Members of the Kultur-lige Art Department, Kiev, 1918: (left to right) Solomon Nikritin, Boris Aronson, and Yisakhar Ber Rybak. (Hillel Kazovsky)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Art Education

The first generation of Jewish artists in Eastern Europe (beginning with Mark Antokol’skii, Maurycy Gottlieb, and their younger contemporaries) received professional training at state art academies and private schools in Warsaw, Vilna, Saint Petersburg, Odessa, and Kraków. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jews had become a visible group in these institutions, and it was already possible to discern signs of ethnic solidarity among them. This tendency was first articulated in Russia in the 1880s, when, goaded by antisemitic sentiment expressed by administrative personnel and attacks by fellow students, Jewish artists were brought together not only by their exceptional position but also by their understanding of their particular artistic and social challenges.

Art students, including Resia Schor, wife of artist Ilya Schor, with their paintings and sculptures, Warsaw, 1930. (YIVO)

One of their ideas concerning this mission was to establish national societies for Jewish artists. In the early 1890s in Saint Petersburg, David Maggid (1860–1940?) organized the Jewish Artists Circle, whose membership included, among others, Moisei Maimon (1860–1924), Isaak Askenazii (1856–1902), Il’ia Gintsburg (1859–1939), and Maria Dillon (1858–1932), Russia’s first woman sculptor. One of the articles of the circle’s agenda asserted the importance of helping talented young people who had left the Pale of Settlement to obtain artistic training.

In those years, Mark Antokol’skii, living in Paris, published a number of appeals in the Russian Jewish press to help young Jewish artists; he himself supported Jewish youth who were studying in the art capitals of Western Europe. Soon after his death in 1902, his nephew, the painter Lev Antokol’skii (1872–1942), tried to honor his memory by opening a Jewish art and handicraft school in Vilna. Antokol’skii’s attempts were not wholly successful, resulting only in a drawing class, opened in 1903, at the Vilna handicrafts school funded by ORT. In accordance with the thinking of that era, the school’s main objective was not education in art, but rather training in crafts, to promote the “productivization” of the Jewish population. A drawing program that trained students as engravers, wood carvers, and stone carvers while also teaching them the basics of sculpture and painting remained part of the curriculum until the school closed in the late 1930s.

As an alternative to state institutions, young Jewish artists could attend private schools established by the older generation of Jewish artists in various cities of the Russian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. The first of these, Yehudah Pen’s School of Drawing and Painting, founded by the artist in Vitebsk in 1897, has special significance. Even though Pen’s school did not have a specific national agenda, his paintings and his pronounced interest in Jewish themes influenced his students and molded their ethnic identity. Pen’s school existed until 1918 and served as the launching point for numerous Jewish artists. Some of them, including Marc Chagall, Osip Tsadkin, and El Lissitzky, went on to achieve worldwide fame. Among the other private art schools founded by Jews were the school of Iakov Kruger (1869–1940), which he opened in Minsk in 1906; the studio of Iulii Bershadskii (1869–1956) in Odessa, which existed from 1907 to 1928, and the studio of Adolf Edward Herstein (1869–1932) in Warsaw, open from 1904 to 1911 (such studios often provided instruction). Private schools such as these played an important role in preparing young people for independent artistic careers and, in some cases, in shaping their sense of themselves as Jews.

Before World War I, various Jewish national movements all attempted to found organizations of Jewish artists. Proponents of Zionism, particularly Martin Buber, placed great emphasis on the development of Jewish art, seeing it as an instrument for promoting a modern sense of Jewish nationhood and for fostering modern Jewish culture. An important step in realizing the Zionist ideal in visual arts education was Boris Schatz’s founding of the art and craft school Bezalel in Jerusalem in 1906. When the school opened, all its teachers and students were from Eastern Europe. He saw the school as the nucleus of a movement to create an “authentic” modern Jewish art and educate Jewish national artists. These concepts corresponded to notions of “productivizing” young Jews by teaching them “useful” professions. For that reason, along with classes in fine art (painting and sculpture) the school emphasized handicrafts or applied art (rug weaving, bookbinding, the design of household objects, and so forth). Bezalel became not only one of the most significant institutions of modern Jewish settlement in Palestine, but also served as an important stimulus for Jewish cultural life in Eastern Europe. In Saint Petersburg, Warsaw, Kiev, and Odessa between 1908 and 1909, people organized Bezalel societies to help the Jerusalem school by collecting and studying traditional Jewish art; the societies also publicized the work of contemporary Jewish artists and created conditions for educating youth. Thanks to these societies, many Jewish children were able to get artistic training and some received scholarships to study at the institution in Jerusalem.

Children painting at outdoor easels in an art class organized by the Hilf durkh Arbet Association, Vilna, ca. 1915. (YIVO)

In Vilna in 1913 the Friends of Jewish Antiquities Society (Di Geselshaft Libhaber fun Yidishn Altertum) was established with the support of Y. L. Peretz and began to organize a Jewish museum. In 1912–1914, S. An-ski organized a number of expeditions to the Pale of Settlement, collecting many objects related to Jewish art. This aroused genuine interest among many members of the prewar generation of Jewish artists and played a crucial role in their artistic development and training. Some of these artists studied Jewish folk art and participated in the collection of religious objects. As a result, they discovered for themselves a Jewish tradition that became the basis for their further artistic evolution.

In addition, the Jewish Society for the Promotion of the Arts was founded in Petrograd in late 1915 with the idea of uniting, to the greatest possible extent, all Jewish artists in the Russian Empire. For that reason, its governing board included representatives of different generations and trends, among them Gintsburg, Maimon, and Dillon, as well as a younger generation of artists such as Isaak Brodskii (1884–1939) and Natan Al’tman (1889–1970). Between 1916 and 1917, branches of the society were organized in Moscow, Kharkov, and Kiev. A major goal of its directors was to create a system of Jewish arts education in both large cities and provincial towns. In 1918, they tried unsuccessfully to establish a Jewish division in the Vitebsk Art School, headed at that time by Chagall. In Russia, the society remained in existence until 1919. One of its final acts was the organization of a competition for pictures of Jewish history for Yiddish schools. The competition attracted entries from leading Jewish artists, including Chagall and Al’tman.

At this time, Kiev became the center of Russian Jewish cultural life, as many Jews active in the arts moved there after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. From 1918 to early 1919, the Zionist Tarbut society had an art studio in Kiev called Omanut, where Jewish children were taught painting and drawing and also created puppets for a puppet theater. When Soviet power was established in Ukraine, however, Omanut was closed along with other Zionist organizations. By contrast, the Yiddish Kultur-lige thrived for some time—even, initially, with support from the Soviet regime. Under the auspices of the Kultur-lige, an art department was formed in the summer of 1918, under the direction of Yekhezkl Dobrushin. The core group of artists included Yisakhar Ber Rybak (1897–1935), Boris Aronson (1898–1980), Solomon Nikritin (1898–1965), Nisn Shifrin (1892–1961), Aleksandr Tyshler (1898–1980), Mark Epshtein (1897–1949), and Isaak Rabinovich (1894–1961). Other artists who made the journey to Kiev from Moscow and other places joined them: El Lissitzky, Iosif Chaikov (1888–1986), Sara Shor (1897–1981), and Mark Sheikhel’ (1890–1942?).

One of the most important activities of the Kultur-lige’s art department was the organization of Jewish art education. In 1919, Chaikov and Rabinovich taught drawing and sculpture in the Kultur-lige’s Kiev high school. A more important and more lasting undertaking was an art studio for Jewish children that opened early in 1919. Epshtein, who taught painting and drawing alongside Rybak, Shifrin, and Aronson, led the studio. A sculpture curriculum was organized under the directorship of Chaikov. In 1920, the studio achieved the status of a Kultur-lige Jewish arts school, and in 1924, it was subordinated to the Evsektsiia associated with the Ukrainian Department of Education and reorganized as the Jewish Art and Industrial School. In the late 1920s, some 100 Jewish adolescents studied there, most of them from Kiev and surrounding towns. The word industrial in the school’s name reflected the general principle of Soviet legislation concerning “a unified school for labor.” In accordance with this principle, pupils were to acquire an “industrial” profession along with their artistic education. The school therefore taught not only classes in painting, graphic art, and sculpture, but also applied subjects such as photography, stage design, poster design, lithography, and typography. It collected a large library specializing in the history of art.

From the very beginning, teachers at the Jewish Art and Industrial School applied the most advanced pedagogical techniques. Because all departments constituted independent “industrial-artistic studios,” contemporaries saw the school as a Jewish Vkhutemas. The main language of instruction was Yiddish. In other ways as well, the school had a clearly expressed ethnic character. The founders and teachers were inspired by the idea of a “contemporary Jewish art,” which, in their view, needed to be created from a synthesis of the Jewish folk tradition and the artistic avant-garde. Students accordingly “passed through” levels in which they studied and used the forms and methods of various groups, beginning with “the Jewish folk primitive” and children’s drawing to abstract, “pure” form in which, according to Kultur-lige art theorists, the national—in this case, Jewish—essence of the artist expressed itself naturally.

In 1922, after all other members of the Kultur-lige Art Department had left Kiev, Epshtein became the school’s director and remained in that position until the institute was closed in 1931 as part of the liquidation of the Evsektsiia. He led workshops in practically all departments, as well as gave the preparatory course and a course in the history of Jewish art. He educated a generation of Jewish artists, many of whom to the end of their lives remained loyal to the ideals of “Jewish art.”

Apart from Kiev, the Soviet Union had several other centers of Jewish art education in the 1920s. In Vitebsk, the art department of the Jewish Pedagogical Institute prepared drawing teachers for Jewish schools. Students received a general art education and also studied images of Jewish folk art, for which purpose they went out on expeditions and made copies of decorations on synagogue walls in Belarus, tombstone carvings in Jewish cemeteries, and ritual objects. Jewish students of the Vitebsk Art Institute joined them. Many of these students also frequented Yehudah Pen’s apartment studio and took lessons from him, a practice that continued up to his tragic death in 1937. From 1924 to 1929 in Moscow, the Jewish Polygraphic School prepared students to work in the Jewish press. In addition to receiving training as typesetters, printers, linotypists, and the like, they were given a background in applied art, including graphics and engraving. All of these institutions were closed in the later 1920s and early 1930s. After that time, all attempts at creating Jewish art education in the Soviet Union came to a halt.

In other Eastern European countries of the interwar period, attempts to establish Jewish art education took place only in Latvia and Poland. In Riga, the local Kultur-lige supported an art studio led by Mikhail Yo (Io; Yoffe; 1893–1960). In Poland, the main center of art education was in Vilnius, where the subject was integrated into the curriculum of several Jewish schools. The inclusion of drawing and painting was possible because of the existence of a system of Jewish schools in which art education was understood as a necessary part of a harmoniously developing individual. The greatest success in art education belonged to Sofia Gurevich’s private Jewish high school, as well as to the Vilna high school Central Education Committee (eventually part of TSYSHO), which, in 1926, established a Jewish Art and Industrial School. Harking back to an earlier time, this school promoted the idea of “productivization” and, in addition to courses of study in painting and graphics, also taught dressmaking. Despite the fairly high level at which art was taught in these institutions, in neither of them did art education attain the level of curricular integration and ethnic solidarity that distinguished the Kiev Jewish Art and Industrial School.

The development of Jewish art education in Russia and Ukraine was cut off by the Soviet government for ideological reasons connected with changes in domestic and nationalities policy. In the other countries of Eastern Europe, Jewish art programs were brought to an end by World War II, and were not revived thereafter. The heirs to the interwar spirit of experimentation in Jewish art education in Eastern Europe were chiefly to be found in what became the State of Israel.

Suggested Reading

Hillel Kazovsky (Gregory Kasovsky), Khudozhniki Vitebska: Ieguda Pen i ego ucheniki / Artists from Vitebsk: Yehuda Pen and His Pupils (Moscow, 1992), in Russian and English; Hillel Kazovsky, Khudozhniki Kul’tur-Ligi / The Artists of the Kultur-Lige (Moscow and Jerusalem, 2003), in Russian and English; Jerzy Malinowski, Painting and Sculpture of Polish Jews (Torun, Pol., 2003).



Translated from Russian by Alice Nakhimovsky