Al'tman or Chagall? Defining Jewish Art in Russia in the 1910s

Alina Orlov, University of Southern California

As Natan Al'tman (1889–1971) and Marc Chagall vied with one another for the title of consummate Jewish artist in the 1910s, they fueled the emerging discourse on what constitutes the "national" in art. Stylistically Altman leaned toward the abstract, ornamental and primitivist, while Chagall proliferated "genre" scenes, characters and situational stories. In the long run, the latter came to be seen as representative of a core Jewish twentieth-century experience in Western art historiography, in part because Al'tman dropped out of the competition, and the question was put to rest in Soviet Russia. It is therefore worth remembering that the situation was quite opposite when it first unfolded in the beginning of the century, i.e. that the critical world, including the prominent art theorist Abram Efros deemed Al'tman's abstractionism to be the more effective vehicle for the conveying the Jewish national spirit. Meanwhile, Chagall was well regarded as a Jewish artist by the minor and less sophisticated writers, like the Marxist ideologue Nikolaj Tarabukin and the stalwart Yiddishist Joseph Tchaikov.

While Efros admired the Jewish "paradox" and "fantasy" in Chagall, he thought Al'tman provoked the issue of national categories more directly, as in, for example, his self-portrait bust "Head of a Jewish Youth" (1915). Moreover, in his other work, Al'tman embodied a Jewish quality, whereas Chagall referred to it, using an abundant ethno-specific iconography: phylacteries, stars of David, prayer shawls, arks and scrolls. Whereas in Al'tman, the Jewish quality expressed itself enigmatically. There was a certain "something" in his general approach that escaped precise definition. It was not a style or a set of symbols, but a sense; this intrigued Efros; he could not quite pin it down, but thought it had to do with the balance between mysticism and law that pervaded Jewish culture.

In my paper, I point out the precedence Al'tman was given in Russian scholarship over Chagall and consider some of the political and cultural factors behind it. This is part of a larger project that investigates the role that a wider discourse on Jewish art played in Al'tman's career in the 1910s. In other sections of my work, I discuss the development of a Jewish art historiography in Russia starting at the end of the 19th century and the institutional context in St. Petersburg in the 1910s that supported the growth of Jewish nationalism. These two conditions formed a favorable climate for Al'tman's early fame, which as I argue here, was also propelled by the way he was positioned vis-à-vis Chagall.

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