The poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote about Nathan Altman (Натан Исаевич Альтман, 1889-1970):
Here you have the painter Altman He's a very ancient gent. In the German language Altman Means a very ancient gent. He's a painter of the old school, Slogged until his back was bent, That is why he looks so gloomy This so very ancient gent.
This octet was fondly remembered by all of Mandelstam’s friends and acquaintances. Altman was a very popular figure in St Petersburg’s bohemian and literary salons. Mandelstam recited these lines hundreds of times, choking with laughter, but with affected pompousness and a strong German accent.
Nathan Altman may have had something to be gloomy about, but certainly not because of belonging to any old school. Even his earliest works, influenced by cubism, were finely honed, spectacularly composed. His was a large oeuvre in various genres – art, sculpture, draftmanship, industrial design, poster art, book illustration. Like his great contemporaries, Chagall and Malevich, he participated in the creation of mass propaganda and large-scale festivities, notable among which were the revolutionary celebrations in St Petersburg in 1918 and Moscow (1921-28). He was an outstanding artist of the theatre and cinema. His metier was the overlay of primitive traditional realism with the principles of constructivism and cubism.
Altman lived a long and turbulent life. Already an experienced artist, in 1917 he rushed headlong into the Revolution. Like Meyerhold, Mayakovsky and others, he too dreamt of a new art, of a free Russia. But Meyerhold was shot, Mayakovsky killed himself. Altman’s fate was more fortunate, if one can use the word ‘fortunate’ for Jews under Soviet rule – he was not shot. He died on December 12, 1970 and was buried in a small cemetery in the village of Komarovo near St. Petersburg. As fate would have it, he was buried next to the poetess Anna Akhmatova, his great friend, whom he had outlived by scarcely four years.
He was born in Vinnitsa on 22 December 1889. When he was four years old, his father died of tuberculosis, and soon thereafter his grandfather. His mother, terrified of the pogroms, escaped the country, leaving him with his grandmother. He showed extraordinary ability despite the tribulations in his young life, and took up drawing. In 1902, he moved to Odessa where he joined the famed Odessa Art School. He trained in art with K. K. Kostandi and G. A. Lodyzhensky, and in sculpture with L. D. Iorini and I. I. Marmone. In 1910, he moved to Paris to continue his training. On his way, he stopped at Vienna and Munich. In Paris, of course, he fell in with the avant-garde crowd, many of whom were Russians – Marc Chagall, Alexander Archipenko, Ossip Zadkine, David Shterenberg, Chaim Soutine. With breathtaking courage, these young artists were experimenting with form, heading off to cafes in the evening to critique each others’ work, inventing a new ‘ism’ on a daily basis and setting trends. Attaching himself to the ‘Montparnasse School’, Altman continued his training at Maria Vassilieva’s studio, the Free Russian academy.
In 1911, having absorbed impressionism and fauvism with its intensity of colours, he presented his works at the ‘Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts’ in Paris. (At 22 years of age, this was not even his first exhibition: he had earlier been exhibited in Odessa in 1906 and 1910.)
In 1911, he returned to Vinnitsa, where he continued his prodigious output. In Paris he had executed portraits and landscapes; in his native town, he painted, among others, the melancholy memoir of his grandfather’s death ‘The Jewish Funeral’, as well as cartoons of his countrymen, which he published in a book titled ‘Vinnitsa in Caricatures’ (1912). He is also works at Vinnitsa’s City Theatre in the capacity of artist-in-residence.
Shortly thereafter, he moved to St Petersburg. For a Jew to obtain a resident’s permit for the imperial capital, he had to be a craftsman. To obtain the diploma, he passed an examination at Berdichev that qualified him as a painter of signs. At the end of 1912, he found himself an apprenticeship at a stained-glass workshop in St Petersburg.
As in Paris, there was artistic passion burning in the northern capital. There were rises and falls of artistic unions, bohemian get-togethers and ructions, a thriving poetic life in cafes and salons, such as ‘Stray Dog’. He first made a name for himself as a theatre decorator at the cabaret ‘Comedians Halt’.
Nathan Altman, spending his vacation with relatives in the Ukrainian province of Volhynia (the cradle of Hasidism), became fascinated with the monumental decorative tombstones of the Jewish cemetery in Shepetovka, and attempted to convey their spirit and style in a series of decorative paintings in Italian pencil, which he titled ‘Jewish graphics’ (1913).  This was a series of semi-fantastic animalistic figures, and included a sensational portrait of Anna Akhmatova, which later came to be regarded as one of the great paintings of the twentieth century. His understanding of the traditions of Jewish art resulted in manifold works, crowned by his Self Portrait (1916) in bronze, where he depicted himself as a young Hasid.
Altman began to be invited to exhibitions, to prepare illustrations for literary works by poets he had befriended. Support from the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov resulted in further exhibits – the 1913, 1915-16 ‘World of Art’, the 1916 ‘Jack of Diamonds’, the 1913-14 ‘Union of Youth’, and 1915-16 ‘0, 10’, along with other masters of the Russian avant-garde.
Fascinated, like many of his contemporaries, by revolutionary ideas, from 1917, Altman edited the first Soviet journal on the questions of art, ‘Art of the Commune’. He directed the establishment of the Museum of Artistic Culture, and he created portraits of prominent Bolsheviks (notably, a bust of Lunacharsky). The People’s Commissar of Culture so liked Altman’s work that he persuaded Lenin to commission him for a portrait. Lenin was already familiar with Altman, having confirmed Altman’s sketch for a flag for the Russian Federation. In 1920, Altman spent six weeks in Lenin’s cabinet working on a sculptural portrait, which went on to win a gold medal in Paris five years later.
In 1921, Lunacharsky instructed Altman to take up the chair of the Deparment of Fine Arts, where he became acquainted with Maxim Gorky and Ehrenburg and Isaac Babel. The following year, he participated in the ‘Exhibition of Three’, along with Chagall and Shterenberg. All of them had been active in the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (GOSET) at various times, under the director A. Granovsky and the actor Solomon Mikhoels.
Altman’s first design for the theatre appears to have been for Mayakovsky’s ‘Mystery Bouffe’, staged in 1921 in German, for the delegates of the third Congress of the Comintern. Next was the premiere in 1922 of ‘Uriel Acosta’, who had replaced Chagall as chief artist at the theatre by then. That same year appeared his design for ‘Habima’. Both plays resonated widely among the public.
The collaboration of Mikhoels and Altman and others resulted in a successful film as well. It had a screenplay based on stories by Sholem Aleichem, titles by Isaac Babel, production design by Altman, and was named ‘Jewish Luck‘, and filmed in Vinnitsa, a village that was still reminiscent of Aleichem’s times.
Between 1925 and 1928, Altman was involved in several other productions of GOSET: Aleichem’s ‘Doctor’, the comedy ‘137 Children’s Homes’, the opera ‘The Tenth Commandment’. In 1928, the Yiddish theatre went on a long tour of Western Europe; when it returned, Altman was no longer with it. He stayed on in Paris for seven years. It was as though he had never left. He fell right back into the old vigorous life, meeting old friends, facing new ideas, and working, working, working …
Altman’s latest pictures were shown at the Parisian exhibitions of the ‘Young Europe’ society (1932) and ‘Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists’ (1934). He returned to Moscow in 1935 where his life turned completely around. He was now forced to create large banners celebrating Stalin’s various victories. He didn’t know how to do so, but to return to his old ways of art would have been fatal. One by one, his old friends – directors, writers, artists – were disappearing into the torture-chambers. From this point to nearly the end of his life, Altman hardly created any easel art. The poetic ‘Forest Avenue’ (1940), a few landscapes of Perm (1944), ‘Portrait of the artist’s wife’ (1963, but begun in 1936) were all that remain.
To earn a living, Altman dabbled in graphic illustration for books. Gogol’s ‘Petersburg stories’ were printed in 1937. Gogol’s genius was such that Chagall and Altman and other Jewish artists were willing to forgive his anti-Semitic outbursts. Altman’s major source of livelihood was still theatrical production design. In St Petersburg once again, he began a long and fruitful collaboration with the director Grigory Kozintsev in a cycle of Shakepearian themes, the first of which was ‘King Lear’.
During the war years, Altman was evacuated to Perm, where he worked with the Kirov opera (again with Kozintsev in Verdi’s ‘Otello’). He also drew caricatures of Goebbels and other representatives of the Third Reich for the army’s newspaper ‘The Star’.
In 1948, back in Leningrad, Altman illustrated printed works of Sholem Aleichem. That same year, his friend Solomon Mikhoels was killed. With Kozintsev at the Pushin Theatre of Drama, he produced ‘Hamlet’ (1954); the following year saw the release of the film ‘Don Quixote’. Both productions met with great acclaim. These were the last of Altman’s successes, other than an exhibition of his works in 1969. The next solo exhibition by Nathan Altman didn’t take place till 1977, to much public interest. But by then he was dead.
- 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.
- Vitaly Orlov, “The Old Man from Vinnitsa“, Vestnik, №3 (236), February 1, 2000.