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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The art of self-expression

On the inner freedom of Boichukist artist Manuil Shekhtman
18 August, 2014 - 18:23
MOTHER, 1926

“It is not simple to understand what brought the native of Jewish boroughs to the studio of Professor Mykhailo Boichuk, who was proclaimed a ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist,’” Hryhorii Ostrovsky, Ph.D. in the History of Art, wrote in the article dedicated to Manuil Shekhtman’s creative work, “What brought this victim of pogroms to the Boichukists, who were enchanted with the idea of revival of the national art on the basis of folk art and Ukrainian icon painting based on the Byzantine traditions and primitives of Giotto time? Only the high professional culture of European level, typical of Boichuk’s school, which was resisting the mossy academicism and plain mimic of life.”

“On January 20, 1900,” reads the birth certificate, in a multi-child family of Ysia Shekhtman, who was a postman in the farmstead of Lypnyky, “with three Ukrainian houses and as many Jewish ones,” in the town of Ovruch in Zhytomyr region, a son was born, “who received the name of Menakhem-Mendel.” The future artist spent his childhood in the city of Norinsk, where under his grandfather’s care he received “traditional Jewish education” in Cheder. He cherished like the apple of his eye the album, where he painted the scenes from surrounding life. This album caused further changes in the life of the little provincial. Accidentally Polish landowner Belin saw the pictures from this album and sent the boy with a recommendation letter to Kyiv timber merchant Feldman.

That was how 13-year-old Manuil became a student at the Kyiv Art School. Then the World War I began, which was followed by the revolution         and the civil war. Pogrom victims, the wretched, refugees, and migrants. All these events pierced the heart and soul of the easily impressed boy and forever remained in his creative work.

After graduation from the Kyiv School of Art, where he got acquainted and made friends with Aleksandr Tyshler, 20-year-old Manuil Shekhtman entered the Ukrainian Academy of Art, the studio of monumental art, Prof. Mykhailo Boichuk, where he immediately blended with the creative team of young people fond of their teacher.

In his review of the Autumn Exhibit of UAM in 1922 Kyiv art critic Lev Dintses wrote, “M. Boichuk has another interesting student, M. Shekhtman. He did not undertake purely technical exploration. Shekhtman is a Jew, and the national coloring of his relatively young works distinguishes him at the exhibit. Taking on the one hand the ancient eastern reliefs, and, on the other hand, the European branch of baroque, he characteristically intertwines these two principles, using the example of local Jewish altars – so wonderful his graphic illustrations to the Ukrainian fairytale about the cat are.”

“In the early 1920s Shekhtman was teaching art at a Jewish orphanage. Most of children there were orphans. Three of his students, Yefym Simkin, Yosyp Zisman, and Borys Lukomnyk, later became well-known artists. Shekhtman’s relations with them were not formal, like between a teacher and a pupil, rather they were warm, friendly, and close. Maybe, Boichuk’s attitude to him was like that,” the artist’s son Mark Shekhtman wrote later in his memoirs My Father. I had an opportunity to get acquainted with him by correspondence in June 2011.

At the 1st All-Ukrainian Exhibit of ARMU in Kharkiv (1927), Shekhtman, who was a graduate of the Kyiv Institute of Art, showed his tempera pictures, Pogrom Victims and Mother. The rector of the institute, art expert Ivan Vrona, in his review of the exhibit wrote, “Young artist Shekhtman started his independent way. His Pogrom Victims and Mother are fragments of a whole poem, a terrible national epopee of the Jewish people.” Next year the artist created the picture Refugees, where he showed the tragic fate of refugees: a Jewish family moves from lived-in places to the dream of “promised lands.” The entire figurative-compositional system of the work is marked with the features of artistic generalization and metaphors.

In 1929-34 he was the head of the department of art of All-Ukrainian Museum of Jewish Culture named after Mendel Moikher-Sforym in Odesa. Over years Shekhtman managed to collect in the museum the works of modern Jewish artists (he gave to the museum 16 monumental pictures of his own), the unique items of cult and works of decorative-applied art.

“I must express myself. I want to be sincere. In the understanding of modern humanism the artist is national when he deeply feels and understands the people with which he is biologically connected and in such a way expresses his closeness to the entire humanity,” the artist wrote in his diary.

In the period of “ideological discussion” which aimed to support the “method of socialist realism” Shekhtman’s creative work suddenly underwent sharp criticism from the official critics. People’s Commissar Zatonsky in his speech at an enlarged plenary meeting of the organizing bureau of the Union of Artists and Sculptors of Ukraine in 1933 used the picture Pogrom Victims as an example of “art that is hostile to the Soviet ideology,” pointing out that such works should be stored not in museums, but “in labs in order to show how one should not paint.”

Read in the upcoming issues of The Day about the continuation of the creative path of Manuil Shekhtman and his son Mark.

By Yaroslav KRAVCHENKO, art historian Photo replicas courtesy of the author