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November 2: Jewish Life, Chiseled in Marble

Lawrence Bush
November 1, 2016
Mark Antokolsky, a Russian Jewish artist who sculpted on Jewish themes in works titled “Jewish Tailor” (in wood), “Nathan The Wise,” “Inquisition’s Attack against Jews” (unfinished), “Spinoza,” and “The Talmudic Debate,” was born in Vilna on this date in 1840. Antokolsky trained at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in the 1860s, then moved to Berlin, where he sculpted a statue of Ivan the Terrible that purchased for the Hermitage by Emperor Alexander II of Russia. He settled in Paris in 1877 but returned to Vilna in summertimes. In 1878, Antokolski received the Grand Prize at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition, and two years later had a one-man show in St. Petersburg, where he was awarded the rank of professor. Others of his well-known works include “Christ Bound Before the People” (1874), “The Death of Socrates” (1876), and “The Head of John the Baptist” (1878). According to the Tretakdy Gallery magazine, “Antokolsky suffered from his illiteracy [presumably in Russian; he was kheyder-trained in Hebrew]: he was really more a clever than an educated person. . . . There was another factor that complicated the life of the sculptor — a certain law (later abrogated by Tsar Alexander II) according to which [authorities] had a right to ‘trap’ all Jews who had no passport (even those who did not belong to that very society or province), and recruit them [to the military]. For years this threat was a nightmare to the sculptor.” In poor health for much of his life, he died at 59. mantokolsky_nestor“Antokolski’s preeminence in Europe was universally acknowledged at the Paris Exposition in 1878, where an international jury, composed of artists -- delegates from all nations -- awarded him the first and highest prize for sculpture; and in hundreds of articles in the journals the foreign critics never weary of speaking of the great [importance of] Antokolski. . . . He is the greatest sculptor of our age.”–-Vladimir Stasov

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.