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January 22, 2017 / 24 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Chassidic Art Institute’

Zaslavsky’s Jews

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Chassidic Art Institute

375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn

718 774 9140

Until January 23, 2012

Jewish artists do the darndest things. The Chassidic Art Institute, expertly directed by Zev Markowitz, is currently showing the works of Venyamin Zaslavsky, a Ukrainian Jewish artist who has devoted the last 20 years to depictions of pious Jewish life in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Considering his own homeland, the Ukraine, and its historic prejudices, his choice of subject matter is counter-intuitive at best. And yet Jewish artists do the darndest things.

Zaslavsky was born in 1936 in Kiev, the Ukraine. After the war he attended the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and mastered the deeply conservative and academic approach to the visual arts still prevalent under the Stalinist socialist realism. As a result of his education and his innate creativity from 1967 until 1991 he was the principle artist of the Kiev Opera Theater creating costumes, sets and theater designs for more than 70 productions. Additionally he taught theater design at the Kiev Art Institute, produced numerous Ukrainian landscapes and was a member of the Ukrainian Union of Theater Arts. He was, by all accounts, a great success.

And then in 1991 he started creating paintings focused on pious Jews depicted in Israel. Perhaps the two most reviled subjects possible in his native Ukraine. And yet Zaslavsky persisted. It should be noted that the date of Zaslavsky’s artistic reawakening also coincides with the demise of the totalitarian and anti-Semitic Soviet Union and the relative freedom under the subsequent independent states. And yet this does not explain his radical shift in subject matter. Just because a subject became marginally permissible does not explain why he delved headlong into Jewish subjects. Rather, one can only assume deeply felt issues of the heart and soul demanded expression and simply could no longer be suppressed. Zaslavsky yielded to his Jewish passion and threw caution to the winds.

The current exhibition at CHAI provides a sampling of his recent work and reveals important insights into this neglected 75-year-old artist. His scenes of Jerusalem predominate with the Western Wall crowds, bar mitzvahs, colorful back alleys and side streets well represented. Over the years he has represented other parts of Israel including Safed. The defining element in almost all these works is the presence of religious Jews, usually chassidim, with children. In fact children are everywhere.

Beit Berger, (40 x 30) oil on canvas by Venyamin Zaslavsky. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

Beit Berger, a large Satmar chederin Jerusalem, is lovingly depicted in Zaslavsky’s painting as literally overflowing with children. A group of boys are being escorted by two teachers and a woman down the stairs and into the courtyard in front of the school while a host of their classmates watch them from the balcony above. Some of them are gesturing through the railing while others have settled down with their tiny feet sticking through the same railing. One can almost hear the cheerful din of happy children. In a major compositional motif the movement in the painting begins up in the crowded balcony, moves down the stairs and then follows still more children as they walk under the archway and back into the painting, finally moving up the steps to a waiting group of older boys. In what is practically a “portrait” of this institution, the variety of clothing and mix of different kinds of people on the street, even including a woman who is simply out shopping, is refreshing insight. And while it is almost certain that this painting, as with many others, was done from photographs, the artist has taken great care to compose all the figures into small groups that relate to one another in a well-organized organic flow.

Western Wall, oil on canvas by Venyamin Zaslavsky. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

The same compositional care is taken is his iconic Western Wall that shows no less than 150 people praying, visiting, coming and going throughout the Western Wall plaza. The greatest concentration of figures is predictably in the men’s section right in front of the wall. Spreading out from there across the plaza are various groupings; three chassidim clad in streimels and talleisim stride toward the entrance, two black hats in the foreground likewise approach while numerous men walk away with one, two or more children in tow, some with strollers, others escorting what seems to be a class of kids. Brightly dressed tourists observe the crowd and right in the middle we can make out a man photographing his family with the Wall as holy backdrop. And in a polite gesture to Jewish sensibilities, the artist has even removed the troublesome Dome of the Rock mosque. For all of its “realism” we can observe that the image was taken from an older photograph since it shows the old earthen ramp to the Temple Mount itself that collapsed in 2004 and was replaced with a temporary wooden structure.

Richard McBee

Shapiro’s Midrash

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Paintings from Midrash by Brian Shapir0

Chassidic Art Institute

November 6 – December 8

375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn (718) 774-9149

Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday


The midrashic world is a dangerous place to inhabit.  It delves into our sacred texts to fathom their deeper meanings, solve vexing textual and conceptual problems and, finally, make sense of the holy words in contemporary terms.  Midrash is passionate and deeply creative, like the current midrashic paintings of Brian Shapiro.

Sea of Reeds (2010), oil on canvas, 12x12 by Brian Shapiro.

Shapiro is no stranger to Jewish themes; his enormous canvas, Generations, a tour-de-force of Jewish history, was reviewed in this column in August 2010.  Since then, the artist has become increasingly mesmerized by biblical subjects seen through a midrashic lens.  The lure of midrashic interpretation satisfies the need to know the details and specifics of many biblical narratives, i.e. the precise textures of how and why events unfolded in the devastatingly spare Torah text.  For a figurative artist like Shapiro, the multitude of midrashic exposition is a reassuring link with a tangible reality to anchor the text in this world.

Jacob and the Angel purports to depict the epic struggle between Jacob and a mysterious being who is either an emissary of God or the protecting angel of Jacob’s dangerous brother, Esav.  Based on a midrash in Beraishes Rabbah the artist shows the angel holding Jacob’s hand over a roaring fire.  While the midrash expounds that the angel stuck his hand into the earth and a volcano of flames erupted threatening Jacob, the painting doesn’t simply illustrate that event.  Rather, if we observe closely, both figures are indeed struggling not only between themselves, but are significantly repulsed by some unseen force off the left edge of the painting.  In fact, both angel and Jacob are aghast at what they perceive.  Indeed it is the mutual recognition that this primeval sibling struggle will reverberate throughout the millennia.   It seals the fate of soon to be named Yisrael and the nation who will descend from him with a terrible and bloody future.

The theme of sibling rivalry and conflict is of course central to many Biblical narratives, most especially that of Joseph and his brothers.  Shapiro’s Joseph and Brothersis terrifyingly on target.  The brothers, all turbaned except one, appear to be engaged in what in contemporary Israel would be called a “lynch.”   Most of the eleven have staffs that are used to threaten, push and drive the helpless half-naked Joseph off the edge of a precipice.   What is extraordinary is the ferocious compact energy of brotherly hatred revealed in bright daytime clarity.   A lone bareheaded brother is at the extreme left, looking away in concern as he holds Joseph’s many-colored cloak.  In this one bald figure is all the cunning and unacknowledged guilt of fratricide.  This figure represents none other than Reuven who pleaded with the rest not to murder Joseph and yet finally fashioned the vicious lie to his father with Joseph’s bloodied coat.  Here the artist has, by thinking midrashically, actually summoned the literal biblical text most evocatively.

Moses and the Rock (2010), oil on canvas, 24x30 by Brian Shapiro.

While much ancient midrash traditionally has the textual authority of the oral tradition transmitted by the Sages, it also must be seen in the dual contexts of the original textual “problem” and actual date the collections were finally redacted.  Nonetheless, regardless of date, all Torah commentary remains a vibrant source of contemporary understanding of sacred text.  Even a contemporary artist, passionate about the complexities of Torah narrative, can offer unique insights into the stories our tradition celebrates.   Sea of Reeds is an example of Shapiro’s contribution to midrashic exposition.  Significantly, in this exhibition the artist has explicitly offered his midrashic sources and explanations for each of the paintings.

Richard McBee

Meer Akselrod: Painting His People

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Chassidic Art Institute

375 Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn; 718-774-9149

Sunday – Thursday from Noon – 7pm

Zev Markowitz, Director


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. 

Richard McBee

Bloom’s Bittersweet Vision: Paintings by Lloyd Bloom

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Chassidic Art Institute

375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11213;  (718) 774 9149

Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday; Zev Markowitz, director

Until June 22, 2010




Upon entering Lloyd Bloom’s exhibition at the Chassidic Art Institute one is confronted by the sweet beautiful image of a lamb skipping through the air in a puffy cloud landscape.  Right next to it is an image of a goat kid cuddled up in the lap of a young shepherd.  Further down the wall we see paintings depicting a young man leining from the Torah, then women lighting Shabbos candles and finally a father and son at the seder table, all candidates to be the most emblematic scene of Jewish life imaginable.  So too an emotional scene showing a crowd of traditional Jews embracing each other sweeps us away on a wave of familiar emotions.  All true until one picks up the gallery list of paintings with each work’s title.  Little by little the façade falls away and a much more serious and tragic patina adjusts the meaning of these intriguing artworks.


That skipping lamb is actually, according to the artist, symbolic of Passover.  In other words, he will be dinner.  The image of the goat kid is titled Chad Gadya and we all know what happens to that little animal after the first stanza of the Passover song. The meager seder table with the dreamy eyed son listening to his father is actually set in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Unlikely is “Next Year in Jerusalem,” this may be their last.  In all of these images, Bloom is not trying to be maudlin; rather he simply anchors our common Jewish experiences in the real world of Jewish history.


My review of Lloyd Bloom’s work graced these pages five years ago when I commented on his use of unique perspectives to create visual interest and uncommon meanings.  Upon revisiting some of his older work and seeing the new work, there are considerably more treasures to be unearthed.  Reconsidering his painting of Lot and his Daughters yields a more tragic painting; the father and his children are terrified at what appears to be the end of their world.  Their mad dash to the illusion of safety foretells the fate of many a Jewish family in a still threatening world.


Lot and his Daughters, acrylic on paper by Lloyd Bloom

Courtesy the Chassidic Art Institute


So too the lush and deceptive image known as the Controversial Tree.  The thick leafy plant sports festive red fruit and initially harkens to the burning bush that is until a brown spotted snake is seen peeking out from beneath the ample foliage.  His evil head, defined by an all too attentive eye, is clearly seen near the top of the bush, a red forked tongue darting from his mouth.  It is the uneasy combination of pleasant lushness, a flora that seems bountiful and life giving; but here infested with malevolent animal nature, that makes this image so unsettling.  In the loss of our primal innocence, why is the source of the knowledge of good and evil so threatening?


Controversial Tree, acrylic on paper by Lloyd Bloom

Courtesy the Chassidic Art Institute



Perhaps as we begin to lose innocence we are forced to confront the elemental nature of evil.  The tragedy is that this removes us from the Divine, separates us from a realm of unity and dumps us into the reality of a world hopelessly mixed up with good, evil and all the sorted variations in between.  In some sense that is the meaning of another of Bloom’s paintings: David and Goliath


David and Goliath, acrylic on paper by Lloyd Bloom

Courtesy the Chassidic Art Institute



David is depicted as a lad, barely a teenager.  He stands with boyish pride, the enormous sword measuring two thirds of his entire height. And indeed Tanach treats him as such saying “for he was but a boy, ruddy and handsome” (Samuel 1:43).  And yet he holds the massive head of the slain Goliath, much like the 1610 version of this subject by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio.  And yet the differences are telling.  Here David is supremely confident, not doubting like the Caravaggio, and furthermore Bloom provides us with the lifeless body of the fallen Philistine as evidence of his victory.  At first it is visually uncertain as to what is happening.  Then slowly we see that Goliath’s body is upside down, his severed neck at David’s feet.  This provides an additional triumph for David in the form of a visual decapitation, the literal reversal whereas the head is normally on the top, now the body is turned around and is violently separated from its commander.  The shock of a fallen mighty warrior is quite enough to animate this painting, and yet here even the lifeless Goliath intimates his terrible failure, the thumb of his limp hand gestures towards his severed neck admitting defeat.  Of course in the contrast between fresh-faced youth and his powerful victim the most substantive reading is that it is David’s innocence that has been slain here.  Welcome to the real world.


David and Goliath, oil on canvas by Caravaggio

Courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome


Finally Bloom’s image of Jews embracing.  At first glance it is simply a tightly composed image of individuals embracing.  Shallow space and an aerial perspective bring us very close to the subjects. The couple in the lower left sets the tone of deep affection with a cheek to cheek hug while just above them a father is about to embrace a child held up to him by a woman. To the right the man with his back to us simultaneously embraces two children.  Almost everyone’s eyes are closed, so deep is their emotional concentration.  The title To Auschwitz shocks us as we are forced to reevaluate the meaning of the emotions we see depicted.  Suddenly the intensity is of fear and loss, not joy.  The scene begins to narrate into a future that we know and yet these figures could never guess.  What could have been a joyous welcome or a fond farewell now sours into impending tragedy.


To Auschwitz, acrylic on paper by Lloyd Bloom

Courtesy the Chassidic Art Institute


Lloyd Bloom is an accomplished and deeply sensitive artist.  He intuitively knows exactly which moment needs to be captured to remind us of the importance of the subject at hand; whether the joys of ordinary Jewish life, an episode from our sacred history or the tragic moments that seem to haunt our people for millennia.  He finds the most meaning in the interstices between image and text, between what we initially think we are looking at and what the text, via the title, subverts and transforms.  The visual experience he confronts us with is inherently Jewish, a constant dialogue between two ways of thinking, multiple concepts simultaneously juggled and suspended in mid-air. It’s a visual and intellectual pleasure not to be missed.



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

Richard McBee

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/blooms-bittersweet-vision-paintings-by-lloyd-bloom-2/2010/06/09/

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