Boy in Profile (1928) by Meer Akselrod
Courtesy of Estate of Meer Akselrod
A brilliant example is a simple portrait in profile of a young man done in 1928. Almost classical in proportion and its central placement on the page, this drawing is nonetheless quite modern in its selective approach, only giving us the essential information to define clothing, pose and character. However it is the deep introspection of the lad depicted that sets this drawing quite apart, inviting us into his interior universe of hope, expectation and anxiety. Placing this young Jew in the dangerous turmoil of Soviet Russia moves this artwork into the realm of historical commentary.
Akselrod’s skills as a portraitist were evident early in his career and helped sustain him as a working artist. Interestingly they extended to inanimate objects as well, as we can see from his frontal depiction of The Red House in Minsk (1928). Again there is a classical balance of the composition that allows us to move around the spaces of the painting without getting lost, as it were. The three-windowed dormer crowning the roof is echoed by the woman seated on the bench in the foreground, firmly holding the center of the image, top and bottom. We are intrigued by the contrast between the solid brick house and its incongruous aspects of ruin and disrepair on each side. Since we don’t know its use or function, the Red House remains a delightful mystery.
Red House in Minsk (1928) by Meer Akselrod
Courtesy of Estate of Meer Akselrod
From the mid-1930’s Akselrod was involved with the famous Moscow State Jewish Theater and its regional affiliates as a set and costume designer. This was one of the few places in Stalin’s Soviet Union that a Jew could express themselves in Yiddish and admit some form of Yiddishkiet. For an artist like Akselrod it was an aesthetic oasis in a sea of Socialist Realism. He worked on many different projects, including Sholom Aleichem’s “The Enchanted Tailor.”
It was with this material that Akselrod flourished even under the harshest conditions. In 1941 he was exiled to predominately Muslim Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, a location over 2500 miles from Moscow, near the Chinese border. A common wartime tactic of Stalin was to move vulnerable industries far from the German front and to punish troublesome artists and intellectuals with internal exile. Nonetheless the drawing from the “Enchanted Tailor” series done in this time is a masterpiece of succinct illustration. His crisp economy of line and confidence in every detail lends a liveliness and spirit to the image that evokes the narrative even if you are not familiar with the text. A portly chassid is pontificating on his porch while a poor stranger schlepping along with his trustworthy goat listens, seemingly unable to pass quietly by. Indeed the story concerns a poor tailor who is sent by his wife to buy a goat to help feed his family and has innumerable mysterious adventures in attempting to return home. Akselrod captures the heart of the story perfectly.
Enchanted Tailor (ca. 1944) by Meer Akselrod
Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute
Towards the end of his life Akselrod turned his attention to a subject that directly related to his earlier concern with pogroms: the Holocaust. Here the sufferings of his people were couched in images that were slowly emerging in the artistic consciousness of the time, mainly the use of the crematorium chimney. It is in Smoke (1969) that the artist seeks to combine the horror of the slaughter and cremation of millions of Jews and the survival of a “saving remnant.” The Jews depicted in the foreground in concentration camp stripped uniforms seem to walk away from the fearsome furnace behind them. They propose a kind of collective memory and empathy for those of us who did not live through those events, but knew them from afar.