Russian-Jewish Artist Finds Despair, Whether in Soviet Union or Israel
The setting in the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery couldn’t be brighter, more welcoming, airy or bright, exuding the feel of a comforting, secular chapel. And the gallery’s current exhibit, “Reconciling Worlds: The Work of Soviet Artist Yefim Ladyzhensky,” couldn’t be more precise and to the point—yet at the same time also completely odds with its subject matter and setting.
For in truth, Yefim Ladyzhensky was never reconciled to the worlds in which he lived—and it was only in his art that he was able to do and become what he wanted. To describe him as a Soviet artist speaks only to the conditions under which he lived while creating his finest work. He was both a Jewish and a Russian artist who was deeply conflicted, ending his days in Israel by hanging himself from a rope in the stairwell of his studio—a scene he had often referred to and all but announced in his late work.
That work though, coupled with Ladyzhensky’s history, makes the gallery burn with sharp, lingering, intense emotions—a never-satisfied longing and desolate pining for the past are clearly evident, as is an abject despair over what the present failed to bring him.
Ladyzhensky was a gifted artist who under the Soviet system worked as a stage decorator but created audacious, full-of-life tempera works, often recalling his childhood in Odessa. But he was also an artist with Jewish and Russian sensibility, who could not show that sensibility in a Soviet Union where it seems that in order to survive, almost everyone disguised their true selves in some fashion so as not to attract the attention of authorities or your neighbors.
Born in 1911 in Odessa, when there was still a czar and Cossacks hounding Shtetl Jews in Russia, Ladyzhensky had a preternatural gift for art. A political official recognized Ladyzhensky’s abilities after seeing some of his sketches of Lenin that he drew for his friends. So off Ladyzhensky went to art school, soon to become a member of the Soviet intellectual class by his trade and art.
But being an artist in the Soviet Union was a matter of denial—you often hid your true gifts, oeuvre and passions. For Ladyzhensky, those passions were revealed in a series created in the 1960s, the first of which was a set of tempera paintings called “Growing Up in Odessa,” a remarkably vivid group of paintings that veer on naïve folk art but have so much vibrancy that they add a musical air to the room. The second tempera series was based on Russian author Isaak Babel’s “Red Cavalry” short stories about the Red Army.
In both series, it’s as if the painter resurrected a way of life—specifically, the Russian-Jewish way of life as it existed before the revolution. The scenes on the walls—the unwrapping of gifts, a rabbi, a flea market, cavalry moving through town—are so full of life that they appear almost as a rebuke to Ladyzhensky’s later works, which deal heavily with the issue the artist’s “Jewishness.”
Ladyzhensky’s self-examination came after he immigrated to Israel, hoping to find a supportive community of fellow artists and intellectuals, but rather feeling underappreciated and misunderstood. Works produced during this time may be the most terrifying in the exhibition—a hollow-eyed Ladyzhensky peers out of many of the pieces, including one in which he appears to imagine his own death.
These canvases speak to his devastating disappointment after arriving in Israel in 1978, before which, he destroyed some 2,000 paintings because of the extremely high customs duty that prevented him from transporting them out of Russia.
But in Israel, he longed for a museum show of his work, and although he gained a worthy international reputation, Ladyzhensky failed to attract the eye of critics in Israel and never got the museum show he so longed for. In fact, the secular Ladyzhensky never felt at home in Israel, complaining, oddly, of anti-Semitism, of a new kind of alienation.
Consider for a moment the two tempera paintings “Past is Always With Me,” in which six depictions of his face are crossed out against a Star of David in blue and a red star. Or consider the 1982 work “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” in which a man wearing glasses hangs from a balcony. In fact, glasses—the wearing of which in Russia was considered a sign of Jewish bookishness and intellectualism—figure strongly in his work.
Finally, there is “The Unfinished Self Portrait,” which could depict a disappearing man, a man never reconciled to the worlds in which he lived. But more than that, in an exhibition where despair and death seem to rule, there is a remarkable atmosphere of intense life through these paintings and works on paper that seem curiously full of breaths—angrily yet fully and deeply taken.
Reconciling Worlds: The Work of Soviet Artist Yefim Ladyzhensky through Dec. 30 Washington DC Jewish Community Center 16th and Q Streets, NW For more information, please call (202) 777-3208 or visit www.washingtondcjcc.org.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.