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Art, Theater and Music

 

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Jewish Artists from Lithuania

by Yakob Kozlovsky

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Who in America has an understanding of what a small shtetl [town] in eastern Europe is? A small shtetl in Lithuania, with its mud in spring, in which one lost not only his galoshes, but often also the boots; where the children had to be carried on the backs of their mothers or fathers to kheder [religious primary school]; a shtetl with crooked houses, with patched roofs, overgrown with moss; houses leaning one against the other, supporting one another like groups of cripples; with lame barracks with crooked, small windows; with signs on which crooked lines of broken writing listed goods that the Jewish shopkeepers sold in their stores.

It is in such a shtetl that the Jewish genius was born and grew up:

[Chaim] Soutine, [Isaac] Levitan, [Mark] Antokolsky, [Max] Ginsburg.

It is remarkable that small Lithuania produced such a large number of professional, world-renowned artists. I will pause at the artists of my era, the artists whom I personally knew well, saw the best of their creations.

Much has been written about Levitan, Antokolsky and Ginsburg in the Russian and Jewish press. The reproductions of their creations are published in Russian and Jewish anthologies. They occupy a great place in Russian national art.

Levitan bore the name: artist of the Russian national landscape. Antokolsky received an award for a bust, “Ivan the Terrible.” None of the Russian Slavic sculptors succeeded as well in representing the character of such a complicated spirit as the Russian absolute ruler, Tsar Ivan the 4th, with the nickname “Ivan the Terrible.”

 

Chaim Soutine

I will [write] about an artist who was destined to occupy a place among the world-famous artists of Europe and who perished prematurely in Paris at the time of the Second World War.

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His name was Chaim Soutine. His father was a fanatically religious tailor from Smilavichy [Belarus]. Born under the burden of his bitter fate, he wanted to make his son a shoemaker.

It is interesting that Smilavichy left an eternal stamp on Chaim Soutine. The first time I became acquainted with him in a Parisian café, a Paris Jewish artist had introduced him to me at my request. Once the artist called me to his table and said:

– Be acquainted. This is Chaim Soutine.
I thought he was making fun [of me]. Sluggishly, hardly wanting to, I struck out my hand.

I was surprised. This is not how I imagined the greatest Jewish painter and his Yiddish! He said “s” instead of “sh” and “sh” instead of “z.”

When I accompanied the artist, who had introduced me to Soutine, home, he told me Soutine's entire biography. He knew Soutine when Soutine could not yet sell his pictures even for a single lunch. Soutine would often come to the same café with torn pants through which his naked body shown. To drive away his hunger, he would often drink seltzer water from a siphon. This did not cost any money and always stood on the table.

Soutine's biography sounds like a fantasy.

The passion for colored pencils played a crucial role in Soutine's childhood. The explanation for his legend.

Being a painter – what does this mean? This fame that a Frenchman or an Italian would find completely natural, is, however, outside the normal life of a Jew. Being a painter among Jews is stepping outside the normal way of life that has been venerated through generations of tradition. A bitter, unequal war was started between a child in whom lived the demon of painting and his father who embodied Jewish Orthodox piety in its primitive, limiting form.

Chaiml, the tormented child, secretly stole a valuable article from

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his home, sold it for next to nothing and bought the long desired colored pencils. He later was driven out of kheder [religious elementary school] and beaten by everyone. In addition, he received a separate punishment for covering the fences and walls in the shtetl [town] with bizarre drawings.

A simple Jew in the shtetl [town] permitted him to paint his portrait. He gained courage and went to paint a respected old man with a beautiful grey beard. The old man asked him to come to his house. However, barely crossing the threshold, he was attacked by the man's son who could not forgive [Chaim's] audacity of wanting to paint a picture of his father. After this, as he had drawn the simple Jew, he also [drew a picture of] the town fool.

He survived these blows more dead than alive. He had to go to the hospital. At this price, he reached his redemption. In fear of [Soutine] informing the police, Soutine received 25 rubles for keeping quiet. This sum let him leave for the wider world and here first started the Seven Circles of Hell.

He went to take an exam at the Vilna Art School. The door of the school opened at nine o'clock. Soutine came at four o'clock at night and marched like a guard back and forth until the door opened.

However, he failed. He later pleaded that he be allowed to take the exams again. With

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the help of the professors themselves, he succeeded in making a more or less academic drawing.

The 25 rubles ran out. He again walked around in hunger. Until a Vilna doctor finally felt pity for him and supported him. The same doctor sent him to Paris where he arrived in 1911 at the age of 17. Here [in Paris] he entered the Art Academy.

I know the Art Academy very well. I spent five or six years there. And this mostly astonishes me. From the academic drawings and paintings to his last pictures is a leap to the moon on a winged horse… From a classically, academically handled drawing to – a complete separation from every traditional form and line; to the separation of every trace of human anatomy. One effervescent wave of color. And one of his critics correctly noticed: “Soutine's picture looked as if he had spit his soul out on linen along with his blood.”

It is difficult to define the typical characteristics of Jewish genius. Many western artists strayed from the principles of painting, but no one had done so as much. This was the personal tragedy of Soutine's life and his people who did not have a Renaissance, nor its primitives, nor its

 

A group of well-known Kovno Jewish Artists
From right to left: Yakov Beker, Cesler, Markus Kazlowsky, Sztrajchman and Lipszic

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architecture: a people that was without a fatherland, an eternal wanderer, chosen by God out of all of His creatures.

So this is the explanation for Soutine's painting.

 

[Yakov] Messenblum [Jacques Missene]

From Soutine I go to Messenblum. He also died too early in the middle of his creative growth. He was a student in the Hebrew Gymnazie [secondary school] in Kovno, educated a generation of young artists and also had a considerable number of students here in America who have taken a place in every area.

Messenblum also began to study in the Vilna Art Academy. He arrived in Kovno already a more or less mature artist. He did not have the opportunity to make use of the moment, but this was not in his character. Even the duties of a teacher of drawing lay on his shoulders like a yoke. And several years after the First World War, when only a few took chances and one could leave, Messenblum's expansive soul looked for freedom, food for his creativity. He left for the wider world, to the great art centers that just at that time, after a long sleep in war, were bubbling with great enthusiasm and Messenblum and his hot temperament could not have chosen a better place than Paris.

In 1924 one already could meet Messenblum strolling around the Parisian boulevards with wide steps, gathering things for his new compositions.

His effervescent nature never rested. He worked in the museums, ateliers and in the street. At night, too, one could meet him in the artists' cafes with a writing pad in his hand. There he met Soutine, Chagall and many other famous artists of our era.

In 1926 his pictures already could be seen on the walls of the larger salons, along with the pictures of well-known French artists.

Those who knew Messenblum earlier and his drawings of specific Jewish themes would perhaps pity the artist for his “assimilation.” There were almost no more Jewish faces with the twisted peyos [side curls]; nor the cemeteries in the Lithuanian provinces; nor the triply specific

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crooked, Jewish houses of prayers. Instead of them appeared Parisian types from the underworld in the specific areas.

This happened with artists of various nationalities, as I already have said. They had their primitive [phase], their Renaissance. What could a Jew lose? He became confused in the Babylon of our time and did not want to return.

Messenblum died very young. I do not doubt that if he had lived until today we would have had in him a great Jewish artist. Lithuania would have been able to take pride in him. All of his work was left with his wife, the artist Karnowskaia, who later perished in the Nazi catastrophe and his creations were stolen.

 

Max Band

Max Band was born in Neustadt [Kudirkos Naumiestis]. Like Messenblum, he was a drawing teacher in the Hebrew Gymnazie.

He received a stipend to go to study in Berlin and as capable as he was, he fell under the influence of the modern German artists.

He left Berlin and as an ambitious artist went to Paris. Paris was the best school during the last [19th] century, the Babylon where artists from all nations and languages across the entire world gathered. Paris in the last century was the same as Florence and Venice during the time of the Renaissance. Everyone who came to Italy at that time must have been enraptured by the giant Italian spirit and today whoever comes to Paris and encounters French culture in general and its art in particular understands that which made it great was not the French soldier, not its estates, but its great ideals, understanding and appreciation of the hidden treasure. Only the foreigner who comes to Paris with his searches can [feel it]. We are reminded of the feeling of our great people in Paris that Albert Durer wrote about in his work about Venice, the Paris of his time: “How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home I am a parasite.”

It is no wonder that Max Band became familiar with the art and the famous artistic personalities. He flew like a bee from one beautiful flower garden to another, gathering the honey

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for his beehive. His first exhibitions were under a strong foreign influence. However, at the same time he freed himself quickly and received his own face. He painted portraits of his wife and children often and very successfully. Unlike Soutine, Band loved a beautiful line, a strong form. He painted softly with a very beautiful range of color.

He often painted pictures of Jewish life. A Jewish wedding with the klezmorim [musicians]. Several times he painted the Lithuanian Jewish orphan. The last picture that I happened to see in Paris at the Salon d'Automme was a large composition, a portrait against the Nazi terror: the Nazi hooligans pull looted candlesticks from a synagogue; from a second door one sees the Jews saving a sefer-Torah [Torah scroll] from the already burning synagogue. A very successful composition in dark, finely harmonized colors.

Many of Max Band's pictures are in museums and private collections. He had good reviews in the French and American press.

 

[Neemija] Arbitblat [Arbit Blatas]

Arbitblat was born in Kovno. He studied in Paris with the famous French artist [Andre] Lhote (a Cubist) under whose influence he painted his first picture.

Arbitblat began to exhibit when he was very young. Each of his new exhibitions carried the vitality of a new influence of one of the famous French modern painters.

Nietzsche said, “One must be a sea to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.” However, Arbitblat had time, was young enough that we can forget the influences. Arbitblat's drawings were such fine drawings, with such a rich play of colors that they could be placed in a row with the pictures of the greatest American artists. There is no doubt that on the day when he defines himself, creates his own palette, his own world he will take a large place among the artists.

Arbitblat was endowed with an iron will, with great energy and was ready to sacrifice for his art, which is very important. His pictures are in many private collections.

 

[Hirsh] Markus

Markus, born in Kovno, who is today in France, was a comrade of Arbitblat. He studied with the same well-known French

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Cubist Lhote. He painted under his influence for a long time. He was extremely modern and did not recognize anatomy or form. He mostly painted compositions, not using any models, in very dark tones, starkly underlining the Cubist style.

He used his self-prepared coarse linen with a specific glossy oil paint. In a word, despite the great influence on the part of his professor, by then he already had something of his own in the technique of painting and this is very important.

Studying and living in one room with Arbitblat, in the sense of an “artistic career,” he was a contrast [to Arbitblat] Art never was a matter of death or life to him.

 

Levinson and [Yehezkiel] Streichman

The names Levinson and Streichman are very well known. Both [were from] Kovno, both students at the Florence Art Academy. One, Streichman, is well known in Israel, where he is today; the second, Levinson, apparently perished in Kovno.

Something happened in Levinson's private life. It might be the influence of his wife or his parents, but he stopped [painting] right at the beginning of his career. He had managed to participate several times in an exhibition of a group of young artists and this was the end.

I am not exaggerating when I say that he was at 25 one of the most talented artists in Lithuania, a virtuoso in drawing, a splendid composer. All of those studying with him were astonished by him and with his famous virtuosity.

Streichman graduated from the Florence Art Academy and lived for a short time in Paris. However, he quickly fell under the influence of the French modern artists, not even attempting to look for his own way. It is possible that today he has worked out his own style. He has a very good foundation and I am convinced that he will, sooner or later, be freed of his insecurities.

 

An Artist Group

A group of two painters and a sculptor who were well known by the Kovno public were: [Zale] Beker, [Yacov] Lipshitz and [Yitzhak] Joffe.

They studied at the same time at the Lithuanian

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Art School, lived together and created together. All three perished – probably also together. I stop at them, not because they have a great significance in artistic painting, although Beker showed great talent and very quickly was freed from the influence of the Lithuanian school.

They strove to reach their goal with great stubbornness. I will never forget my first visit to them in their “studio.” I had just arrived after graduating from the Paris Art Academy. I had the opportunity to see the extraordinary need and pain of the young artists. I could find it in my own [financial] limits, but their situation even surprised me.

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They lived in an attic at the Yidishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] editorial offices. It was dark; only the fire from an alcohol apparatus on which they fried an omelet threw some bright rays of light on their faces.

There was no trace of furniture, only a few rickety seats and a table made from a crate.

Before I end I want to remember several names of Lithuanian Jewish artists and sculptors. They are: Sura Gorshein, Moshe Cesler, Sherman, [Chaim Meir] Fainshtein, Kohn, [Iliya] Ginzburg and [Jacques] Lipchitz, [Luiba] Kansky-Shaltofer and [Akim] Josim.”[1]

 

Prof. Shimeon Dubnov in Kovno [1936]
A meeting with Kovno folksmentshn [men – and women – of the people]

 


Footnote

  1. Sura Gorshein and Kansky-Shaltofer live in Israel; sculptor Moshe Cesler died forlorn on the 2nd of July 1963 in Tel Aviv; the remainder perished. Return

 

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