Solomon Yudovin at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center

The Three Yudovins and Yet Another One
Valery Dymshits
lechaim.ru
December 17, 2017

An artist is defined by the context in which people find him interesting and appreciate his work. This is not a new idea, but it is no less true for all that.

A native of the Belarusian shtetl Beshenkovichi, Leningrad graphic artist Solomon Yudovin (1892–1954) has not been forgotten, exactly, but nor is he widely known, and all because his oeure occupies several nonoverlapping contexts.


Solomon Yudovin, Beshenkovichi, 1933. Courtesy of Boris Faizullin

One of the most successful Soviet graphic artists, an acknowledged master of woodcuts and linocuts, and illustrator of editions of works by numerous Jewish writers, Yudovin showed his work nearly annually and was the subject of two monographs during his lifetime. After he died, he was exhibited and mentioned, but less often. The last major show of Yudovin’s work took place in 1956 in Leningrad.

Then he was remembered anew.

He was primarily recalled in Israel and, later, in Russia, in connection with his relative and mentor S. An-sky (Shloyme Rappoport), a writer and the father of Jewish ethnography. Yudovin was involved, as a photographer and artist, in An-sky’s renowned Jewish folk ethnography expeditions of 1912–1914, and they defined his artistic career over the next quarter century. Yudov’s engravings turned up again in various periodicals and books dealing with Eastern European Jews.  Yudovin was rightly seen as one of the principal artists of the old shetls, as an artist who had depicted their synagogues, old people, artisans, and, most important, the lush decorations on carved tombstones in their cemeteries. Yudovin was essentially the neoacademic alternative to the non-realist expressionist Marc Chagall, regarded as post-Soviet Russia’s primary Jewish artist. Yudovin and Chagall, who had been at loggerheads in Vitebsk during their lifetimes, were once again competitors, so to speak. Yudovin has even stole the limelight from Chagall (a seemingly impossible task) in terms of reproductions and collages on the covers of Jewish-themed books.

From the series Jewish Popular Ornamental Design, 1940. Courtesy of the Petersburg Judaica Center

Regardless of the so-called Jewish revival, Yudovin is remembered by those who write about the Nazi Siege of Leningrad or curate show dealing with the subject. Thanks to the series of linocuts Leningrad during the Great Fatherland War, Yudovin has come to be regarded as one of the most important Siege artists. His black-and-white, intolerably contrasty works from the war years and first postwar years produce a fascinating image of the dead city, whose horrifying beauty was so often described in diaries by people who witnessed the Siege firsthand. Yudovin’s self-portrait—of an artist doggedly laboring in an unheated studio—has become a primary visual symbol of the Siege.

Those who remember the Jewish Yudovin rarely remember the Siege Yudovin, and vice versa, despite the fact they had a lot in common. We could argue that Yudovin, with his skill in producing moribund, balanced compositions, and his powers of concentration, which was at odds with the empirical commotion of impressionism, was best equipped to deal with the topic of death. His famous engraving Burial in a Shtetl anticipated his images of Leningraders, carrying their dead on sledges.

In recent years, yet another, previously unknown aspect of Yudovin’s talent has been discovered. Due to the efforts of the Petersburg Judaica Center (where I have the honor to work), hundreds of photographs taken by Yudovin during the An-sky expeditions have been unearthed and published. These photographs have proven not only highly informative works, but also and primarily works of high art. Solomon Yudovin the pictoriailist has taken an honorary place alongside Alter Kacyzne and Roman Vishnyak, the principal photo portraitists of the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry.  Our only regret is that Yudovin, who produced brilliant photographs in his youth, never again took up a camera. Perhaps he deemed his work as a graphic artist superior to the craft of the photographer. Maybe Yudovin was brought up short by the fact that pictorialism, so attractive to him in his youth, had gone out of fashion and, moreover, was persecuted in the 1920s. Whatever the case, photography was a brief albeit vivid episode in his artistic career. Now, however, the photographs have also occupied a prominent place in numerous Jewish publications of recent years.

Having become a graphic artist, Yudovin ceased being a photographer. However, the photographs he took in the early twentieth century were to play a hidden but significant role in the history of Jewish art. They were a source of motifs and compositions for the graphic works of Yudovin himself (until he gave up Jewish subjects), and then were the basis of illustrations of the works of Sholom Aleichem by the much more famous artist Nathan Altman.

Solomon Yudovin is remembered in his guises as Jewish artist, Siege artist, and art photographer. It turns out, however, that Yudovin had a fourth guise, a most unexpected on.

One of the last Jewish institutions in prewar Leningrad was the Yakov Sverdlov Jewish House of Education (Yevdomprosvet), which survived until 1938 along with similar institutions for other ethnic minorities in the building at 10 Nekrasov Street, the current home of the city’s Bolshoi Puppet Theater. The Yevdomprosvet operated a theater studio in which amateur actors, guided by professional director Lev Mursky, staged plays in Yiddish. Yudovin was the stage and costume designer for two productions by this group: Draftees (1934) and The Call-Up (1936), based on the play by Mendele Mocher Sforim. Mursky’s papers, stored in the archives of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center, yielded a set of costume and scenery sketches done by Yudovin. This new, seemingly unrecognizable Yudovin is cheerful, quite lively and, most surprisingly, polychromatic, and there is a touch of the grotesque and satirical in his work. In a word, this is a fourth, hitherto unknown Yudovin.

Tailor, Costume Sketch for Staging of the Play “Draftees,” 1934. Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center

These four incarnations of Solomon Yudovin are on diplay at the exhibition From Beshenkovichi to Leningrad, which opened on the 125th anniversary of the artist’s birth at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center at 3 Rubinstein Street. The Petersburg Judaica Center loaned photographs from the An-sky expeditions and woodcuts from the series Jewish Popular Ornamental Design. Petersburg collector Boris Faizullin supplied drawings and engravings from different periods, including the Siege, while the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center has exhibited the works for the theater. The show has necessarily taken the shape of a sketch of sorts, but at the same time it is representative. All four Yudovins have finally met. Perhaps someday the Russian Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery or one of Moscow’s Jewish museums will remember the work of the classic Soviet graphic artist, but until that happens, hurry over to Rubinstein Street. From Beshenkovichi to Leningrad runs until mid January.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Dmitry Kalugin: Bruce Willis vs. Brad Pitt

you can trust bruce willis“Bruce Willis. A loan in ten minutes. Trust Bank.” Mayakovsky Street, Petersburg, April 22, 2012. Trust Bank’s managers and employees were charged with fraud in April 2015. The bank received a $500 million emergency bailout from the Russian Central Bank in December 2014. Photo by the Russian Reader

Dmitry Kalugin
Facebook
December 15, 2017

Yesterday, I got chatting with the saleswoman in the basement where I buy smuggled coffee. Looking at my gray face, she saw signs I had not been getting enough shut-eye.

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve been sleeping badly. Nightmares have been messing with my head.”

“Well, the dreams I dream are totally screwed up. Take yesterday, for example. I dreamt I was getting married to Brad Pitt. It was like the thing was settled, the whole megillah. But my heart was topsy-turvy, because I don’t love him.”

“Who do you love?”

“Bruce Willis. I like him more as an actor and as a person.”

“Well,” I said, “if that is the hand dealt you (I’m no expert, of course), Brad Pitt is no bad bet, either.”

“I told myself the same thing. Why you mucking around? You’ve lived your whole life ass-backwards. Finally, a good option comes along: Brad Pitt. What else could you want?”

“Yeah, definitely a good option.”

“On the other hand, no way! Because I like somebody else, Bruce Willis. I realize it looks strange, but I can’t force myself. Basically, things are complicated.”

“So, how did it end? Did you get married?”

“I didn’t get anything. I woke up completely confused.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Mr. Kalugin for his kind permission to translate and publish his feuilleton on this website.

Personality Cult Pinups

putin-2018 calendar-january
The president has the appropriate attire and beverage for a chilly January photoshoot.

Earlier today, I was shopping at my local Auchan hypermarket when I happened upon this “2018 Gift Calendar,” featuring Russia’s well-known President for Life and foremost sovereign democrat in twelve inspiring poses.

At 37.09 rubles apiece (around 54 euro cents), the calendars are a steal. Some of my friends and relatives may balk and even barf when they unwrap their presents on Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s this year, but decades from now they will thank me for having given them a collector’s item that is sure to quintuple in value, at least, as its subject’s fourth term in office extends to a fifth, segues into a sixth, drags on into a seventh, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

Sure, the cashier looked at me a little funny when this and another personality pinup calendar I had found in the store were rolling down the belt towards her scanner, but she was probably just a tad envious. TRR

putin-2018 calendar-cover
“Our President: A 2018 Gift Calendar”
putin-2018 calendar-page one
2018 at a glance with the world’s favorite marathon mansplainer.
putin-2018 calendar-back cover
“Jack of all trades and a master of none, how can a person get anything done?”

_________________

If you’re led around by the nose
You’ll never get to see how the garden grows.
And if you go for the shovel and the hoe
You can’t stop and smell the roses.
Eighteen things at once,
You spread yourself so thin.
You could not find a basket
To put all your eggs in.
Well, Mike, he rowed the boat ashore,
The emperor got some brand new clothes,
But when you walk and chew the gum
You gotta lose a little of something.
Jack of all trades and a master of none,
How can a person get anything done?
You can fool yourself, you can fool anyone.
Jack, jack, jack, jack, jack, jack, jack, jack,
Jack of all trades . . .
—Volcano Suns, “Jak,” from the 1985 LP The Bright Orange Years

Valery Dymshits: Petersburg as Mistletoe

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Valery Dymshits
Facebook
October 26, 2017

In May 2016, the Akhmatova Museum hosted an event entitled Debates on Europe, featuring all sorts of outstanding people. I don’t know why, but I was invited, too. We were asked to talk about Petersburg and its place in Europe. I was also part of a special panel, entitled “How Do We See History? How Do We Deal with the Past?” I spoke my mind honestly. Today, I came across the two talks on my computer and thought I mostly agree with myself, so why not post them. So I am posting them. This is the first one, about Petersburg.

The City as Mistletoe
I probably will not be saying anything new if I note that Petersburg was originally built as the world’s largest cargo cult site. Peter the Great and his heirs firmly believed that by reproducing certain forms—and only the forms!—of European architecture and town planning, they would create a great country, a country that would rival or surpass Europe’s best countries.

When I went to Amsterdam, I was amazed by Petersburg’s resemblance to it. (Yet Amsterdam does not look at all like Petersburg, just as children resemble their parents, not vice versa.) In Amsterdam, I noticed that most of the buildings in the historic center had been built in the mid seventeenth century: the dates they were built were displayed on the façades. The entirety of Amsterdam’s huge historic center had been developed literally over twenty to thirty years. It was then I understood Peter the Great’s choice. It was not just the case that Amsterdam was among the magnificent, rich cities of Europe, but unlike Paris and other cities, it had been built not over the course of centuries, but in a few decades. Peter the Great realized that if he built another Amsterdam, so to speak, there was a chance of not only creating a hotbed of European civilization in Russia but also of living to see the project completed. This, of course, is a pure manifestation of the cargo cult.

An airplane hewn from the trunk of a palm tree may never fly, but it can be the pride and joy of an ethnographic museum’s collection. Russia did not become Europe, but Petersburg and its environs came to be a wonderful artwork, a huge artifact. I mean the Petersburg of the palaces and parks, cathedrals and embankments.

But there is another Petersburg, the one were we live. This is the city of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, built after the launch of Emperor Alexander II’s great reforms. It is the city of huge tenement houses, lush façades, and endless courtyards. This Petersburg was not a frozen magic crystal nor a miraculous receptacle supposed to attract the spirits of Europe with its outward shapes. It was a city of banks and factories, shops and slums: a normal city. We love it no less than we love the city of palaces. The loading cranes in the port and factory smokestacks dominate the city’s skyline as much as its domes and spires do.

But this city, in turn, woud not have emerged if the the first city had not been built. (And it was certainly built on the bones of its builders: animist religions involve human sacrifice.) A cargo cult is a religion and, as such, is no worse than any other religion. A religion’s truth is defined by the fanaticism of its adherents. The Russian cargo cult fashioned a great, artifact-like city. Like a colony of honey fungus inhabiting an old stump, another city sprang up from the first city, and this second city was real.

In fact, the Slavophile critics of Petersburg and the Petersburg period of Russian history were right when they argued that substantial homegrown grounds were needed to really build a great country, not empty, borrowed shapes. But by the time this criticism had become widespread, from the Populists on the left to the Black Hundreds on the right, it had already lost its main justification. Petersburg had become a natural, organic phenomenon, something that had sprung from the culture, not from the soil. As second nature, culture is no worse than nature per se.

Petersburg resembles mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of other trees. Mistletoe is quite beautiful. Since antiquity, it has been a symbol of life, and it was used as an amulet. The Romans and the Celts believed in mistletoe’s miraculous powers. It was a symbol of peace among the Scandinavians. It was hung on the outside of houses as a token travelers would be provided shelter there. If enemies happened to meet under a tree on which mistletoe grew, they were bound to lay down their weapons and not fight anymore that day. Mistletoe protected houses from thunder and lightning, from witches and maleficent spirits.

I would argue it is productive to compare Petersburg with mistletoe, with a beautiful, sacred, safeguarding parasite. We know that people do not quarrel under the mistletoe, but kiss and make up. Petersburg did not make Russia Europe, but the city has become a place where Russia can meet and talk with Europe. This is more or less understood by everyone, by the Russian regime and by its opponents.

Every country, region, and city tries to develop by relying on its own resources. Our resource is distilled culture, cut off from all soil. Let us imagine the Hermitage Museum is a typical mineral deposit, something like an oil well. It differs from other major museums since it is not a cultural feature of a major country and major city, as the Louvre is a a cultural feature of France and Paris. On the contrary, to a certain extent Petersburg is a feature of the Hermitage. I am not speaking of tourists. They have places to go besides Petersburg. I am arguing that, having emerged as the shrine of a cargo cult, Petersburg gradually turned into a condensed expression of European cultural know-how, projected onto a wasteland. The know-how was all the more important, since European cultural shapes have been purged, in Petersburg, of all ethnic specificity. It is a generalized Europe.

The question of how to fill these shapes is open. It is open to everyone: to Europeans, Russians, and Petersburgers alike.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. I would like to thank Valery Dymshits for his kind permission to let me translate his essay and publish it here.