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Meer Akselrod: Painting His People

Chassidic Art Institute

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Empathy and memory meet in the work of Meer Akselrod (1902-1970), the Jewish Russian artist who defied aesthetic convention and totalitarian dictates to relentlessly pursue his personal artistic vision of painting the Jewish people.  His quiet courage in the face of epochal changes that convulsed his Russian homeland cannot be overestimated. They are amply attested to by his artwork, not the least of which are two pen and ink drawings, Pogrom, from 1927 – 1928, currently at the Chassidic Art Institute.

Pogrom #41 depicts a woman about to be arrested on the steps of her house.  Her child clings to her baggy dress as she raises her hand in submission and fright. The hood of her scarf obscures half her face, exposing only her fear and desperation.  Akselrod’s expressive use of a black ink wash on the left side echoes the anticipated grasp of her attacker.  We can easily see this encounter is not going to come out well. 

 

Pogrom # 41 (1927-1928) by Meer Akselrod

Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

 

It is important to historically place this work.  Akselrod was then living in Moscow and taught and exhibited at the VHUTEMAS, the Soviet art and design school (similar to the Bauhaus) set up by Lenin in 1920.  These drawings most probably reflect his experiences and/or reports of pogroms in Belarus in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War (1917-1923).  Whether this drawing is from his own experiences or just reflections of these terrible events, he has fully involved us in the fate of this woman and child.  Our empathy is deeply evoked.

A rather different experience is seen in Pogrom #40.  Here we witness an attack unfolding in a bizarre scenario.  Akselrod’s Rembrandt-like rapid strokes depict a short brutal man grasping a fleeing woman’s shoulder.  She is carrying an oddly contented baby while this little man, his fist holding a cane, is about to attack her.  Even though he is so much shorter than she is, still he is terribly dangerous, clearly driven by his demented hate.  As we are drawn into this unfolding scene we understand that it is the centuries old irrational hate that fuels the pogroms that decimated our people then and continues to attack us even today.  Akselrod’s unflinching depiction arouses a historical memory shared by all Jews.

 

 

Pogrom # 40 (1927-1928) by Meer Akselrod

Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

 

Driven by a fearful Russian government from their provincial Belarusian hometown of Molodechno during the First World War, Akselrod’s family wandered across Russia, finally settling in Minsk in 1917.  As a developing artist he gravitated to Moscow and quickly became part of its thriving post-revolutionary artistic environment.  He was quickly lauded as a major talent and yet insisted on charting his own aesthetic course.  He did not seem to be influenced by the uniquely Russian modernism flourishing at the time, expressed by fellow landsman Marc Chagall or the emerging abstractions of Kandinsky and El Lissitzky. Those artists and others (many of them Jews) would blossom into the highly influential Russian Constructivism, itself espoused in the VHUTEMAS Institute that Akselrod taught in.  And yet he stood apart.  Independent.

Akselrod’s obsession was with his people.  He would sojourn out into the countless Jewish settlements in the countryside, searching for his subjects.  Mark (Meer) Moiseevich demanded: “No, We must live in a house, among the locals. To see the way of life.  Get to know people.  We must try and earn their trust and persuade them to pose for us ” When he was told there were plenty of Jews to paint in Moscow he replied: ” No, they’re not right. The types you’re talking about have become too familiar. There is no freshness of perception.  It’s all evaporating, slipping away, while there the Sholom Aleichem atmosphere has been retained ” He saw his job as preserving a vanishing Jewish culture.  And over and over he produced “a study of the prominent characteristic of types of Jewish poverty [significantly] an insight into the very essence of national character.”  The work of the 1920′s and 1930′s was touched by the expressionism of the times filtered through the influence of the School of Paris, distantly seen from mother Russia. And yet he insisted on his Jewish brethren as his subjects because that world must be preserved.  Akselrod’s artwork would not succumb to the newest dictates of official aesthetics, the Social Realism to celebrate the Party and the cut-out Heroes of the Revolution. 

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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