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Yefim Ladyzhensky and Isaac Babel at the Yeshiva University Museum
by Dan Grossman
THERE’S A STRESSFUL poignancy to judging the work of an artist who committed suicide because his paintings were underappreciated. You can frown at a Van Gogh canvas without any guilt, safe in the knowledge that it’ll hang in the best museums for another millennium, but the same can’t be said for an artist who committed suicide and is still unknown. That’s the case of Yefim Ladyzhensky, a Soviet-Jewish painter who emigrated to Israel with high hopes in 1978, grew tormented by his lack of renown, and hung himself outside his tiny studio in 1982. “NAIVE VISION OF JEWISH LIFE ENDS IN SUICIDE IN ISRAEL,” went the unloving headline in the New York Times, as if not just Ladyzhensky but the entire Old World had reached its brutal end in the Holy Land.
So it was with trepidation and curiosity that I went to a retrospective of Ladyzhensky’s work at the Yeshiva University Museum. The exhibit pairs Ladyzhensky with short story writer Isaac Babel and charts their experience alongside the history of Odessa, a port city in present-day Ukraine and formerly a cosmopolitan hub of the Russian Empire. The pairing makes sense: Both were proud Odessa-natives who stayed in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and both had a complex relationship with Judaism. Furthermore, Ladyzhensky used Babel’s stories as filter and inspiration for his own portraits of Odessa, created over a half-century after Babel’s stories.
And yet, the wall-panels of Babel’s prose serve to illustrate the difference between the two artists, who played opposite though equally recognizable 20th century Jewish artist roles. Ladyzhensky was the exiled, monk-like sufferer (with a touch of self-pitying shlemil thrown in), morally and personally condemned to gaze back on his destroyed past, while Babel was the young man rushing into experience with “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart,” as he defines the Jewish writer in one story. If Ladyzhensky looks back, then Babel looks out, and his first-person narrators are concerned less with recalling facts than with conjuring up an impression. Take the following passage from the story “Sunset”:
The sunset was boiling in the skies, a sunset thick as jam, the bells of Alekseyevsky Church moaned, and the sun was sinking behind Blizhniye Melnitsy, and Lyovka, the younger son of the house, ran after the cart like a dog running after its master.
Babel’s language is mobile, jolting and full of metaphoric surprises. In contrast, Ladyzhensky’s figures are carefully positioned, simplified and geometric, as if they’ve been frozen by repeated viewings. The perspective comes from above or from no clear vantage at all. Babel and Ladyzhensky -- one gives us moments, the other memories.
“A GAME OF RINGS” (above, courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum) offers a good example of Ladyzhensky’s approach. The painting depicts twenty-one people on multiple tiers, some in the house, others below in a courtyard; some drinking tea, others crowded around a checkerboard, and two girls trying to catch rings on a stick. The painting feels intimate, intricate and completely stopped in time, a result both of the thematic unities (almost everyone wears white; the two girls mirror each other) and from the tilted, overhead perspective. It takes several minutes to sort out the depth of the courtyard from the height of the house, and even then it feels as if the painting’s contents might spill out at you. And as in many of Ladyzhensky’s outdoor scenes, there’s great attention to the cobblestones, painted like a magnified checkerboard with teal, sea gray and various blues. Ladyzhensky’s past is pattern, and the people, objects and designs flatten and connect into an overarching mosaic.
Seen in isolation, a single canvas of Ladyzhensky’s might evoke a “naive vision” of the Old World, but brought together his art gathers sinister edges and echoes. The homely patterns of “A Game of Rings” evolve a sense of terror in “Our Theater is Burning” (above, courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum), in which a huge crowd of civilians, along with soldiers on horseback, are lit by an inferno just outside the picture frame. Their small circular faces are blurry and vague, mere flickers of brown and flame, not much more alive than the red bricks on the street. There seems to lurk in this painting a dark recognition of mass crowds, people turned into numbers and patterns, the terrifying namelessness of 20th century atrocities.
In other works, Ladyzhensky dramatizes not just his memories but the act of remembrance. Black-and-white family portraits hang on the walls of “Blessings to the Bridge and Groom,” their ancient heads lopped out the picture frame and too blurry to distinguish. Or consider “Shiva” (at the top of this article, courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum), an interior scene so vibrant with tapestries, carpets and tablecloths that it takes a moment to realize its heartbreak. At the front of the room, a boy in a white shirt stares out at the viewer, kept company by a black dog, while in a far corner the boy’s mother curls up under a shawl, unconsoled. Through the door is open and there are five chairs at the table, no one else has joined them. The sense is of an interior breached both by loss and by silence, as if the painting itself is a kind of shiva to the father and to the past. The utter solitude of remembrance is what comes through, just as it does in the dream-like self-portrait near the front of the exhibit, in which an elderly Ladyzhensky sits alone on a monument’s steps, with a brown-and-white dog curled up at his feet.
This self-portrait is the third in a triptych called “The Past is Always With Me,” and I was disappointed that its counterparts weren’t on display. The first, which can be found on the Internet, shows five Ladyzhensky heads in a noose, dangling from the points of a Soviet red star and up against a red brick background; the other repeats the imagery of the first, but swaps in a blue Star of David and a tan stone wall. The paintings date from the same year that Ladyzhensky committed suicide, and their absence, while defensible in light of the focus on Odessa, leaves us without a reference point for the subtle, penetrating melancholy of his Odessan scenes.
The man was in pain, that much is clear. So sure was Ladyzhensky of success in the Holy Land that upon leaving Moscow he destroyed thousands of his own paintings. But he was always in the wrong place, first as Jew in Soviet Russia, then as an ex-pat in Israel. His post-impressionist style was also stuck in the past, revolutionary fifty years earlier but hardly breaking news in the late 1970s, when pop and conceptual art were all the rage. Nor could he ever accept the concept of a free market in art, and his huge, squirming ego broke under its pressures and slights. After viewing a show of his work at the Israel Museum, Ladyzhensky went into his studio and proved his triptych horribly correct. He left behind a wife, children and grandchildren, all of whom he’d locked out of his endless memory-excursions.
THE EXHIBIT concludes with a selection of black-and-white drawings based on Isaac Babel’s Red Calvary stories. That collection details Babel’s time as a war correspondent with the Red Army, caught between his identity as a Jew and a revolutionary, a compassionate observer and a bloodily fascinated participant. If Red Cavalry served as a Bible to Ladyzhensky’s generation of Russian artists, as he himself suggested, then these drawings qualify as midrash. They start with Babel as a stern-looking new recruit, his glasses fogged up as he enters a room of poor, terrified Jews, but quickly the confidence fades and we find Babel in a pillaged church, face-to-face with a smashed, overturned crucifix.
In Babel’s final story, “The Rebbe’s Son,” the narrator watches the son of a khasidic sage (now a Soviet soldier) die “amid poems, phylacteries and foot bindings.” In Ladyzhensky’s version, the rebbe holds a heroic pose with tfiln on his forehead while the son is painted upside-down with a Soviet helmet. The drawing could be a personal statement of Ladyzhensky’s: the Jew lives while the Soviet get turned on his head. Or it may be a commentary on Babel’s life, since the two characters are painted so similarly that they’re easy to mix up. In 1939, after years of silent protest against Stalinism (and agonizing choices of whether to stay or flee), Babel was arrested by the secret police. On the way to prison, he reportedly said to his wife, “The worst part of this is that my mother won’t be getting my letters.” He was tortured, forced into a false confession and murdered by firing squad.
Before his execution, Babel said, “I am asking for only one thing -- let me finish my work.” The request was tragically denied, but we’re fortunate that the work he did complete is still available. The Collected Works of Isaac Babel was published to wide acclaim in 2005, and a separate translation of the Red Cavalry stories came out in 2015. He lives.
As for Ladyzhensky, amid the despair of his life in Israel he still managed to predict future glory. In an album of Ladyzhensky’s work published by his family in 2008, he’s quoted as saying, “Art is only born out of love and compassion and can only be understood by a loving and compassionate soul . . . My works, which are the fruit of a life full of suffering and hard work, are clearly needed by humanity and will find their Eternal Viewer. I sincerely believe in this with all my wounded and broken heart.”
There’s a beautiful honesty to his khutspe. “Clearly needed,” Ladyzhensky says, as if there’s been some colossal misunderstanding between himself and the world, which time will correct. And what are we to make of the leap between “humanity” and “Eternal Viewer”? God is the last lifeline of a struggling humanist painter. Or is he not talking about God? Is he thinking of some future viewer, maybe a young Jewish man in the 21st century (spectacles on his nose, autumn in his heart), stepping out of the humid streets of New York City to live a while in the frozen mindscapes of a vanished past?
Dan Grossman is a writer and teacher living in New York City who wrote recently for us about the Square of Tolerance in Sofia, Bulgaria.