Russian Artists on Israeli Soil – Iosif Kapelyan, Part 1.

Those who have been in Israel know that in this tiny country it is possible to encounter a large number of paradoxes, both natural and climatic, despite its location in what appears to be a monotype desert zone. Equally, it is possible to encounter people of the widest variety of spheres of life. That is to say, here dwell masters of the brush and chisel, as different from each other as the desert and the oasis. Among them too are the emigrants from the Soviet Union to the Promised Land who arrived here more than 30 years ago.

Now I want to introduce the readers of this journal, ‘The Seven Arts’ to several Israeli artists of Russian origin, and to investigate how much moving from one country to another impacted their art and understanding of the world.

I held conversations with them several times over different years. Even today they are active in their chosen genres. My conversations with them are purely journalistic, but when assessing the creativity of these artists, I refer to the famous sayings of the late Dr Gregory Ostrowski, universal art critic, graduate of Leningrad University, student of N. N. Punin and V. F. Levinson-Lessing, I. Ioffe and M. S. Kagan.

Iosif Kapelyan – Sublime constructs of thought and feeling

The artist Iosif Kapelyan was for two years a refusenik. During that period, until 1980, when he was allowed to emigrate to Israel from Minsk, Iosif was expelled from the Union of Soviet artists which he had been once so keen to join, and he was refused any employment. His colleagues denounced him, called him a Zionist, a traitor to the enlightened ideals of Communism. He also had family troubles. Still, these struggles didn’t frighten Iosif: he took his fate in his own hands and moved to Israel. Thirty years have gone by since then.

Iosif, what drove you towards Israel ten years before the mass emigration of the 1990s? Was it antisemitism? After all, you had the coveted membership of the Unions, which allowed you to freelance; before your emigration, you even had three solo exhibitions of your work. You were despatched on creative assignments, showered with awards…

Portrait of Tanya Kapelyan.

Belarus landscape.

– Imagine to yourself – despite the benefits you listed, I always felt like a second class person, as though my owners were throwing me a bone after having fed everybody else they deemed necessary. But more importantly, I wanted a creative and cultural freedom.

And you found it here?

– Not immediately, but eventually I did. I arrived in Israel as a realist-artist. My professional training stemming from my country of origin provided only directions towards socialist realism. And I hadn’t done badly in that genre. Here, though, it was completely rejected.

Where had you trained?

From the series ‘Ancient Portraits’: Big Family

From the series ‘Mystica’.

From the series ‘Mystica’.

In my childhood, at the Palace of Pioneers at Babruysk. I had a wonderful teacher, Boris Fedorovich Belyayev who had turned an ordinary drawing circle into a children’s art school. More than a hundred and fifty of his students became professional artists. After that I studied at the Leningrad Art School. Following my military service, I went to the Minsk Theatre and Art Institute in the Faculty of Graphics, where I studied another six years. My professional foundations, as you can see, are solid. Prior to leaving for Israel, I worked at a publisher as a graphic artist. I created several series: ‘War and Children’, ‘Cosmos’, ‘Partisans’, ‘Heroes of Sholem Aleichem’, a series of etchings ‘Ghetto’, ‘Proverbs’, and others.

– In what direction did you start to move having obtained the coveted freedom of creativity?

– It’s impossible to transform oneself overnight. Everything happens gradually. One can live in a free world and remain a slave. And to achieve inner freedom, one needs to grow up to understand this and to overcome oneself. I went to Italy, France, Spain. In truth, my new era began after 1987, when I travelled with my solo exhibition to Los Angeles. Until that point, I had created in Israel some fifty works in my series ‘Ancient Portraits’. In the USA, I visited museums of modern art, which made an indelible impression on me. After America, I wanted to wander among colours, and I began to try myself out in the decorative genre.

– And was this sufficient to provide you with an inner emancipation?

– No, it was not enough. I began to study religious and philosophical literature and my outlook began to expand. This can be compared to the changing view of a panorama as seen from the roof of a house as compared to that seen from an airplane. The view and visibility to the horizon are completely different. I constantly try out different, new things. My advantage is that I am not dependent on buyers, do not need hawk my work in the market. In fact, since my arrival here, I’ve been working for years as a graphic artist at the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. So I am able to work on art and not worry about sales.

I experimented, creating collages and paintings based on them, then became interested in esoteric works. Esoterica – it is a detachment from the earth and a capture of cosmic space. I was engaged in purely abstract works, constantly seeking colour. I have works that emanate from the mind as well as those that emanate from the heart.

From the mind, perhaps various geometric constructions?

– Yes, but even in them is a particular merit. In art, as in life, there is a need for a sharp change of tack, just as one wants to follow up something savoury with something sweet. After geometric abstractions, I moved to the style of abstract impressionism.

And what would be your next step?

– I think I may have a new period of creativity. This would be realist works with a cosmic sensibility, a special sonority. You understand – a human being is a particle of space in which everything is interconnected. It is necessary to recognise the wider world that is intangible. Our dreams, visions, thoughts – these are not in the physical world, but they affect the physical environment, because the mind is spiritual energy that cannot disappear without a trace.

In the world there exists a balance of power, but unrighteous minds can disrupt this balance and cause an explosion, elicit catastrophes and earthquakes. The artist is answerable for a lot of things. What he sows around himself and how he sees the world – he answerable for this. Art is the bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds.

– Do you think your art carries such a positive charge?

– I don’t want to say anything about myself. The works of an artist, like those of an actor or musician or writer, are his life and inner world. You can’t hide anything in them and you can’t fool anyone with them. Everything is open to view. Let the viewers judge for themselves. I believe that I continue to realise those abilities that are given to me by nature.

I had this dialogue with Iosif Kapelyan after the opening of his solo exhibition in September 1999 at the Beit-Bialik Museum in Tel Aviv. At the same time was a released a lavish illustrated book titled ‘Iosif Kapelyan. Art, Reality and Mysticism’. The author of the book was the Israeli art critic Miriam Or. In the book were 115 beautifully executed colour reproductions as well as 1469 black-and-white illustrations. This book, in fact, is the chronicle of life and oeuvre of Iosif Kapelyan.

Miriam Or, an author of twenty books and monographs, had become acquainted with the works of Kapelyan, and was enraptured by their diversity and depth of content, sensuality and openness, realism and dreaminess. She wrote: ‘Kapelyan’s paintings are poetic, like songs: in them, lines and colours are used like rhymes and verse… In his art, Kapelyan demonstrates how volatile the images of the material life are, how they have no defined boundaries, while the process of mapping them requires the expansion of the horizons that contain the human experience’.

And this is what Dr Grigory Ostrovsky had written in the introduction of his monograph on the creative artist: ‘… This is an enormous world, absorbing into itself the prosaic quotidian life and the striving for astral heights, the materiality of the subjective environment and the magic of cosmogonic abstraction, the universality of spiritual values and the polychrome of living Nature. The artist combines the possible with the impossible, the manifest with the secret, and unifies them all with the power of vivid and original talent, sealed by the high culture of colour and drawing.’

[This is the first excerpt in a loose translation of Yevgeniya Laskina’s article ‘Russian Artists on Israeli Soil‘, Seven Arts, Number 4 (17), April 2011.]

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