Ethnicity and the "Other" in Russian Art

Alexander Rizzoni
Jewish Smugglers, 1860

Natalya Nesterova, one of Russia’s preeminent painters, is an ethnic Russian who grew up among the privileged elite and has roots among the nation’s traditionalist painters. Yet, in a significant number of her works, she has included themes and personalities that demonstrate an attraction to the Jews of Russia, long perceived as prototypical outsiders.


Living in a country in which historic anti-Semitism is commonplace, and where it had been sanctioned by government policy, it is remarkable to find an artist of Nesterova’s stature expressing a continuing interest in Jewish life. In her case, the attraction to Jewish themes has a personal side, as will be discussed later. However, the phenomenon of Russian artists using Jewish themes as the "other" transcends the personal interests of any individual artist, even one as esteemed as Nesterova, and requires an examination of the historical context. In Russia, ethnicity is a factor of extreme significance in defining one’s persona. Hence Russian art must be understood against the unspoken Russian attitude toward ethnicity, particularly Jewishness.


Russians have always maintained a firm distinction between themselves and Jews. Although they might speak Russian fluently and have completely abandoned their traditional religious practices, Jews were never considered completely Russian. Whereas, in most Western countries, Jews might identify themselves as members of the Jewish religion, while belonging to the nation in which they lived, in Russia even the most acculturated Jews understood that although they could transmit or even create culture, they were not accepted as "real" Russians.1 As a result of this attitude, Jewish life and culture in Russia have existed as that of the "other," outside of the mainstream and often exoticized through perceptions of religion and ethnicity. This has been complicated, however, by two unarguable facts: Jews became important creators of Russian culture during the 19th century, and the Jewish religion, although exotic to Russians, is the historical parent of the dominant religion in Russia — Christianity. While Jews may be a minority, they are in certain ways essential to the self-definition of the Russian ethnic majority.


Exoticism and the Bible

Beginning in the early part of the l9th century, a number of Russian artists were attracted to Jewish life, often considered "exotic". This perception in relation to Jewishness in Russia derived in part from official policies of segregation. Prior to l881, Jews living in the Russian Empire, who formed the largest Jewish community in the world, were largely forbidden to move from the region known as the Pale of Settlement to the interior. Most Jews of the Pale spoke their own language, Yiddish, lived in "shtetls," small market towns that had defined East European Jewish life for centuries, and had their own educational system. Russians had contact with Jews mainly through occasional economic interaction.2 In the arts, such contact was rare, since Jews found it exceedingly hard to enter the art world, and Russians who studied at the great art academies in Moscow and St. Petersburg had little opportunity to meet Jews.3 Yet, the fact that millions of Jews coexisted in the Empire led some Russian artists to develop an interest in studying and depicting Jews, as an anthropological type. The first evidence of serious interest appeared in graphics: sketches and dry points reminiscent of Rembrandt which, however, depicted stock character images of Jews as beggars, deformed figures, and moneychangers, by such artists as Orest Kiprensky and Karl Briullov.


Ilya Repin
Jew Praying, 1877

A growing source of interest in Jews came from Russian reverence for the Bible, which was regarded as a Jewish gift to the world. Excavations carried out since the l840s had shed new light on the ancient cultures of Egypt, India, Assyria, Asia Minor and Palestine, and had added a historical dimension to biblical sources that was eagerly accepted as proof of the existence of Jewish art since antiquity.4 The biblical Jew thus became a real historical figure, who represented the ancient Jewish nation, and not an imaginary mythical character. By the mid-l9th century, the Bible, as an artistic theme, became an important aspect of the academic curriculum. Non-Jewish artists wished to depict images as close as possible to their perception of absolute truth and began to explore "authentic" Semitic facial types.


Such a characterization was revelatory in its transformation of the idealized Greco-Roman visage to a depiction of Semitic features in Russian painting. The artist Alexander Ivanov expresses this physiognomy in Joseph’s Brothers Find the Chalice in the Bag, and in Christ’s First Appearance to the People influence was so widespread that, during the rest of the 19th century, artists who wished to render biblical figures felt obligated to employ what they perceived as Semitic features. Indeed, owing to the limited opportunity for communication or interaction between Jews and non-Jews, many artists took their models not from living Jews but from the types found in Ivanov’s paintings. An example of such influence can be detected in Ivan Kramskoi’s eloquent The Temptation of Christ, which depicts a profoundly isolated figure in a barren desert landscape that expresses the romanticized image of the wanderer or prophet of biblical lore.


Ilya Repin, in his search for "historical authenticity," a characteristic of the Realist school of Russian painting, pursued his own interest in Jewish life and surroundings. He sought to provide accurate settings for biblical scenes, especially those relating to the life of Christ, through the addition of explicitly Jewish symbols to the painting Christ Raising Yair’s Daughter from the Dead. The three-branched Menorah above the head of the girl is a common Sabbath candelabrum, and the wall-hanging bears the Hebrew word mizrah (connoting the eastern direction of Jerusalem).5


Some non-Jewish artists believed they could find authenticity for their religious scenes among contemporary Russian Jews themselves, whom they romanticized as descendants of their biblical ancestors. The artists were not interested in depicting the unfortunate social conditions in which such individuals lived, but rather in using them as an "authentic source." This is borne out in a drawing from l866, Antokolsky at Prayer, by Repin, who believed he had found in his Jewish friend, the internationally known sculptor Mark Antokolsky, the true model for a biblical figure. A decade later, in the painting Jew Praying, Repin transformed the Jewish type believed to be found in the Bible into an old East-European Jew.


Nikolay Yaroshenko
Old Jew, 1879

An artist who was thoroughly familiar with Jewish tradition and ceremony was Nikolay Ge. In his works on the Passion of Christ, such as Sentenced to Death, Ge accurately described the synagogue setting, including ritual attire and adornments. In order to render his Bible subjects with the greatest accuracy and authenticity, the artist Vasiliy Polenov took his search to the Holy Land. Not only was he interested in locating the faces of the Children of Abraham, but also in Judean landscapes and authentic archeological remains as evidence of the events described in the Bible, such as in Christ and the Sinner.


From Image to Tragic Reality

The reforms introduced by Tsar Alexander II in the early l860s relaxed restrictive laws and enabled a growing number of Jews to participate in Russian social and economic life. Nikolay Yaroshenko’s 1879 painting, Old Jew, is an example of how the depiction of Jewish religiosity represented an "interest by Russian society in the Jewish Question."6 Nonetheless, the increased accessibility and interest in Jewish life did not change the prevailing view that Jewish behavior and ritual attire during prayer were idiosyncratic and unusual. The l867 painting In the Synagogue by Alexander Rizzoni, in which congregants covered by their prayer shawls ardently participate in prayer, might well have assumed an exotic quality and character for Russians.7


Rizzoni and other artists also demonstrated the duality of the Russian Jewish experience. Rizzoni was awarded a second gold medal at the Academy of Art for his painting, Jewish Smugglers, which falls back on a popular, derogatory stereotype and leaves little doubt concerning the unsavory quality of the participants who are engaged in illicit commerce.8 In contrast, at about the same time, Ivan Kramskoi created the idealized image in Jewish Boy, a painting of a country boy with an intense penetrating expression, dressed in a prayer shawl. An outstanding portraitist and a prominent figure in Russian realist painting, Kramskoi belonged to the Peredvizhniki, the Itinerants, and was a leader of the rebellion against the stagnant European style of the St. Petersburg Academy. The figure of the young Jew fulfilled Kramskoi’s ambition to carry art out of the urban, Academy-dominated context.9


Mikhail Vrubel was one of the first artists to sense the sorrow and irony evoked by the contradictory situation of Jews in Russia. On the one hand, the Jews were said to be "chosen," according to religious tradition, and on the other hand they were marked by poverty, pogroms and repression. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionary terrorists in 1881, a wave of attacks against Jews continued on and off until the Tsarist regime was finally overthrown in 1917. No longer was the Jew seen as a source for biblical themes, but as an embodiment of the tragic state of Russian reality.


War and Revolution

The outbreak of World War I resulted in the mass expulsion and uprooting of nearly one million Jews forced by the Tsarist government to move into the interior. The exodus created a mass of refugees,10 and effectively abolished the Pale of Settlement. It also accelerated a decline of shtetl life, and brought Jews into much closer contact with non-Jews.


Of course, even before the displacement of Jews from the Pale, the shtetl was in decline. By the end of the 19th century, Jews were moving into urban areas, a phenomenon accelerated by the wartime dislocations. Ironically, despite its rapid disappearance, shtetl life became appealing as a paradigm for avant-garde artists – Russian and Jewish alike – who believed the subject to have preserved its intrinsic and authentic character. The shtetl corresponded with the artistic program of Russian artists such as Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who were intrigued by the attributes of Jewish culture and ritual. Often this was merely a fascination with the exotic, as in works such as Goncharova’s Jewish cycle of paintings and Larionov’s Jewish Venus.11


Mikhail Larionov
Jewish Venus, 1912
oil on canvas

John Bowlt has suggested that their interest "was generated by the same concern with outside and alternative systems" that had exoticized Jewish culture and "placed it in the same ‘primitive’ or ‘Asiatic’ lexicon as the art of the Aztecs, Chinese, or Japanese."12 Another interpretation of this phenomenon has been offered by Ziva Amishai-Meisels, who cites the Mendel Beilis blood libel affair as the context for the avant-garde fascination with shtetl culture.13 Amishai-Meisels argues that in The Jewish Family, painted between 1911 and 1912, in which Goncharova shows Jews as "good, simple people, who are kind to, and protective of, children, and thus cannot be guilty of the blood libel."14 Shtetl life provided Goncharova with a painterly narrative that fit into a thematic mission intended to demonstrate a naïve life, uncorrupted by modern civilization.

It should be noted that neither Goncharova’s nor Larionov’s Jewish subjects contain religious references, nor does their work attempt to capture the experience of the Jew as depicted in contemporaneous works by Mark Chagall, Natan Altman, or El Lissitsky. Rather, the Jewish subjects portrayed by Goncharova and Larionov convey an objective stance, and it is the characteristic of Jewish otherness that attracts them.


With the end of the Pale, millions of Jews were now in closer contact with Russians and generated increased interaction. This is the period when the image of the Jewish fiddler not only appeared in works by Jewish artists like Marc Chagall, and his teacher Yehuda Pen, but became common in Russian literature. It was also employed by the non-Jewish artist Petr Konchalovsky, whose 1918 painting of a fiddler presents the archetypal stereotype of the Russian Jew as musician. Some Russian artists carried this imagery further, in part to portray what were considered non-Slavic, visually stimulating faces.


Other Russian artists went beyond the use of stereotypical Jewish imagery, in an interpretation and promotion of Jewish cultural figures during the early 1900s; this constitutes an important chapter in the history of the Russian-Jewish interaction. Several impressive portraits of prominent Jewish artists and performers speak to the contributions of Jewish artists to Russian modernism, and acknowledge their profound imprint on the twilight years of imperial Russia. Portraits of the Jewish landscape painter Isaac Levitan and of ballerina Ida Rubinstein, both by the half-Jewish artist Valentin Serov, and Petr Vilyam’s portrait of the influential Soviet stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold, convey a sense of the dazzling reputation of the sitters as representatives of the Jewish presence in Russia. In particular, the image of Meyerhold, with its so-called Jewish or Semitic appearance was regarded as a prototype of the face of a creative genius.


After the overthrow of the Tsar, and in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia’s Jews enjoyed unprecedented freedom and were able to participate much more in the life of the nation. With the repeal of Tsarist laws that discriminated against Russian citizens on the basis of religion and nationality, Jews were now given a national minority status, as one among the many peoples of the new Soviet Union.15 Jews responded strongly to their new freedom and opportunity. Acculturation increased, and Jews began to hold positions of importance in the government and in its new cultural organizations. The early Soviet years saw revived interest in Jewish life and a burst of creativity among Jewish artists.


Natalya Nesterova
Watchmaker, 1998
oil on canvas, 38" x 38"

The period of greater freedom in the l920’s was followed by a declining interest in Jewish themes among Russian artists, especially during the 1930s and 40s. During this period—the heyday of Soviet Socialist Realism—state-sponsored repression of religion, and especially a revival of official anti-Semitism, discouraged artists from the use of Jewish themes. They preferred to present their figures with the physiognomy that represented the most politically favored national minority of the moment. Hence a Jewish sitter’s face would be obscured by those of a Georgian, Turkman, or Azerbaijani. One of the last artists who dared to depict a Jew was Petr Konchalovsky, whose importance to the authorities may have offered some immunity from persecution. His portrait of the great Soviet theatrical director Meyerhold, mentioned above, was completed in l938, two years before Meyerhold’s secret execution by Soviet authorities.16


Nesterova and Today’s Artists

Not until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 did Russian artists find the freedom to resume incorporating Jewish subjects and themes into their works. Some Russian artists may be referencing Jewish material as a way of compensating for the long years of Soviet Socialist Realism, when only secular subjects were legitimate. Some artists have found deep spiritual meaning in the mystery of the Kabbalah, which appears as a strain in their work, other artists may be responding to the apparent success of Jews both within Russia and as emigrants. The successful emigration of more than one million Jews, and the perception of them as figures who have therefore mastered the odds and beat the system, may explain the evident fascination that contemporary Russian artists have in a people who for so long had been objects of bias and derision.


Another path has been taken by Natalya Nesterova, who has plunged directly into the Jewish experience. Two good examples are her paintings Watchmaker (l997) and In a Watchmaker’s Workshop (1998), which draw on images from a much venerated eastern European Jewish craft. In In a Watchmaker’s Workshop, a religious Jew adjusts the hands on one of his carefully tended wall clocks. Watchmaker is reflective of a similar but much earlier work (l924) by Yehuda Pen, where the clockmaker signifies change. Although Nesterova’s painting carries a generic, universalized figure, and the clockmaker in Pen’s is a precisely defined, if typecast, shtetl figure, both signify the movement of time and history at different moments of internal turmoil throughout Russia. Thus, we can interpret Nesterova’s two paintings as using traditional imagery to acknowledge a venerated Jewish tradition and, at the same time, to offer a symbolic commentary on the state of Russia.


Yet, while Pen was indubitably Jewish, Nesterova is not; indeed, she is of the Russian elite. We must therefore acknowledge her sensitivity and nuance in employing Jewish images and themes, and wonder at the source of her mastery. On a personal level, Nesterova has commented on the importance of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish authors who had a significant impact on the intellectual environment in which she was raised. Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Babel were a part of her cultural milieu. The Jewish theatre, and music by Jewish composers, had infused Russian culture and were certainly an intrinsic part of her world. These Jewish influences took root at an early age, becoming a force she would call upon later for the images in her paintings. Finally, any interpretation of Jewish themes in Nesterova’s work should also consider the compassion that she felt for her son, who opted for the Judaism of his paternal grandmother, despite the travails of living as a Jew in the Soviet Union. Thus, her use of Jewish themes was not only symbolic or metaphoric, but may be attributed also to personal experience and empathy.17


The fact that, according to the Jewish religion, her former husband was a Jew reflects the increased incidence of intermarriage between Russians and Jews, demonstrating the complex relationship between the two groups that had evolved. For Nesterova, art was a way to confront the meaning of her Jewish experience within a Russian context. As noted by Viktor Misiano, "…it is not merely those who are born Jewish who have identified themselves in recent years with Jewishness, but all those at the boundaries of the repressive Soviet regime with a claim to spiritual and individual autonomy. Since Stalin’s death, being Jewish has not been an ethnic reality, but an ethical choice."18


I wish to thank Elizaveta Plavinskaya, a member of The Moscow Art Critic’s Association, for assisting with source material from Russia, and Michael Stanislawski, Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, New York for providing insight and guidance concerning the position of Jews in Russia.


1. Stanislawski, Michael, The Jews and Russian Culture and Politics, Russian Jewish Artists. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1995, p. 16.

2. Ibid., p. 17.

3. Ibid., p. 17.

4. Rajner, Miriam, The Awakening of Jewish National Art in Russia, Jewish Art: Volume Sixteen/ Seventeen 1990/91, Journal of the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1991, p. 108.

5. Ibid., p. 111-112.

6. Kazovsky, Hillel, National Self-Identification in Art, Jewish Art: Volume Twenty-One/ Twenty-Two 1995/96, Journal of the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 33.

7. Ibid., p. 33.

8. Ibid., p. 35.

9. Here and There; Then and Now: Contemporary Artists from the Former Soviet Union. Washington, DC: B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, p. 9.

10. Stanislawski, Michael, The Jews and Russian Culture and Politics, Russian Jewish Artists. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1995, p. 83.

11. Bowlt, John E., Jewish Artists and the Russian Silver Age, Russian Jewish Artists. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1996, p. 52, note 11.

12. Ibid., p. 42.

13. Mendel Beilis was the victim of a ritual murder libel in Kiev. His trial, in 1913, was accompanied by vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. An international wave of protests led to his acquittal.

14. Amishai- Maisels, Ziva, Chagall’s Dedicated to Christ: Sources and Meanings, Jewish Art: Volume Twenty-One/ Twenty-Two 1995/96, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 93.

15. Stanislawski, Michael, The Jews and Russian Culture and Politics, Russian Jewish Artists. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1995, p. 20.

16. Anatol Goldberg, Ilya Ehrenburg, Jews in Soviet Culture, Institute of Jewish Affairs, London, 1984, p. 206.

17. Based on a conversation between the artist and Alexandre Gertsman, July 6, 2000.

18. Misiano, Viktor, Choosing to be Jewish, Russian Jewish Artists,The Jewish Museum, New York, l996.


Susan Tumarkin Goodman

is Senior Curator-at-large at The Jewish Museum, New York