March 08

ARTSESSION 2007: Contemporary Israeli Artists from Russia

Marina Genkina

This essay by Marina Genkina is excerpted from the introduction to a new catalog of Israeli-Russian artists titled ARTSESSION 2007: Contemporary Israeli Artists from Russia (© 2007). Originally written in Russian, it was translated by Isaac Gorelic and Sonia Kunova-Gorelic for ARTSESSION 2007. This essay is a forerunner of Zeek’s forthcoming print edition, Zeek: Russified, featuring the sophisticated, multilayered work coming out of the Russian Jewish community. ARTSESSION 2007 was financed by the artists whose work is represented, along with support from Mikhail Rozentov of ROZ Publishing House and Anatoly Baratynsky, a featured artists and originator and organizer of the catalog.

- David Stromberg, Russian Print Issue Editor and Zeek Assistant Editor

This catalog is the first venture of its kind: we present the works of forty-seven artists who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

This publication serves several goals, one of which is presenting these Russian-speaking artists together, despite the wide variety of media, techniques, styles and genres in which they work. Notwithstanding their differences in age, education and region of origin within the Soviet Union, there are common denominators that unite them all. Foremost are the Russian language and the Russian culture in which they were brought up, with all its associations and allusions. Further, they share their complex experience of life in the Soviet Union - a country so completely different from Israel – a totalitarian and imperial country, large in size, with different values and a different environment; a different physical world, a country with a different light.

The artists represented here are professionals with a solid art education background who have achieved success in their countries of birth as well as in Israel. Almost all of them have had numerous exhibitions (some artists could not even recall them all) but only the most important of them are listed in this catalog. Most of the artists in this book, however, remain practically unknown to Israeli art patrons or to the art establishment.

It is not the purpose of this introduction to blame anyone or any set of institutions for this situation. But it is important to try and find out why it is so. Why, after so many years does a “wall” still separate “Russian-speaking” artists from Israeli artists? This separation exists not only between the artists, but generally between immigrants and veteran Israeli citizens. Thus, the second and third goals for the publication of this catalog are to introduce these Russian-speaking artists to a wider public, and to explore their work in a well-presented compilation that also explains the reason for their marginal existence.

Presently their existence truly is marginal, in spite of the fact that the mass media, politicians and representatives of the Israeli art establishment continuously spout the mantra of “the immense contribution of Russian aliyah to Israeli culture.” The questions then are: What is the contribution by Russian-speaking artists to Israeli art, and, indeed, is there a contribution? What is the place of Russian-speaking artists in the Israeli art establishment, and, do they, in fact, have a place there? It would seem that no one knows and no one is trying to find out. While the influence of the art of various waves of immigrants on Israeli art in the first half of the twentieth century is well known and documented in detail, the same cannot be said about the end of the twentieth century.

Artists of the 1970s

Neither this catalog as a whole, nor this introduction will provide comprehensive answers to these questions, but at least we begin to contemplate them. Let us first look at what happened to Russian-speaking Israeli artists of the early 1970s. At that time, several artists arrived from Russia, some of whom today are among those few who are well-known here: Michail Grobman, T. Preminger, Yan Rauchwerger, and Meir Pichhadze, as well as artists belonging to the group “Aleph”: Eugene Abeshaus, Anatoly Basin, Tania Kornfeld, and Sasha Okun. In 1977, the artists Komar and Melamid arrived in Israel, but they left for the USA shortly after.

While the nature of artistic circles of Israel in the 1970s was different from that of today, their attitudes towards the newly arrived artists has not changed much since. Here is how Michail Grobman and Sasha Okun describe their reception:

at that time, in the 1970s, in Israel, nobody knew anything about the art scene of Russia. What officially appeared here – the exhibitions of the Soviet art – was pathetic. The Israeli art establishment did not know and did not care to find out about “Russian” art, since the art of the second Russian avant-garde was not in the least similar to Israeli or American art. All that was known of Russia was that it was poor and desolate and not much seemed to be evolving there and the same notion existed of Russian art. (From my interview with Grobman, “Kontekst”, July 31, 2003).

If anything, Sasha Okun is more cynical:

Any establishment, particularly a young establishment, has the tendency to be aggressive and to defend itself from outsiders. Always and everywhere, art organizations are built on the mafia principle – once you get right up to the trough, feed and keep your place; do not let others elbow in, otherwise your share will be smaller. Therefore, the reaction of the Israeli art establishment to the arrival of “Russian” artists was mixed: they received a politically correct welcome, but in reality they were pushed away.

There was, however, a rational for the rejection. Israel, being a young and western-styled country, was following the path of “normal” art development – in the 1920s it was following Paris, in the 1930s it was following German Bauhaus, and by the 1970s it was following New York. At the time when Israel was following New York, a great number of “Russian” artists arrived who in their artistic development lagged behind the West by at least a century. This was probably because, except in rare cases, it was traditional artists of the Russian mould who arrived. They were immediately labeled as ‘retrograde reactionaries.’ Later, opinion started to change but in the late 1970s, all “Russian” artists were considered retrograde and provincial. In the 1990s it became known that all “Russian” artists were excellent draughtsmen. This is unfair: not all of them were good draughtsmen and not all of them were provincials. (From interview with “i” correspondent, Natalya Zubkova, N 37, October 9, 2001).

It is common for “aliens” to be treated as outsiders. In the case of Russian-speaking immigrant artists, they not only came from a different culture but they spoke with a different artist’s vernacular than did the Israeli art world.

Israeli Art Meets Soviet Culture

Russian-speaking artists spent many years in the Soviet Union fighting for their right to use contemporary artistic forms. Such forms, and the desire to use them were treated as state treason in their country (let us recall, for example, the famous Soviet poster: “Today it is jazz he plays, tomorrow the motherland he betrays”). By coming out of this battle victorious, the avant-garde artists felt themselves heroes.

In Israel, however, nobody understood this kind of heroism and nobody thought of evaluating artists on the basis of their political loyalty, or, for that matter, of evaluating their loyalty on the basis of artistic forms they used in their creative work. Generally, the Israeli artists did not focus on the issue of form, contrary to what was usual in the Soviet Union. An artist’s mastery of contemporary artistic form was presupposed, and not mastering it was viewed with condescension.

For example, one of the most widespread western trends that was also common in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s was conceptualism, which allowed artists to build their work on euphemism and irony, enabling the leading Soviet intellectuals to use their ability to “read between the lines.” That is how Sots Art – the Soviet variant of conceptualism – was born. However, in Israel, not only were the Soviet nuances not understood due to a complete ignorance of the reality of Soviet life, the use of nuance was not necessary for Israeli artists – no one was forbidding anything. Although pressure from the establishment and artistic preferences naturally existed, the Israeli police were not standing guard at the exhibition entrances, nor were the Likud Party or the Labour Party forcing closures of exhibitions.

Images: Pina Haus by T. Kornfeld, and Curiosity by M. Rozentov.
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