Jews in the Russian Avant Garde: Introduction

Well, isn’t this a pickle. There was an exhibition of art by Russian Jews at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1996. Aleksandra Shatskikh wrote an article for its catalogue – in English. I can find no trace of it in the original, but as luck would have it, a translation into Russian exists. I’m hanged if I am going to translate it back into English, so I’ll just pick points of interest from it. It was about the Jewish participation in the Russian Avant Garde. Despite the name, it was not just a Russian phenomenon. Lots of nationalities of the Russian (and Soviet) empire participated in it, among them Ukrainians, Belorussians, Armenians, Finns, Poles, even Italians and Germans … and, of course, Jews.

We have all heard of Marc Chagall, but he was not alone in lending a Jewish sensibility to this great movement in art. There were specific characteristics to their art that allow one to make the claim that there was indeed a Jewish Russian avant-garde. They participated fully in the development of the genre, but did so whilst seeking to discover their Jewish consciousness during a period of intense scrutiny of their identity and patriotism. The dual nature of these artists was felt throughout the history of the Russian avant-garde, which, though lasting scarcely twenty years (from the first exhibition in 1910 titled ‘Jack of Diamonds’ to the great schism of 1929), demonstrates several stages in their artistic progress.

In the beginning of the 1910s, four centres of the Russian avant-garde could be identified – the native cities of St Petersburg and Moscow, and the foreign cities of Paris and Munich. There were close ties between these centres, although there were sufficient distinctions as well. The secular Jewish art was more firmly established in St Petersburg, under the instruction and aegis of Leon Bakst (who taught at a private academy of E. N. Zvantseva), who taught, among others, Chagall, Alexander Romm, Sofia Dimshitz; and at the academies of M. D. Bernstein, Ya. S. Goldblatt, S. M. Zeidenberg. It has to be said, though, that there was no nationalistic conversation permitted at these schools.

The first stage of the Russian avant-garde (end of the 1900s through the 1910s) had in its ranks several Jewish artists whose Jewishness didn’t appear dominantly in their works. For example, Iosif Shkolnik’s works represent a moderate version of innovative researches into the pictorial and formal problems that were sought to be addressed by all artists of the Left. Shkolnik maintained a certain presence among the bohemian circles of the northern capital as one of the prime movers of the avant-garde association ‘Union of Youth’. Nationalistic self-awareness played no role in his creative life, nor in the fortunes of Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, Adolf Milman, or others. At the dawn of the Russian avant-garde, Jewish artists were connected to the dominant trends in the arts; the process of assimilation into academic movements of the time such as Mir Iskusstvo (World of Art) prevailed even in the first stage of development of the genre.

For the majority of Jewish artists, their training had to be conducted abroad, because moving out of the Pale of Settlement to Moscow or St Petersburg was difficult. Among the impressive set of Russian Parisians, as the emigre avant-gardists were called at the time, a large proportion comprised natives of the towns and shtetls of the Pale.

Among the young artists and critics of the time, specific questions on the cultures of other nationalities weren’t of serious interest, unlike in the previous decades, when much of public opinion was guided by V. V. Stasov, a great enthusiast for the revival of Jewish culture in Russia. The new guard, all Russian citizens, considered themselves Russians first, which served to dissolve in the eyes of foreign observers any and all national distinctions. A series of articles by A. V. Lunacharsky from Paris to a newspaper in Kiev, titled ‘Young Russia in Paris’ (early 1914), illustrates this sublimation of identities into Russianness: it included essays on the Jews Marc Chagall, David Shterenberg and Iosif Teper. While the work of the first two is well-known, making it easy to judge their individual approaches to the question of national identity, for the last it is more tricky: going by the remarks of a contemporary critic, the issue was a hot one for Teper. Lunacharsky himself (or Yakov Tugendhold who lived in Paris at the same time) makes no mention of any Jewish theme observable in the oeuvre of the artists before the Great War. The likes of Osip Tsadkin, Jacques Lipschitz, Hannah Orlova, Mane-Katz, Oscar Meschanikov and others all considered themselves Russian. Many were members of the Russian Academy in Paris, and in the 1920s, entered the Parisian Society of Russian Artists.

In Russia, their works were exhibited at the ‘World of Art’ and ‘Jack of Diamonds’ shows, and in controversial expositions by extreme avant-gardists (‘Tail of the Donkey’, ‘Targets’, ‘№4’). Marc Chagall, Nathan Altman, Leon Zack, Adolf Milman, and other Russian Parisians occupied a prominent place in the national artistic life, and were closely connected with the activities of radical artists. Meanwhile, they participated in French and international exhibitions as Russian artists; only later did many of them become masters of the modern Jewish art. They continued to consider themselves Russian, and when they set up the 1928 Exhibition of Contemporary French Art in Moscow, they included their own pieces in the Russian section. Besides the names mentioned above, we encounter others such as Mikhail Kikoin, Zachary Rybak (Issachar Ryback), Pavel Kremny.

The nucleus of Russian artistic life in Paris from the beginning of the 1910s was at the Beehive (La Ruche). Here Chagall worked, as did the likes of Nathan Altman, Iosif Chaikoff, Lazar Lissitsky, David Shterenberg, all of whom involved themselves in intensive discussion and quest for the roots of Jewish identity and art. Significantly, many of these artists, whose Jewish self-identification evolved in Paris, found fertile ground for advancement when they returned to Russia. For at the same time, all Slavic peoples living in Eastern Europe were consumed with their own rising nationalistic consciousness. The Ashkenazim were no different.

Whereas European artists were not so tied to their nationalistic roots, in Russia, an appeal to an artist’s national cultural heritage was a significant feature. Leftwing Russian artists claimed that they were committed to the East and drew attention to their national arts. They protest, they said, against a slavish subordination to the West. Young Jewish artists could with conviction subscribe to the same words.

The likes of Kandinsky and Larionov and Malevich sought inspiration in the ancient Russian iconography and primitive art of centuries past by authors unknown, and their own works were fuelled by this investigation. Likewise, the revival of the Russian Jewry in the 19th century led young Jewish artists to the delighted rediscovery and promotion of their own heritage, which then served to propel the next stage in the creative revolution of the Jewish avant-garde.


  1. Aleksandra Shatskikh, “Jewish Artists in Russian Avant-Garde”, in Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890-1990. Exhibition catalogue. The Jewish Museum, New York. 21/09/1995 to 28/01/1996. Munich-New York. Prestel-Verlag, 1995. pp. 71-80.


One thought on “Jews in the Russian Avant Garde: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Lunacharsky on Art: Shterenberg « Art of the Russias

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