Stories by the famed Yiddish writer inspired a series of paintings and prints by two Eastern European-born 20th century artists.
Motl the Cantor’s Son
Born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich (1869–1916), the celebrated author and playwright used the pen name Sholem Aleichem. His serialized stories of Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son were written during the period 1907–1916. In 1922, 16 illustrations by Rahel Szalit-Marcus (1888–1942) were published by Klal-Farlag in Berlin accompanied by an introduction in Yiddish by literary critic Bal-Makhshoves, a pseudonym of Isidor Elyashev (1873–1924).
Imprint of the Publishing Company Klal-Farlag, Berlin, 1922, 13 x 11 1/2 in. (33 x 29.2 cm). Gift of Sigmund R. Balka.
Rahel Szalit-Marcus: From Lithuania and Lodz to Munich and Berlin
The artist was born Rahel Marcus in the shtetl of Telshi in Russian Lithuania and later moved with her family to Lodz. She studied art in Munich before settling in Berlin in 1916. There she was acquainted with prominent Jewish Expressionist artists, such as Ludwig Meidner and Jakob Steinhardt, and the radical avant-garde artists movements of the revolutionary period following the end of World War I.
An undated photograph of Rahel Szalit-Marcus from a glass negative. Collection of the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris/Image courtesy of Kerry Wallach.
Before 1924, Szalit-Marcus completed illustrations to works by Sholem Aleichem, Martin Buber, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Heinrich Heine, Mendele Moykher Sforim, and Israel Zangwill.
A first-person narrative that begins with nine-year-old Motl, a member of a Jewish family in the fictional village Kasrilevke, the story recounts the hardships, poverty and fears that motivate the family to immigrate to the United States.
At the beginning of the story, Motl’s father, the village cantor, has died, and his older, married brother Elyahu tries to help the family through a series of failed get-rich-quick schemes with Motl as his accomplice.
In one scheme, Elyahu plans to sell kvass, a traditional beverage made by fermenting rye, a dark grain that gives the drink its color. Elyahu stirs the contents of a barrel. His face is angular and gaunt.
Barefoot and in ragged clothing, burdened by the large pitcher of kvass he carries, Motl is put off balance. The steep perspective further underscores the instability of the family’s situation.
Both sympathetic and harsh, Szalit-Marcus’s caricatural illustrations reflect the influence of the post-World War I Expressionists Otto Dix and Max Beckmann.
Here Motl has caused a sack of powder used to repel mice to burst causing everyone who inhales it to sneeze.
Motl’s family makes an arduous journey through eastern and central Europe and then via Antwerp to London where they board a ship to America.
In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, Szalit-Marcus fled to France. She remained active among the foreign artists in Montparnasse who formed the School of Paris, including Marc Chagall. She was arrested as part of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, interned at Drancy, and deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered in August 1942. Most of the paintings and watercolors she left behind in her Paris studio were destroyed, though many of her prints survive.
Tevye the Dairyman
Sholem Aleichem’s story of Tevye the dairyman and his daughters inspired the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof and countless visual artists. Solomon Gershov (1906–1989) painted imaginative portraits of Tevye, who first appeared in one of the author’s short stories in 1894.
At right: Solomon Gershov, Tevye, ca. 1963-64, gouache paper on board, 24 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. (62.2 x 74.9 cm). Acquired from Grosvenor Gallery, London, HHAR 36.
Solomon Gershov: A Student of Marc Chagall
Gershov was born in Dvinsk (today Davgaupils, Latvia), at the time part of the Russian Empire, and moved to Vitebsk, today in Lithuania, as a very young child. There he studied at Yehuda Pen’s art school and with Marc Chagall. Like his teachers, he was interested in depicting traditional Eastern European Jewish life.
The pious Tevye and his family live in a fictional village in the Ukraine under the authority of the Russian Czar. In each painting, Tevye is shown with one or more of the horses that pull his milk cart.
Gershov’s brushwork is loose and expressionistic. His color palettes vary from warm to cool hues, from fiery oranges to almost monochrome grisaille contained by dense outlines.
Gershov was persecuted for his criticism of government approved Official Art in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and in 1948 was exiled to the Vorkuta Gulag. He returned to Moscow after his release in 1956 and soon after settled in Leningrad.
Image: Vorkuta Gulag Perimeter fence and watchtower. Photograph by George A. Chernov, n.d.
In this variation, a colorfully expressive and cooler palette of blues and mauve dominates the sky and contrasts with the scarlet red painted horse.
With Tevye, a fictional character from an earlier time, the artist symbolizes the sorrow and humanity of his experiences and the challenges faced by other Soviet Jews in his own day.
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Information about Rahel Szalit-Marcus’s life provided by Professor Kerry Wallach, Gettysburg College, who is currently completing the first biography of the artist.