Two highly successful artists, the husband and wife team of Emmanuil and Janet Snitkovsky, are currently exhibiting a selection of eight large Judaic paintings at the Chassidic Art Institute in Crown Heights. Three of those paintings are truly singular visions of Jewish Art that cause us to stop and reassess our preconceptions about the meaning and importance of their subjects.
Emmanuil and Janet Snitkovsky were both born in the Ukraine in the 1930’s. Emmanuil was trained in Odessa in public monument art, and Janet majored in fashion at the Lvov Decorative Art Institute. After both narrowly survived the devastation of the Second World War in Stalin’s Russia, they began to collaborate on state sponsored art works in 1962. For ten years, they worked on grandiose public sculptural projects to commemorate the fallen Russian heroes of the Second World War in Moscow, Kiev, Tula and Kazan. They were exemplary Soviet Realists working for the Soviet regime. Eventually, this career became untenable for them, both as artists and as Jews, when they clashed with Soviet officialdom over a commission to commemorate the Babi-Yar massacre.
The Soviets refused to acknowledge this massacre of 100,000 Jews and eventually suppressed the memorial. In 1978, Emmanuil and Janet arrived in New York and began to recreate their artistic lives. In the ensuing 25 years, they have been quite successful, exhibiting widely in the United States and Europe.
They have nurtured a hybrid style of painting and sculpture called “Renaissance Revival” combining contemporary and classical subjects in a stylized realism that evokes both the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton and the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. The works are highly proficient, polished, and commercial productions in a quirky decorative style. They have continued to accept sculptural projects that have not shied away from kitschy realistic sculptures of Charlie Chaplin as “The Kid,” The Little Tramp” and Buster Keaton as “Cameramen.” In some ways, they have appropriated American culture just as they once accepted Soviet culture.
Young Hasid With Sefer Torah presents a parody of a stock sentimental image of youthful pietistic devotion. All the elements are there, a young hasid with peyos nearly as long as his talis katan peeking out from under his shin length beckesheh. He grasps the Sefer Torah, somewhat magically supporting its weight, as he strides across a black and white tiled floor.
Incongruously, a white bird follows him bearing a single lit candle that perhaps announces some kind of mystical wedding. The image becomes stranger as we notice that the background, a storied city and turbulent sky, presumably Jerusalem, is but a painted backdrop. Now the two fragments of a talis seen on each side of the painting fall into place as a kind of curtain that frames the iconic hasid with his Sefer Torah. In this painting, Snitkovsky comments on the stock image that it may be simply a play unveiled before a cardboard holy city. Certainly not what we might expect.
Moses And The Reed Sea is a similarly jarring image. Moses is striding forward, the waves beating a hasty retreat from his aggressive steps. An octopus glares out at us as his abode is uncovered by the great Jewish leader marching forward led by a pure white sea gull, perhaps representing an angel. B’nai Yisroel follow obediently in a long line that stretches back to the pyramids at the horizon, watched over by a lone Masonic Eye floating in the sky. This curious combination, the All Seeing Eye and the Pyramids, is a motif found on the back of the U.S one dollar bill. Moses, grasping a bamboo staff in one hand and a mysterious scroll in the other is depicted as a force of nature, his hair and beard blowing just like dramatically furious storm clouds. Emmanuil and Janet’s wit and charm bring us into the heart of the mythic narrative that seems be pointing to a latter-day Exodus out of American materialism and into an unknown future Promised Land.
What makes these paintings exciting is that each uses traditional Jewish imagery to reassess normative values and assumptions. We would not normally think of a young hasid as a play-actor or of Moses at the Reed Sea as a driven contemporary figure, and yet Snitkovsky’s paintings push us towards these thoughts. The next painting goes even further to uncover a layer of meaning about the nature of wisdom.
The Judgment of Solomon, painted in 1981, presents an iconic vision of exactly how the wise King Solomon made his famous decision between two women who both claimed the same infant (Kings 1; 3:16-28). Both women are clad in a warm red dress framing King Solomon. There is a poetic dance of six hands, each expressing one aspect of the narrative. Solomon symbolically threatens the child (nestled in a basket between the women) as his raised hand magically balances a sword that floats above his right shoulder. Solomon’s evenhandedness is the cunning stimulus to resolution as his gesture slices between the competing claims. The woman on the left seems willing to give up the child to save its life, pushing the basket away, while the other gestures dramatically that “Neither mine nor yours shall he be. Cut!”
Snitkovsky’s mannered rendition of gesture, costume and lighting add to the drama to allow us to fully appreciate Solomon’s wisdom just before the matter was resolved. King Solomon looks directly at us, challenging us to decide as the tension of the moment becomes close to unbearable. The artist’s point yet again is to bring the audience into the fabric of the narrative to engage us in the complexities of judgment that are as fully relevant today as they were close to three thousand years ago.
Emmanuil and Janet Snitkovsky have utilized their popular and commercial style to develop a successful career in America. When they turn their talents to Jewish subject matter, a very different kind of artistic success ensues. The Jewish art that emerges is one in which Jewish piety, leadership and even wisdom are examined through a vision forged in the restrictive crucible of Soviet Realism and developed in the heady surrealism of American popular culture. They force us to share their turbulent history that endured a totalitarian dictatorship and the jarring encounter with a brash America. After seeing these challenging paintings, these Jewish subjects will never be quite the same.
Emmanuil And Janet Snitkovsky – Paintings Chassidic Art Institute – 375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11213; (718) 774-9149. Noon – 7 p.m.; Sunday – Thursday: Zev Markowitz, director.
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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