece Chasovshchik (The Watchmaker, 1914, National Art Museum of Belarus, Minsk; see image at top right). In the words of one critic, this painting registers the “materiality of time,” a theme central to Pen’s work. Pen depicts a Jewish artisan, surrounded by the tools of his trade, immersed in the reading of the lowbrow Warsaw Yiddish daily Haynt (Today). The juxtaposition of the trivial, exemplified by the back page of the newspaper in front of the reader and the eternal, symbolized by the clocks, represents a new approach to the depiction of Jewish realia, here entirely devoid of martyrological and epic overtones. Jewish time has collapsed into universal time; this, for Pen, is the meaning of 1914. Significantly, the artist relegates the headline dealing with the Brusilov campaign, a fateful engagement that resulted in the displacement of thousands of Jews, to the foreground of the picture plane, away from the gaze of his indifferent reader who is, instead, engrossed in the local news and advertisements that fill the back of the paper.
This transposition subverts the pious investment in Jewish tragedy and anticipates the carnivalization of Jewish iconography in the surreal Jewish world created by Pen’s most famous students, Marc Chagall (1887–1985) and El Lissitzky (1890–1941). Jewish mass culture here both mediates and undermines the apocalypse, foreshadowing the stylized synthesis of Jewish folk images and revolutionary ideology, prominently featured in the work of Chagall, El Lissitzky, Solomon Iudovin (1892–1954), and other members of Pen’s Vitebsk school who led the creation of revolutionary Jewish art. Finally, on the level of technique, Pen’s self-conscious integration of image and text already points to the kind of mixed media work produced by the Jewish constructivists and suprematists who were initially students of Pen.
The Jewish revolution in plastic arts that took place not only in Vitebsk, but also in interwar Kiev, Moscow, Petrograd, Warsaw, and Berlin, cannot be understood apart from the rising interest in the collection of native artifacts—East European Jewish folk songs, illuminated books and manuscripts, documents, ceremonial objects, proverbs, and customs—in the last decade of the imperial period. Spurred by the concurrent Russian revival in the art of the Silver Age, Jewish intellectuals in Saint Petersburg established the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society (1908). In 1912, the society launched an anthropological expedition, sponsored by the Jewish philanthropist Baron Horace Gintsburg and led by the former Socialist Revolutionary and Jewish populist, the writer S. An-ski, to collect Jewish folk materials throughout the Ukraine. Cut short by the war, the project nevertheless produced the largest collection of East European Jewish folk art to date. Housed in the Jewish Ethnographic Museum between 1916 and 1918 (when it was closed by the Bolsheviks), the collection inspired the formation of Russia’s first Society for the Encouragement of Jewish Art (its first exhibition of Jewish art was held in 1916 in Petrograd and the second, in Moscow’s Galerie Lemercier, in April 1917) and, more importantly, shaped the creative direction of the Jewish avant-garde.
Iz gekumen dos fayer un farbrent dem shtekn" (Then Came a Fire and Burnt the Stick). 'From Khad gadya (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1919). El Lissitzky. Color lithograph on paper. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / YIVO)
Led by one of the cofounders of the Society for the Encouragement of Jewish Art, Natan Al’tman (1889–1970) in Petrograd, as well as Chagall, El Lissitzky, and Iudovin in Moscow and Vitebsk, and Yisakhar Rybak (1897–1935) and the artists associated with the Kultur-lige in Kiev, the Jewish artistic renaissance of the 1920s developed against the background of radical emancipation of Jews and Judaism under the Bolshevik regime. A telling example of the way this political shift expressed itself in art is the transformation of Jewish text into art object. Using the popular forum of the Yiddish book, Chagall and El Lissitzky evacuated the Hebrew alphabet of any presumption of sacrality. Parodying the art of manuscript making, El Lissitzky merged illustration and typography to produce a form of secular illumination for vernacular literature. In a way, such work went hand-in-hand with the Soviet emancipation of Yiddish phonetics from its dependence on the “holy tongue.” The new Jewish art of book design thus exemplified the encounter between innovative artistic practice, folk culture, and revolutionary ideology—a convergence that makes it possible to speak, for the first time, of the emergence of a secular Jewish visual style. Its most characteristic and most beautiful example is El Lissitzky’s 1919 Kiev edition of the Passover song Khad gadye (One Kid), a parody—in text and image—of the traditional providential reading of Jewish history.
In 1919, due to increasing political pressure, the Jewish renaissance departed the capital cities of Moscow and Petrograd for the more hospitable provincial settings of Vitebsk and Kiev. Here, a new generation of Jewish artists who, matured with the revolution, continued for a short time to blaze different paths not only in painting and sculpture but also in theater design, drawings, typography, and art criticism. Jewish artistic life in both places centered on the experimental art schools founded by the cubist Alexandra Exter in Kiev and the suprematist Kazimir Malevich in Vitebsk. The Kultur-lige (first established in 1917)—which had its own press that published, among other things, El Lissitzky’s Khad gadye—opened art studios in Kiev, where, according to its manifesto, written by Rybak, artists strove to “create a modern Jewish plastic art which seeks its own organic national form, color and rhythm.” Under the auspices of the Kultur-lige, the cubo-futurist Iosif Chaikov (1888–1986) taught sculpture and Rybak taught painting. In the spring of 1920, the Kultur-lige sponsored the first (and last) Jewish art exhibition in Kiev, devoted to the work of local talent such as Boris Aronson (1898–1980)—who was one of the organizers—and Aleksandr Tyshler (1898–1980) as well as Chaikov and El Lissitzky. While ambitious plans were being laid for a Jewish art museum, the political clouds thickened once again. In 1920, the Kutur-lige relocated to Warsaw; a rump section enjoyed a brief existence in Moscow. In 1922, it organized a three-man show of Chagall, Al’tman, and David Shterenberg (1881–1948), art commissar and head of the fine arts Department of the People’s Commissariat for Education (IZO Narkompros).
Jewish artistic life in Vitebsk focused initially on Chagall and his local People’s Art Institute, founded in 1918. A year later, Malevich arrived and organized an alternative group, committed to the nonfigurative principles of suprematism. Known as the Unovis (Affirmers of the New Art), it attracted devoted Jewish disciples, most notably Il’ia Chashnik (1902–1929) and Lazar Khidekel (1904–1986), both of whom had been students of Pen and Chagall. In 1920, Chagall himself departed for Moscow, where he produced some of his most interesting work in the form of murals for the State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSET). In 1922, he left Russia altogether, bringing to a close a discrete chapter in the development of East European Jewish modernism. By the mid-1920s, the East European Jewish renaissance in the plastic arts found a home in Warsaw (where the Yung-yidish group promoted a more studied commitment to Jewish expressionism) and Berlin; its radical Russian Jewish founders—Al’tman, Rybak, Chagall, El Lissitzky, Chaikov—either emigrated or moved closer to Soviet orthodoxy. Chaikov, for example, embraced the “new world” of the Soviet state as the political reification of the universal even though he remained committed to the aesthetic ideals of constructivism. El Lissitzky followed a similar path. Another symbolic turning point was Robert Fal’k’s move from Vitebsk to Moscow, where he became a teacher at the Vkhutemas (Studios of Higher Artistry and Technique); a number of Malevich’s Jewish students followed him there to return to the production of figurative art, although not to the work of Jewish renewal. These two trajectories—toward increasing abstraction, on the one hand, and toward the revival of interest in “easel painting,” on the other—pointed to the disappearance of Jewish art (although not of Jewish artists) from the official history of Soviet painting and sculpture.
Jewish Artists in the “Great Utopia”
The three Jewish artists who exhibited at the last show of the Kultur-lige in Moscow in 1922 all held prominent positions in the early Soviet cultural establishment. Al’tman was head of the Narkompros in Petrograd, Shterenberg led the Visual Arts section (IZO) of the Narkompros, and Chagall had served as commissar of art in Vitebsk. Their visibility in the early Soviet state speaks to the tensions that beset the careers of Jewish painters and sculptors under Stalin. Although Jewish themes were declared taboo as “bourgeois” and parochial, Jewish artists who adhered to the new standards of ideological correctness enjoyed the same kind of success that fell to their Jewish colleagues in literature, music, and the performing arts. Whether Jewish artists capitulated willingly to Stalinist dogma or did so under unbearable social and political pressure remains an open question in the scholarship. Certainly, even before the 1930s they had embraced the Bolshevik state as the agent of their personal emancipation and the most active proponent of innovation and experiment in the plastic arts. The commitment to the Jewish renaissance, it must be remembered, was always subordinate to the secular, cosmopolitan ethos of modernism and to the aesthetic principles of cubism, futurism, and suprematism. The construction of “Jewish art” that took place in the heroic years of 1916–1922, scholar John Bowlt has pointed out, “referred to trends in Paris, Munich, and Milan rather than to the shtetl, the Pale of Settlement and the synagogue” (Bowlt, “From the Pale of Settlement to the Reconstruction of the World,” in Apter-Gabriel, ed., 1988, p. 52). Indeed, for the Jewish artist, the Soviet state promised the fulfillment of a universal vision. Within the increasingly narrow confines of Stalinist orthodoxy, more danger lay in prior associations with the avant-garde, which now indicated a “nihilistic relationship to the national cultural heritage” than with bearing a Jewish name. In this sense, the fate of Jewish artists and critics in the 1930s and 1940s was really no different than that of their non-Jewish comrades. Shterenberg, for instance, was marginalized not as a Jew but as a “reactionary formalist”; Al’tman similarly suffered more for his style, which became more rigorously constructivist in the 1930s, than for his role in the Jewish revival.
The year 1922 proved to be crucial in more than one respect; as the voices of the Jewish avant-garde grew silent, Jewish “realists,” former students of the Wanderers, spoke up. In the wake of the first Wanderers’ traveling exhibition in 30 years, they helped to form the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR), which advocated a return to the figurative representation of national life. Among the association’s founders were the portraitist Evgenii Katsman (1890–1976) and a former student of the great Russian realist Il’ia Repin, Isaak Brodskii (1883–1939). Brodskii and Katsman—who both contributed to the exhibitions of works by Jewish painters and sculptors sponsored by the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of the Arts—were the forefathers of socialist realism. Their genre pictures idealizing peasant life and their heroic portraits of revolutionary leaders achieved iconic status in Soviet culture, as did the striking photographs of Stalin, Gorky, Lenin, and other members of the Soviet elite that were taken by another Jewish realist, Moisei Nappel’baum (1869–1958; see image at left). Brodskii’s depiction of the seated Lenin in his Lenin v Smol’nom (Lenin at the Smolny Institute; 1937) can be compared to the work of Antokol’skii who created similarly monumental (and potentially ambiguous) imperial images of Ivan the Terrible (1871) and Peter the Great (1876).
In fact, Brodskii, who achieved the pinnacle of official Soviet success as a sort of court artist to Stalin’s empire—he was appointed director of the All-Russian Academy of the Arts in Leningrad in 1934—was the exception rather than the rule. Most Jewish artists, because they had been tainted with the brush of nonconformism, struggled during the Soviet period. Al’tman, Tyshler, and Fal’k worked almost exclusively in the fields of book illustration and theater design. Constant targets of “antiformalist” criticism, they had few commissions and even fewer opportunities to exhibit their work in public prior to the 1960s. Nevertheless, they maintained a strong underground tradition of resistance against the canons of socialist realism that flowered in the post-Stalinist period. Within the context of an ironic reclamation of modernism in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Jewish themes also returned to East European art.
The “Other Art”
Between the late 1930s and the end of World War II, Hitler and Stalin had jointly wiped out East European Jewish culture in situ. Nazi genocide and the Soviet attack on modernism in the 1930s–1950s silenced, purged, or murdered an entire generation of Jewish painters and sculptors. In the Khrushchev years, when nonconformist art remained suspect, Jewish artists continued to maintain social connections, laying the creative foundations for the postwar revival. The private Moscow studios of Tyshler and Fal’k became focal points for a new generation of dissident artists, many of them Jewish. Publicly, Jewish artists working in the nonconformist mode began to break through as well, though not without consequences. The sculptor Ernst Neizvestny (1925– ) started his career with a solo show in Moscow in 1961; a year later, his confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev at the Moscow Manezh exhibition hall demonstrated the limits of the “thaw.”
The center of Soviet underground art, Moscow’s “little ghetto”—otherwise known as the Sretenskii Boulevard group—provided a forum for the contemporary art of Il’ia Kabakov (1933– ), Vladimir Yankilevskii (1938– ), Eduard Shteinberg (1937– ), Viktor Pivovarov (1937– ), and Erik Bulatov (1933– ), artists of Jewish origins who produced daring, nonrepresentational work that had strong elements of social criticism. Their pointed isolation and secular interests differentiated them from their contemporaries in Leningrad, who were both more open and more openly Jewish. Assuming the provocative name Alef (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), 12 Jewish artists exhibited their work in the apartment of one of their members, Evgenii Abeshaus (1939– ) in 1975. The show attracted 4,000 people; a month later, an even greater number came to see it in Moscow. Abeshaus’s own work self-consciously employed biblical imagery.
Passport. Oskar Rabin, 1964. Oil on canvas. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)
In the 1970s and 1980s, explicitly Jewish motifs began to penetrate into nonconformist art. On the one hand, the Jewish thematic constituted a powerful political statement, a technique pioneered in the work of Oskar Rabin (1928– ). In 1964, Rabin, a Moscow artist and founder of the underground Lianozovo group, produced a controversial self-portrait in the form of a Soviet passport, in which the artist’s Jewish identity was prominently recorded on “line five,” a code word for postwar Soviet antisemitism (see image at right). By contrast to Rabin’s dramatic evocation of the prose of Soviet Jewish life, in the late-Soviet work of Grisha Bruskin (1945– ), the visual Jewish “poetry” of Hebrew letters provides an inspiration for a new figural language. His striking Alefbet series (1988) combines image and text in a way that recalls El Lissitzky’s modernist experiments in illumination (see image below, left). Other works, such as O skripke (About a Violin; 1977) by Grigorii Inger (1910–1995), which alludes to the link between music and vision so prominent in the work of Chagall, similarly registered their connections with Jewish culture by referencing the techniques and themes employed in the construction of revolutionary Jewish modernism.
Moved by the tragedy of Jewish fate in World War II, many artists—and writers, as well—in Communist Eastern Europe likewise associated the embrace of Jewishness in the present with the recovery of Jewish memory, largely absent from the official history of the Great Patriotic War. In the immediate postwar period, Felix (Falik) Lemberski (1913–1970) was painting scenes of Nazi soldiers pointing guns at women and children. His contemporary, Dmitrii Lion (1923–1993), was engrossed in dark visions of the Holocaust when he was an art student in Moscow in the 1950s; the number 6,300,000 appears like a leitmotif in many of his abstracts. In 1966, the prodigiously gifted underground sculptor Vadim Sidur (1924–1986) provided illustrations for a book about the Nazi ghettos of Lithuania. But these individual and highly idiosyncratic efforts did not produce a body of East European Holocaust art that paralleled the contemporary work of German and American painters and sculptors.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the situation has, of course, changed. There have been a number of art shows, both in Poland and in the Soviet Union, addressing the ravages of East European Jewish life under the Nazis and the Soviets. The year 2002 saw the first retrospective of the work of Artur Szyk (1894–1951), the most important East European Jewish émigré artist of the war period. Both biblical motifs and the themes of Jewish loss and Jewish mourning regularly feature in the repertoire of the newest cohort of Soviet Jewish artists such as Roman Vainshtok, Gavriil Zapolianskii, Rinat Friedman, and Ben-tsion Kotliar. In Anatolii Chechik’s Golgotha (1994), Jewish suffering serves as an existential touchstone for the plight of modern man, an expression of the “universalist impulse,” which, as we have seen, has characterized the work of Jewish artists from their beginnings in the nineteenth century. Through their struggle with the Jewish particular, East European Jewish artists have found a home in the world.
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