Jews in the Russian Avant-Garde: A National Art?

In the middle of the 1910s, the social backdrop for Jews in Russia was scary. The inhabitants of the Pale of Settlement were an easy target to blame for the failures of the Russian army in the Great War: it became official policy to persecute the Jews. Possibly this prompted young Jewish artists to seek to capture and attempt to preserve for posterity the monuments of their culture. Lissitsky and Ryback travelled to Volhynia and Podolia, as did Altman to Vinnitsa, and the resulting output was prodigious – well-known sketches and paintings and literary works. The new artists used the new fluid artistic forms to reinterpret the works of their predecessors. Increasingly, too, they sought to organise themselves. The Jewish Society for the Encouragement of Arts was one such union, with branches in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kharkov.

With the revolution in 1917, it appeared that a world of possibilities had opened up for the development of national cultures. The Pale of Settlement was destroyed and restrictions on freedoms of Jews were lifted. As if by magic arose the Jewish Chamber Theatre (St Petersburg and Moscow), the Jewish National University, the Moscow circle of writers and artists. Exhibitions of the works of Jews appeared. A powerful illusion of a promising dawn was thus born, so close to the flowering of a new Jewish art. Unfortunately, though, this bright spark also turned out to be the zenith of the development of Jewish culture. The Bolsheviks supported the various national cultures in the beginning because they wanted to expand their ideology and influence across the empire, but then, as they increased their power, they impressed the idea of a single Soviet people on the citizenry. Jewish art, as many other national arts, began to suffocate.

Still, it’s fair to say that in the new regime, avant-garde art of any national origin found support where it had previously been condemned as bourgeois. Russian avant-garde figures found themselves not only supported by the government but also in positions of influence. Indeed, in the artistic Commissariat, many key positions were held by Jews. But it was becoming clear that the new artistic thought was no longer on the side of a monolithic monoculture.

At the earliest stages of the revival of Jewish art already it was evident that there were some problems. The search for national self-identity relied on an individual’s path of development. Meanwhile, the artists were not working in limbo – they were absorbing influences from around the world. Since the Renaissance, the paramount artistic trait was individualism, and the romanticism of the 19th century further strengthened the idea of the artist as an individual creator-demiurge. The acute tension between the creation of a unified national artistic style and the purely individual path of development was keenly felt by the Jewish artistic fellowship.

The question of what is Jewish art in general, and what was the modern Jewish art in particular was complex, burning and difficult. Organisers of exhibitions of Jewish art in Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg bumped into the issue; their approach demonstrated one way to resolve it. They considered only parental origin and ethnic background, and thereby set up the great exhibitions of Jewish artists between 1916-1920. Natives of the capitals and the Pale were able to showcase their talents in the fine arts. The full range of European and Russian art was on display in these shows: the academic-naturalistic sculpture of Mikhail Bloch and Bernard Kratko, the cubist and expressionist works of Nathan Altman, Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, Nina Niss-Goldman, Marc Chagall, Iosif Shkolnik and others.

Still life with yellow cloth, by Iosif Shkolnik. (1910s).

Self-portrait, by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine. (1907).

Portrait of Valery Bryusov, by Nina Niss-Goldman. (1924).

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