In his 1922 monograph on the artist Natan Al’tman (1889-1970), the art critic Abram Efros wrote, “Al’tman has the uniquely national ability of a Jew to take on the color and appearance of his environment.” This description of Al’tman as a Jewish “chameleon” has been accepted by others, including the American critic Louis Lozowick in the 1920s and the Soviet writer Mark Etkind in the 1970s. Another set of Al’tman’s contemporary critics, including Boris Aronson, Maksim Syrkin, and Ilya Ginsburg have understood Al’tman’s Jewish essence to manifest in his style. They championed him as a Jewish nationalist artist. And this label has been confirmed in recent surveys of the Russian-Jewish artistic renaissance in the beginning of the twentieth century.
My paper will challenge both of these critical notions—of Al’tman as a “chameleon” and as a “Jewish nationalist” artist. It will argue that his graphic series Jewish Prints (1913) and the sculpture “Self-Portrait: Head of a Jewish Youth” (1915) engaged with modern artistic trends, including Primitivism and Cubism, in a radical way; and that the sculpture, in particular, problematized nationalist images of Jews. In featuring Al’tman “himself” in Hassidic attire, the sculpture contradicted the presumption of secularism prevalent in self-portraits by other Russian Jewish artists, and it assailed the very idea of a uniform typology of the Jewish appearance. This paper is part of a larger work on Al’tman’s relationship to the theory and practice of Jewish art in Russia in the 1910s.