Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Babi Yar and the Rose Art Museum: Things Worth Seeing

Brandeis' Rose Art Museum is not dead yet. Despite the university's much publicized – then reneged – decision to sell off much of the museum's permanent collection last year, the museum itself has been chugging along just fine. At least that's the indication from the upcoming symposium the Rose Art Museum is hosting on March 10, dedicated to the Babi Yar paintings of the stellar if little known painter Felix Lembersky.

Who's Lembersky?, and what's Babi Yar again? You're forgiven for asking.

First, Lembersky (1913-1970) was a precocious Russian Jewish artist with a rich career ahead of him before the Soviet revolution turned grim. In his 20s, Lembersky was part of the Soviet avant-garde movement, familiar with the work of leading Soviet and Jewish artists who had lived in Kiev – David Shterenberg, Alexandra Exter, Alexander Tyshler, and Issakhar-Ber Rybak – many of whom were subject of The Jewish Museum's stellar 2008 exhibition, "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949."

But like many in that movement, Lembersky's work was essentially silenced by Stalin. By the 1940s, Soviet-style Social Realism had become the only game in town, and while Lembersky's sympathies were in the right place – the working classes were his muse throughout his career – his aesthetic sensibility was not. As he matured he began to rebel against the literalism of Social Realism, choosing instead to liberate his style. His brush strokes became looser, thicker; his paintings bathed in bold planes of color.

His contrarianism precluded government support, but help came from his art world friends who at least enabled him to make a living. And today, thanks in large part to the advocacy of his granddaughter, the architect Yelena Lembersky, art world watchers are beginning to take notice. In 2009, Yelena helped produce a sumptuous catalogue of work – "Felix Lembersky 1913-1970. Paintings and Drawings" – and will speak again at the Rose Art Museum conference next week.

About the symposium: it's about Lembersky's haunting and somber series on Babi Yar, painted in the early 1950s, and in addition to a talk by Yelena, includes a discussion of Soviet Jewry by two leading historians on the subject: ChaeRan Freeze and Olga Litvak.

Knowledge of the Babi Yar massacre remains dim, however, which is surprising given that it is not only the largest single execution of Jews during the Holocaust, but also one of the best documented. On September 29 and 30, 1941, the Nazis ordered the Jews in Kiev to congregate near the Jewish cemetery. It was in the northeast part of town, near the ravine called Babi Yar. They were told a trainsport was awaiting them to help them resettle elsewhere, but when the thousands of Jews showed up – 33,771 in total – they were all gunned down by machine gun.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the event, and it is striking that both the event remains so poorly remembered, and that Lembersky had painted portraits of the massacre so soon after it happened. In their encrusted, ashen grays, they bring to mind Anselm Kiefer's "Bohemia Lies By the Sea"; their depiction of martyrdom by firing squad, Goya's "The Third of May, 1808." But in their sad and bold witness to a tragedy we still find hard to remember, they are entirely his own.

Submitted by Eric Herschthal