Illustration by Yisakhar Ber Rybak from Foyglen (Birds), by Leyb Kvitko (Berlin: Shveln, 193?). (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

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

Rybak, Yisakhar Ber

(1897–1935), painter, graphic artist, and sculptor; active in the Jewish art renaissance in Russia. Yisakhar Ber Rybak was born in Elisavetgrad, Ukraine. He attended art school beginning in 1907 and then studied at the Art Academy of Kiev from 1911 to 1916. In the summers of 1915 and 1916, he accompanied El Lissitzky on expeditions for the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society, copying tombstones in Orsha and culling folk-inspired prints, ceremonial silver objects, and synagogue wood carvings in Podolia and Volhynia.

Jewish farmer, from Af di yidishe felder fun Ukraine (In the Jewish Fields of Ukraine: Paris, 1926) by Yisakhar Ber Rybak. (YIVO)

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Central Committee of the Kultur-lige in Kiev appointed Rybak to be a drawing teacher. In this capacity, he visited Jewish agricultural communities, memories of which appear in his later works such as the lithographic album Af di Yidishe felder fun Ukraine (On the Jewish Fields of Ukraine; 1926), with its depiction of robust men and women. But in 1918, Rybak also produced his first series of pogrom scenes, revealing the carnage of the civil war.

Rybak was active in the Jewish Theater Studio in Kiev, studying with Alexandra Exter, who introduced him and Boris Aronson, the future celebrated Broadway set designer, to cubism and theater design. Rybak joined with El Lissitzky and Iosif Chaikov to establish a formal department of art for the Kultur-lige. He was the coauthor with Aronson of an important theoretical article on Jewish art, “Di vegn fun der yidisher maleray” (Pathways of Jewish Art), which appeared in the journal Oyfgang in 1919; the article addressed the difficulty of establishing a Jewish national style and defining such a conception.

Rybak and his fellow Jewish artists viewed the essence of their style as deriving from Jewish folk art, particularly from representations of Hebrew letters. Through imitating and copying Jewish folk artifacts, as well as establishing a Jewish iconography featuring such motifs as columns, deer, lions, and candlesticks, such stylizations became a standard form of modern Jewish art.

Rybak moved to Moscow in late 1919, where exposure to constructivist principles left its imprint on his best works (see image below right). In 1920 he returned to Kiev, where he chaired the committee charged with organizing the first large group exhibition of Jewish artists. In 1921 he moved to Berlin, joining the November Gruppe and exhibiting with its artists.

Alef-beys (Alphabet). Yisakhar Ber Rybak, 1918. Oil on canvas. (Ryback Museum, Bat Yam, courtesy of the Bat Yam Municipality Department of Culture and Strategic Planning)

In Berlin in 1922, Rybak produced a series of illustrations for children’s books written in Yiddish. Influenced by Ivan Bilibin’s Russian nationalist stylizations, he set a group of Jewish motifs inside a Jugendstil arched frame—including goats, fences, carved wooden houses—with Hebrew letters in flat, schematic yet lively designs illustrating such works as Leyb Kvitko’s poetry for children: Foyglen (Birds) and Grin groz (Green Grass; 1922).

Rybak’s masterpiece remains the lithographic album, Shtetl, mayn khoreve heym, a gedenkenish (Shtetl, My Destroyed Home, a Memory; 1923), in which he evokes the shtetl in dark tones, fusing cubism and expressionism, assymetrical design, exaggerated facial features, and interpenetrating planes. This style is superimposed upon such prototypical images of religious life as the synagogue, the religious school, Jewish holidays, funerals, and weddings. Representative types of shtetl occupations include the cobbler, the knife sharpener, the butcher, and the rabbi. His next album, Judische Typen aus der Ukraina (Jewish Types of the Ukraine; 1924) depicts shtetl figures as well.

In 1925, Rybak returned to the Soviet Union and worked as a designer for the Yiddish theater, creating stage sets in Moscow and Kharkov. In 1926 he moved to Paris, where he published his last album Les ombres du passé / Shotns fun amol (Shadows of the Past; 1932). Between 1928 and 1934, his works were exhibited in major European galleries. He died suddenly in 1935. In 1962, his widow donated his personal art collection, including small clay sculptured figures of shtetl types, to the Rybak Museum in Bat Yam, Israel.

Suggested Reading

Raymond Cogniat, J. Ryback (Paris, 1934); Raymond Cogniat, “I. Ryback,” in Le théâtre juif soviétique pendant les années vingt, ed. Béatrice Picon-Vallin (Lausanne, Switz., 1973); Issachar Ryback, Yissakhar Ber Ribak: Zayn lebn un shafn (Paris, 1937); Seth L. Wolitz, “The Jewish National Art Renaissance in Russia,” in Tradition and Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art, 1912–1928, ed. Ruth Apter-Gabriel, pp. 23–42 (Jerusalem, 1987).