With a subtle brush, he defied the Soviets
Brandeis show spotlights defiant Russian artist
By Leah Burrows
Look at the work of Russian painter Felix Lembersky in chronological order and a story emerges. One of vibrancy, massacre and loss – the story of European Jewry.
But Lembersky did most of his painting under the watchful eye of Soviet censors. To see the story, you have to know where to look.
Look at the women he painted and see the head coverings. Look at his depiction of the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar and see the little boy in the red yarmulke.
Look at the empty landscapes he painted late in life and see the shadows of the lost and dead.
On March 10, Lembersky’s art will be the subject of a symposium at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum. It will include two rarely if ever exhibited paintings of the Babi Yar massacre.
Called “Faces of Babi Yar in Felix Lembersky’s Art: Presence and Absence,” the symposium stems from the efforts of the late artist’s granddaughter Yelena Lembersky and haeRan Freeze, a Brandeis professor of Jewish history.
The two women are on a mission to get Lembersky’s work the recognition they think it deserves in the United States.
“There is an assumption that between the wars and under Stalin there was no Jewish art in Russia, but that’s simply not true,” said Lembersky, an architect who lives in the Boston suburbs. “The way Soviet Jewry has been conceptualized and understood is as victims,” Freeze said. “Yes, they were murdered by the Nazis, but the survivors still deal with it in a creative way through art and literature.”
Freeze said that this exhibit, a rare US showing of Lembersky’s work, will explore the influence of Jewish and Holocaust symbols in his art.
Those symbols include subtly placed yarmulkes, references to the Nazis and use of colors – particularly yellow (as in the Star of David) – associated with Jews and Russian Jewish folk tales.
“Being able to sneak something behind the censors was only a small part of his painting,” Lembersky said. “The bigger picture is that he wanted to find the symbol that would not hit people over the head, that would not be literal, but something that would go deep down to the core.”
Born in 1913 in Lublin, Poland, Lembersky and his family took refuge in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev during World War I.
Berdichev had long been a thriving center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. According to a popular myth–the fictional town of Anatevka from “Fiddler on the Roof” was based on Berdichev. At the time when Lembersky and his family lived there, more than half of the town’s population was Jewish.
Lembersky started painting at a young age, attending the Jewish Arts and Trades School in Kiev.
In 1935, he moved to Leningrad to work on his thesis – which consisted of paintings of workers –at the Russian Academy of Arts.
He was still in Leningrad when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and besieged the city in 1941.
As a civilian, Lembersky helped man the defenses, suffering wounds during an attack in 1941. As an artist, he captured daily life in dozens of sketches and paintings. Unlike his later works, painted with bright colors, his Leningrad pictures are dark, dominated by blacks and grays and shadows.
He chose the color scheme not only because it reflects the bleakness of the siege, which lasted 900 days and claimed more than 640,000 lives, but also because paint was in short supply.
The Russian Academy of Arts continued to hold classes during the siege. In 1941, Lembersky presented his thesis and graduated with honors.
That same year, mobile killing units known as the Einsatzgruppen followed the invading German troops and systematically exterminated Jews, including 34,000 over a two-day period at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev. They also killed as many as 30,000 in Berdichev, among them Lembersky’s parents.
In 1942, the artist escaped Leningrad via the Road of Life across frozen Lake Ladoga, the sole route in and out of the city.
After the war, Lembersky painted prolifically, earning his living through commissions and teaching.
He became one of the few voices critical of the Socialist Realism movement – a style that dominated Soviet art after the Revolution Used for propaganda, the art glorified the worker and promoted the tenets of communism.
Lembersky painted workers, too, but his were downtrodden, not heroic, figures. “He is able to capture their suffering and their pain,” Freeze said.
Lembersky and Freeze are unsure when the artist started painting his series of three works on Babi Yar. The communist regime portrayed the massacre as a crime against Soviet citizens, refusing to acknowledge that Jews were the main target.
Lembersky used hidden symbols to portray the truth, Freeze said. The first picture, painted sometime between 1944 and 1952, is the most graphic of the three. It focuses on the Jews as victims, holding dead bodies, crying to the sky. In the corner of the paintings is a Red Cross van, like those the Nazis used as portable gas chambers to kill children.
In the far left corner of the second painting is the body of a boy wearing a yarmulke.
Lembersky used head coverings – for men and women – as one way to signify Jews.
The Babi Yar paintings were never exhibited in Russia.
In the years leading up to his death in 1970, Lembersky turned to painting colorful landscapes seemingly devoid of human figures.
But as with his other works, you have to look closer.
Fence posts appear to have eyes and feet, their pointed tops covered with yarmulkes.
In one painting, shadowy green figures seem to be stalking in a lush field.
The paintings also hide childish stick-figures, throwbacks to when Lembersky was young and the villages were full.
He died when his granddaughter was only a year old. The family left the Soviet Union in the 1980s and took Lembersky’s hundreds of painting, drawings and sketches with them.
The artist’s widow never displayed them in her home, but would sometimes bring them out for special occasions. Mostly, the art sat in the family’s storage unit.
Freeze had her own connection to Lembersky.
When she was working on her dissertation in Kiev, she had to walk through Babi Yar on her way to the library. At that time, in the mid-1990s, there were no monuments commemorating the massacre, Freeze said. It was just “a wasteland.”
“Once you start walking through there, there is a silence that one feels,” she said. “Every day I would stop and think about what happened there.”
When the two women met a few years ago, they connected over Jewish Russian history, and Lembersky told Freeze about her grandfather’s work.
She invited Freeze to her home to show her the Babi Yar paintings.
When Lembersky unrolled the canvas in her living room, Freeze said she was stunned.
“I felt completely humble,” she said. “For an artist to have the courage to do that in those years – those years they were arresting Jewish artists and poets.”
They decided to organize a show of Lembersky’s art and approached the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, which provides programs and support for Russian-speaking students.
It took some time, but eventually they were able to organize next week’s one-day event.
Even though they had to wait, it might have been worth it, both women acknowledge. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Babi Yar and the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And the two women hope 2011 will be a big year for Lembersky.