Mephistopheles. Mark Matveevich Antokol’skii, Paris, 1883. Bronze on granite base. The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. (Image courtesy of the State Russian Museum)

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Antokol’skii, Mark Matveevich

(1843–1902), sculptor. Born near Vilna, the youngest son in a family of a Jewish tavernkeeper, Mark Antokol’skii went on to distinguish himself as the founder of the realist school in Russian sculpture and as the Russian Jewish artist par excellence.

After he had begun his career as an apprentice to a local wood-carver, Antokol’skii was discovered by the wife of Vilna’s governor-general; she admired the artist’s small wooden carvings. Through her patronage, he received permission to study at the Russian Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Entering as an auditing student in 1862—he could not enroll full time because as a Jew he was officially barred from living in Saint Petersburg—he was the first Russian Jew to receive formal training as a sculptor and the first Jewish student at the Russian Academy.

In Saint Petersburg, Antokol’skii became part of the contemporary art scene. The preeminent Russian realist Il’ia Repin, who was a leader of the so-called Wanderers’ Revolt against the Academy, was Antokol’skii’s roommate; and the critic V. V. Stasov, the chief spokesperson for populism in Russian art, went on to become his enthusiastic patron and intimate friend. Within a very short time, Antokol’skii achieved a number of dramatic successes; his early sketches, particularly the unfinished relief Napadeniie inkvizitsii na evreev (The Attack of the Inquisition upon the Jews of Spain during a Secret Celebration of the Passover; 1868–1869, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow) earned him enthusiastic praise as well as series of academic prizes.

In 1867, Antokol’skii exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris for the first time. In 1871, he earned his initial major commission when Tsar Alexander II bought his Ivan groznyi (Ivan the Terrible; 1875, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow) for his personal collection. As a result, Antokol’skii was awarded the title of professor and was granted the status of honorary citizen, allowing him to travel abroad and to live legally in Saint Petersburg. He left Russia for Rome in the fall of 1871 as a pensionnaire of the academy. He never returned to Russia, except for brief stays, primarily to supervise the opening of his exhibitions and the installation of his sculptures.

From 1873 until 1877, Antokol’skii lived in Rome; afterward, he moved permanently to Paris. His studio became a meeting place for Russian artists and Russian Jewish intellectuals traveling abroad. Despite his emigration, the bulk of Antokol’skii’s commissions came from Russian patrons, primarily nobles, rich merchants, and art collectors—while in Rome he drew close to the circle of S. I. Mamontov, a merchant and well-known patron and collector who supported the creation of modern Russian art—and Jewish notables such as members of the Poliakov and Gintsburg families. He maintained close contact with Russian artists throughout his life, and his published correspondence with Stasov and other notable figures in late nineteenth-century Russian culture is more than 1,000 pages long. It is a one-of-a-kind primary source, the only sustained nineteenth-century exchange between a Jewish cultural figure and members of Russian-educated society. In addition to his sculptures and letters, Antokol’skii produced a series of essays on Russian and European art, published in various Russian periodicals, as well as an unpublished novel called “Ayzik” (Isaac), centered on the fate of a Jewish recruit into the pre-reform army. It remains in manuscript and (as is the case with his correspondence) awaits serious scholarly investigation.

In 1897, Antokol’skii became the subject of the first Hebrew-language biography on the life and career of a Jewish artist. Written by the Vilna bibliographer David Maggid, the book explicitly considers the question of the relationship between Antokol’skii’s Jewish commitments and his work as a sculptor; after the artist’s death, this tension became the source of a public controversy within the Zionist establishment as to the nature and significance of Jewish national art. For the Russian Jewish avant-garde, Antokol’skii’s name was a byword for the fraught condition of the modern Jewish artist. Chagall, who identified himself as a “second Antokol’skii,” changed his own name from Moisei to Marc explicitly as an act of personal homage.

Although devoted to the promotion of professional training for Jews in the arts—that is, to the creation of Jewish artists—Antokol’skii’s preeminent artistic achievement lay in his innovative treatment of Russian subjects. He is best known for his Ivan the Terrible and Petr I (Peter the Great; bronze version, 1872, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, with full-size marble copies in other cities, including Taganrog, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Arkhangel’sk, Odessa, Poltava, and Minsk), two monumental and potentially ambiguous portraits of Russian autocracy. Other works of this type included Ermak (bronze, 1891, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow), the hero of the colonization of Siberia, and Nestor (1890, Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg), the famed Russian chronicler. Some of Antokol’skii’s most radically subversive sculptures drew on literature, religion, and philosophy; there is, for instance, his series Druziia Chelovechestva (Friends of Humanity), which includes Spinoza (1886–1887, Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg), Socrates (1875, Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg), and the highly controversial Iesus pered sudom naroda (Jesus before the Judgment of the People, also known as Ecce Homo; 1876, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow). Here, Antokol’skii addressed the theme of the individual in conflict with history through the reification of tension between stability and movement, a problem of three-dimensional representation that also obsessed his French contemporary Auguste Rodin. The most striking work that spoke directly to the same issue is Mephistopheles (1883, Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg), an image of ethical and visual paradox drawn from Goethe’s Faust.

Highly prolific, Antokol’skii enjoyed a continuous stream of private commissions, producing a series of portraits, busts, and funerary monuments. He participated in a number of competitions for designs of Russian public sculpture, including the Pushkin memorial and the planned monument to Catherine II in Vilna. Antokol’skii’s sculptures consistently earned him high praise and awards from European judges and critics; and his Russian colleagues and friends treated him with affection and admired him as a homegrown Jewish prodigy, an image Antokol’skii himself assiduously cultivated in his letters, despite the fact that he was thoroughly Europeanized. Paradoxically, contemporaries read his work either as quintessentially Russian or polemically Jewish, a duality that persists in current scholarship. Antokol’skii is variously remembered today as the chief exponent of Russian realism in sculpture, the founding father of the national Jewish renaissance, as well as an exemplar of Polish–Jewish symbiosis (presumably because of his Vilna roots) and, most improbably, as an exemplary Lithuanian artist.

Suggested Reading

Era Vasil’evna Kuznetsova, M. M. Antokol’skii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Moscow, 1989); Olga Litvak, “Rome and Jerusalem: The Figure of Jesus in the Creation of M. M. Antokol’skii,” in The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times, ed. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jon Karp (Philadelphia, 2006); David Maggid, Ha-Profesor Mordekhai ben Matityahu Antokolski: Kitsur toldotav u-farashat ‘avodato bi-sadeh malekhet ha-maḥshevet ‘ad ha-yom ha-zeh (Warsaw, 1897); Vladimir Vasilevich Stasov, ed., Mark Matveevich Antokol’skii: Ego zhizn’, tvoreniia, pis’ma i stat’i (St. Petersburg, 1905).