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When Jewish Artists were Outsiders -Vitebsk



When Jewish Artists were Outsiders – Vitebsk

During most of European history Jews were unable to participate in the mainstream arts – most certainly because of anti-semitism, but also because of the Jewish community’s reluctance to participate. Jews were rarely permitted to live in the large, cultural centers such as Vienna, Paris and St. Petersburg; and art academies actively discouraged Jews from enrolling. But by the 20th century, with major cultural changes throughout Europe Jews became integral to European and ultimately international art. I want to look at one important story – that  of  Vitebsk as a Jewish art center starting with the painter Yehuda Pen. (See a gushing biography of Pen and a short history of avant-garde art in Vitebsk at

After centuries of government policy, the Jews of Russia were largely restricted to the Pale – an area extending East to West from central Russia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and South to North from the Black Sea to the Baltic. By the end of the 19th century, the Pale contained 90% of Russian Jews and 40% of all Jews living in Europe. (With respect to current events, Ukraine contained a large fraction of this Jewish population.) Yehuda Pen (1854-1937), born in Lithuania matriculated with some difficulty from the St. Petersburg Academy of Art, and returned to the Pale, settling in the provincial city of Vitebsk, Belarus (White Russia). While respected by his contemporaries as an artist, his major historical achievement was to establish a private art school for the education of Jewish students. Among these young students were artists later associated with the beginnings of modernist 20th c. art; e.g., Solomon Yudovin (1892-1954), Marc Chagall (Moseh Segal, 1887-1985), El Lissitzky (Lazar Markovich Lissitzky, 1890-1941), and Osip Zadkine (Yossel Aronovich Tsadkin, 1890-1967). During and shortly after the first world war, Yudovin, El Lissitzky and Marc Chagall returned to Vitebsk; Yudovin to teach in Pen’s Jewish Art school, Chagall to establish the Vitebsk Arts College, and El Lissitsky at the invitation of Chagall to teach in the Arts College. The three had trained in the tradition of academic realism, but turned to Russian-Jewish folk art as an affirmation of their Jewish secularism; Russian-Jewish folk art, a decidedly non-academic art form, had been disseminated  by Yudovin after his exposure to it during the famous Jewish ethnographic expedition led by his uncle, the author An-Sky (S.A. Rapoport) through the rural Ukrainian provinces of Volynia and Podolia. By war’s end the three had moved on artistically to: expressionism – Yudovin; surrealism – Chagall; and geometric abstraction El Lissitzky. (Parallel transitions by Jewish artists elsewhere in Europe occurred about the same time.) With the arrival in 1919 of the suprematist Kazimir Malevich, invited by Chagall’s and Lissitzky’s invitation,Vitebsk briefly became a major avant-garde center. But by 1922, Yudovin and Malevich had moved on to St. Petersburg (Petrograd), Chagall to Moscow, and Lissitzky to Berlin.

Although well recognized and influential modernists, these artists remained outside established art circles through much of their lifetimes and were often persecuted. For example, Stalin suppressed all modernist styles and imposed ‘Social Realism’ on Russian artists. The Fascists extirpated modernist art in Central Europe and imposed Hitler’s vision of ‘Nordic Art’. A telling example of German persecution occurred in Munich at the 1937 Degenerate Art (Entarte Kunst) exhibit. Examples of art from impressionism to abstract – works that had been confiscated by the thousands from German museums – were displayed together with odious and anti-Semitic texts that declared this art – products of diseased and enfeebled minds – had been encouraged and distributed by Jews and Bolshevists in a plot to destroy the Nordic race. Subsequently, the show toured Germany and Austria and then perhaps as much as one-third of all the confiscated works were burned. (There is an interesting exhibition currently at the Neue Galerie in New York. It contains some of the art in the Munich Entarte Kunst show, and provides some contextual material as an aid in understanding what happened in 1930’s Germany.)

But as is often true with cast-out artists and their contributions, moderns art much of which had been produced by Jewish artists, became the norm – first in the United States and then throughout the world. Perhaps the significant participation of Jewish artists (and Jewish art patrons) in the growth of modern art reflected their status as outsiders, who looking on at the contemporary norm were ready to move to a less discriminatory, new norm.

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