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Next: Not yet translated Up: Vitebsk Amol; geshikhte, zikhroynes, khurbn Previous: One's own by M.Shagal

The Painters of Vitebsk
by Itzhak Likhtenstein


In many different art centers throughout the world, I had the opportunity to meet Jewish artists who told stories about the life and works of their teacher, Yudi (Yehuda) Moyseyevitch Pen, the director of the art school in Vitebsk.

The very first to talk to me about this was Marc Chagall. We were neighbors in 1911 in the Parisian ``La Riche'', the artists' building on Passage de Danzig near the Porte de Versaille.

Yehuda Pen was born in the early 1870's in Novo-Aleksandrovsk, Kovner Gubernye and received a strict religious upbringing. From a tender young age he felt the urge to draw but at that time it was considered to be a sin. However, after many trials and tribulations, he was able to arrive at the Petersburg Art Academy and eventually, was able to open his own art school in Vitebsk. There were hundreds of young students in his school, including many from surrounding areas. Pen was greatly interested in the Jewish ``type'', Jewish surroundings with the traditional customs and most especially in the characteristic Jewish image. He created works wherein the simple Jew is portrayed studying a sefer, or a woman praying with the ``Tsene V'rene'' (prayer book for women written in Yiddish), which were scenes typical of our mothers and grandmothers. Pen's large picture ``The Get'' (divorce) introduces an entire gallery of assorted Jewish types in a dramatic depiction of Jewish life. The picture ``The Shadkhan'' (the matchmaker) illustrates the artist's intent quite clearly, as do his pictures ``In the Foyer of a Landowner'' and ``A Letter to America'' -- actually ``Mama's Letter'', fall of yearning and tenderheartedness and pathos. Pen handled all of this in an appropriate way through his religious/romantic manner, as an honest artist of his time could and did do.

Pretty soon, the artistic world began to hear much about Vitebsk - not only hearing, but also viewing its art at exhibitions of Vitebsk motifs - first and foremost Chagall, of course.

Our Jewish group from the Parisian art world enjoyed much ``nakhes'' from the small-town art which hung on the walls of big city art salons, and Chagall was not the only Vitebsk artist in Paris. At that same time, there was Abel Pan, Amos Tsadkin and Oskar Mietchoninov. Each of them had his own style and their art had nothing to do with Vitebsk, as if they had never been there. We cannot say this about Chagall and Yudovin. They stressed the small-towness, often utilizing Vitebsk in the titles of their works.

It is possible that occasionally, a slight glimmer of Vitebsk would appear in Pan's work, however, it did not have any characteristic expression. They were, in a certain sense, merely reflections. Paris worked its magic on Pan quite differently from its effect on Chagall.

True, Chagall was also influenced by the Parisian school, but quite differently from the other Vitebsk artists. Tsadkin and Mietchoninov had nothing to do with their home town. In Chagall's work, one can always find a certain Vitebsk nostalgia; in Pan's work -- a pale reflection. However, Tsadkin and Mietchoninov's work is far from this. Nothing would remind one of one's old home. They are artist-personalities who have freed themselves from anything with a Vitebsk motif.

Not only did Chagall portray a sort of yearning, he both praised and lamented, and in a certain sense, also exhibited pathos. As in the popular song ``Mayn Shtetele Belz'' -- so is Vitebsk to Chagall.

In the 1912 Paris ``Fall Salon'', one could see Chagall's macabre attention in a painting with a remarkably uncomfortable atmosphere -- an awkward-appearing street with a corpse in the foreground, flickering candles surrounding this dead area in the grayness of the crooked street, a fiddle-player sitting on the rooftop of a small house with a cobbler's sign -- a shoe -- hanging from a chain, a street-sweeper doing his job, frightened people running away in a panic... In Chagall's macabre depiction of death in a small town street, the world saw a Vitebsk motif In the desolate details of the crooked rooftop, the street with the corpse, in the grotesque Jew with the fiddle, I found a sort of paraphrasing of that which I later found in the town of Rezhitse where I happened to be during the 1930's. I came there to inspect a forgotten Jewish comer, and it was there that I found remnants of Chagall-type roots. There I found echoes of those Chagall-type Jews who are standing upon the heads of other Jews, even seeing the ``Yidl Mit Dem Fidl'' (The Jew With the Fiddle). I found evidence of clay figures of shepherds. There were horses and their riders. Sometimes the horseman was a little person with a large pipe (smoking), sometimes the horse carried on its back a dog or even a grotesque bird, and sometimes the little figure riding upon the horse sat upon a viper (an adder). These were fired clay whistles which were sold at the fair between Rezhitse and Vitebsk, which is not too far from Latgale 3.2

This interested me very much and so I began to do research. I found out that the Lithuanian3.3art department was gathering all that they could find in the fields of Latgale. Later on, I visited this department and stated what I thought about these whistles. They showed me a large collection and permitted me to choose for myself a number of these from those in the worst condition, perhaps also original examples. I brought them with me to Paris and would view them often as characteristic samples of something which had a relationship to a Chagall and a Tsadkin.

These two artists, one should know, are two different personalities. However, somewhere they encountered -- how should I say -- perhaps we should call it a common root.

True, this is a little more complicated, but the little figures of the Latgale shepherds give my idea some credence.

Ossip Tsadkin is a sculptor, sketch artist, engraver and painter of watercolors, an experienced artist with huge talent and possessed of a strong urge for innovative art. He was born in 1890 and came to England in about 1906 where he studied at the London Regent Street Polytechnic. Later on, in 1909, he was in Paris, spending six months in the Art Academy. In 1911, he began to exhibit in the Paris ``Fall Salon''. During that time, Tsadkin lived in ``La Riche'' and was Chagall's neighbor. It did not even occur to me that they came from the same town. At that very same time I, too, came to ``La Riche'' and remember it quite well. A year later, in Jerusalem, Abel Pan told me that Tsadkin came from Smolensk, but that he knew him from Vitebsk where he was brought up. Pan himself comes from Kreslavsk, born in 1883. His family name was Pfefferman. He came from Pen's Vitebsk art school through Odessa to Paris, where he appeared in humor magazines and participated in various exhibitions. About 1913, he came to Erets-Yisroel and became a teacher in Betzalel. During the time of WWI he was in America, then returned to and settled in Erets-Yisroel where he is now the publisher of lithographs with biblical themes (in the main) and of Erets-Yisroel content.

At the same time that Tsadkin and Pan resided in Paris, another Vitebsk native appeared there -- Oskar Mietchoninov. By the year 1911 he had completed the courses at the Paris Art Academy and had begun to exhibit in various salons. Mietchoninov was not only a sculptor, he also became an important collector of art. He was one of the first who recognized such artists as Khaim Sutin and Modigliani.

Mietchoninov also became very interested in antiquities. He owns fine examples of antiques and characteristic samples of modern art. The fact that he became so interested in Sutin is important to us. He was successful in collecting a number of the earliest of Sutin's paintings.

Oskar Mietchoninov is a talented artist; his sculptures can be found in many museums. He has been in America since 1944. He is part of those Jewish artists who participated in a selected few exhibitions. He also belongs to the group of Jewish artists who have a strong interest in the art center of the Jewish Culture Congress in New York. He is a regular contributor to the exhibitions of the Culture Center which was founded in 1948. The proclamation of the State of Israel and the rejuvenation of Jewish art in America was, for Mietchoninov, the beginning of a Jewish renaissance.

I remember it well -- he could not contain himself until he had invited me to his home for a discussion about our growing Jewish life. I remember this because it was interesting from several standpoints. At this same time, it is interesting to note that Mietchoninov very rarely made his feelings known. He is actually a very quiet person, so for me it was outstandingly interesting to learn about the feelings of such a Jewish artist. Often, I think that Jewish feelings have been lost entirely in the international scene. There exist enough examples -- here is not the place for such revelations -- so therefore, it is necessary to stress only joyous surprises. And Oskar Mietchoninov provided us with this.

The writer Moshe Broderson would tell me quite often about the artist Lisitski. For him, he represented wonderful romantic memories. It was a joy to listen to a writer who experienced joy from an artist.

Lisitski's name is actually Lazar. However, he uses only the first letter of his Jewish name, so therefore, he is known as L. Lisitski. He was born in 1891, and became a student of the Russian painter Malevitch. Between 1922 and 1925, he lived in Germany and Switzerland. In 1925, he and the artist Hans Orp published an art-book ``Kunstizmen'', 1914-1925, As one can understand from the name this is a book about various ``-izmen''3.4 in art between those years. In this art book, one can note his artistic face. There one sees his constructive character, a sort of connection with architecture.

During the 1920's, Lisitski devoted himself mainly to graphics. He would illustrate books, make posters, create typographic innovations, do book exhibitions and photomontage. At that time, Lisitski published ``Pro Dva Kvadrata''3.5. and simultaneously, he was published in Dutch. In the modern art world, the Dutch art movement became recognized as an important branch of abstract art. as well as several ultra-modernisms in the constructive art. Lisitski should really be considered a constructionist. He can also fit in to the ``izmen'', which has a particular connection to architecture.

Lisitski is now on the advisory council where Shlomo Yudovin, the graphic artist, is also an active participant. He is the creator of remarkable works of art with Jewish content.

Shlomo Yudovin was born in 1894 in Beshenkovitchi, a little town near Vitebsk. Shortly thereafter, his parents relocated to Vitebsk. From early childhood he exhibited a talent for drawing. In 1908, at the age of 14, he began to study in Pen's art school where he remained only a short time, no more than two years. In 1910, Sh. Anski took him to St.Petersburg and there Yudovin once again enrolled in an art school. During 1913-1914, Yudovin participated in Anski's folklore expedition. Together with the expedition, he wandered around Jewish cities and towns and gathered interesting material of Jewish life. This accumulated material had a huge effect on his future artistic output.

From 1916 to the present day, one can see Yudovin's works exhibited in the most important art exhibitions. These are interesting motifs of Jewish life which, quite often, decorate books written by Jewish authors.

In 1918, after the Bolshevik revolution, Yudovin returned to Vitebsk where he remained for five years -- until 1923. In 1919, he organized a special exhibition in Vitebsk which consisted of Jewish folk-art. In 1926, the Vitebsk Town Council published an album in belorussian entitled ``Vitebsk in Illustration'', where one can find Yudovin's Jewish motifs.

In 1927, the Leningrad Art Academy invited Yudovin to participate in the exhibition which it had organized. His works were considered by everyone to be an important contribution.

Yudovin belongs to the modern graphic artists with a remarkable approach, rich sentiment and clarity of form. His numerous works with Jewish topics are absolute proof of this. It is possible that Yudovin is, in a certain sense, the artist who most closely resembles the Vitebsk artist Pen.

One can also find Vitebsk motifs in the works of several other Jewish artists. However, these were few in number. In Yudovin's woodcuts, one can see much more sharply the characteristic face of the town of Vitebsk, with her little houses and streets. Most especially vivid were the Vitebsk Jewish types. This is the reason the critics commented that his creations carried a strong Jewish national character.

In America during the past several decades, one could view the works of Binyomen Kopman at many exhibitions. In these exhibitions, one could see the interesting development of a rising artist. One could see the zigzag work of a creative artist -- from William Blake's Tanakh-type mysticism to the romanticism of a Dumas. This was only one layer. Later, more classifications developed during a time of unrest.

The artist, Binyamin Kopman, was born in Vitebsk in 1887 and was raised in Yekaterinislav. When he turned 13, he returned to Vitebsk, remaining there a short time and then came to America with his parents. During his short stay in Vitebsk he studied at Pen's art school.

He was enrolled in the New York National Academy of Design. But he actually had nothing to do with this academic study. He has a bent for such artists as the expressive French painter Honore Daumier and the deeply tragic Jewish expressionist Khaim Tutin.

Kopman has a restive intellect. His spirit cannot satisfy itself with success. He constantly searches, changing his ways and always finds new expressions for his thoughts.

Kopman came to America in the early years of this century (20th). Modem art at that time, was not accepted too freely. In 1913, something occurred in New York which can be considered a sort of innovation in the world of modern art. This was the Armory Show, the ultra-modern art exhibition in the Armory on Lexington Avenue. It made a remarkable impression, the attendance was colossal -- not only in N.Y., but also in odd corners of America -- anywhere one could find influential artists.

Kopman, at that time, reveled in the mystique of William Blake, or it is how he appeared to me when I saw his paintings for the first time.

The Vitebsk group of artists occupies an important and honored place in Jewish art. I seek artistic ties with them. I think about influences from the Khumash. I want to find this in a sort of ``beginning'' environment in the Vitebsk of their childhood, to find their material there is truly real. In a certain sense, this is a good beginning as well as a creative continuation.

next up previous
Next: Not yet translated Up: Vitebsk Amol; geshikhte, zikhroynes, khurbn Previous: One's own by M.Shagal
Ed Sternin