Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History.
cutting out the heart of Judaism, we had to forge a new identity. Likewise, the trials and tribulations of the Diaspora have repeatedly demanded a reassessment of cultural definitions. We were highly cultured Spaniards until 1492 and then we were again cast among the nations.
The same experience of displacement was repeated in France, Germany and England over the centuries. Finally, our cultured homes and way of life in Western and Eastern Europe were incinerated and yet another cultural identity went up in smoke. The survivors and their descendents are still struggling to remake a viable Jewish culture in America and in Israel. This has been a numbingly constant Jewish paradigm for 2,000 years.
Therefore there is something familiar about the diversity, dislocation and postmodern chaos in the works of the 24 artists in Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia currently at Yeshiva University Museum. This exhibition by some of the foremost Russian artists of their generation displays their artistic lives hewn out of the ruins of the Soviet Empire. As critic Donald Kuspit surveys these works, he perceives “the problem of achieving an autonomous identity and strong sense of selfhood [that] haunts Russian art…”
Russian art boasts an illustrious history from pre-Revolutionary icons to the radically modern
Constructivist movement of the teens and early 20’s. Such abstract and highly conceptual works were finally crushed by Stalin’s Social Realism, which was the totalitarian norm, from the 1930s until the mid 1950’s. It was only after the death of Stalin in 1953 that the cultural climate began a slow thaw that was itself shattered by the catastrophic break-up of the Soviet
Union in December 1991. Most of the artists shown here are representative of this unique cultural transition from a tightly controlled society to what may be deemed contemporary cultural chaos.
Perhaps one of the most telling images that expresses what curator Alexandre Gertsman defines as “nostalgia for culture and for the destruction of culture; a longing for refinement and for vandalism…” is, I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child (1982) [in catalogue] by Komar and Melamid. The chilling vision of the Great Leader peering from the back of a black sedan
encapsulates the haunting presence of totalitarian authority and destructiveness that permeates the Russian soul. The exhibition is dominated by ironic images of Soviet relics that repeatedly attempt to deconstruct the terrible years and corrosive ideas that dominated their artistic youth.
Natalya Nesterova is represented by a number of works that considers multiple perspectives of cultural dislocation. Dream on the Shore (Reading Buber) (1999) transports us to a surreal scene of comatose relaxation while savoring a volume of Martin Buber in Hebrew. An
incongruous dragonfly against the leaden sky seems to illustrate the fleeting fragility of philosophical speculation in a world adrift from normative values. A similarly illusive image of Golden Angel (1999) attempts to take flight over a grim city below. The city may be burning;
the whole civilization in ruins, but the radiant angel cannot escape to its heavenly home. There is a persuasive hopelessness, a trapped spirituality that characterizes many of her works. The earlier Angel With Eyes Open (1991) anticipates this dread in a faceless angel that is paradoxically all seeing, all knowing and yet impotent to act. The entire winged figure is covered with eyes, a terrible presence that hovers against a gray threatening sky. Nesterova addresses a reinvigorated Judaism by a cautious exploration of the spiritually that was crushed, persecuted and denied in her nation’s recent past.
Likewise, Grisha Bruskin seeks a Jewish medium to exorcise Soviet demons. His background in Soviet Pop Art, called Sots-Art, and Soviet symbolism has flowed into an obsession with Jewish culture. Here a defining referent is the shared culture of “The Book.” His works, both paintings and flat silhouette sculpture tend to multiple series, echoing the multiple pages of books. Metamorphoses (1992) is composed of ten diminutive steel cut-outs painted in red or black enamel, depicting angels, demons, devils and a haunted Everyman that allegedly represents an 18th Century Kabbalistic text. These deeply disturbing images seem to emerge from a shared unconscious thousands of years old. In contrast to many other works in this show, there is a distinct lack of nostalgia in his works. Rather, because of his use of a stark modernist sculptural form, Bruskin’s works point to a vision of Jewish spirituality that is at once terrifyingly ancient and resolutely contemporary.
His paintings enlarge upon the textual motif by utilizing actual texts in a lined background against which his fantastic figures are painted. Message 5 (1989-90) [in catalogue] is part of a larger series that depicts a cosmic struggle that has been brought to earth and encased in a fragmented text. Snatches of Hebrew and Aramaic script surface in boldface, while the majority of the text remains unintelligible. The images seem to want to narrate, and yet an overload of information intrudes. One assumes that Bruskin mixes personal, political and
historical images with deliberately obscure texts to obfuscate the painting’s meaning. This tactic
unfortunately creates a cultural chasm that proves extremely difficult to cross.
These glimpses of meaning, attempts at construction even while acknowledging that reconstruction of a shattered cultural identity may be futile, represent but one response to the cultural dislocation so keenly felt by contemporary Russian artists. What is extremely intriguing about this exhibition is the particular way in which various echoes of Jewish themes, from disengaged angels to exploration of secular and sacred Jewish texts, have been utilized to address a problem that has a very real parallel in contemporary Jewish creativity.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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