Klionsky paints the Russian Jewish experience
Artist Marc Klionsky evokes the Russian Jewish immigrant experience in his expressive portraits. His paintings and etchings depict the hardships and joys he and his generation lived through in the Soviet Union and later the artistic freedom he found in America. Brandeis students had the chance to view his emotional pieces in a variety of perspectives: through the eyes of his grandson, through a historical lens and through artistic critical analysis. The Brandeis-Genesis Institute (BGI) for Russian Jewry’s event displayed the power of art to not only reflect on the past of a people in terms of their personal and collective memory, but also to signify a community’s hope for a bright future.
Six portraits from a series titled “Let People Don’t Forget” were displayed in the back of the Rapaporte Treasure Hall for attendees to contemplate: an etching of a weathered man with shadowed eyes against a starry background, a woman cradling a child, a man with a split-skull, among others. Some were done in a simplistic, powerful style, while others were more complicated with swathes of color and a variety of figures. All the portraits, however, were echoes of a past that contained many painful hardships and featured subjects that had the fierce strength to survive them.
At the event’s opening BGI fellow Julian Olidort ’11—also Klionsky’s grandson—described some of the trials his grandfather experienced while living in Russia. During WWII, Klionsky’s village was overwhelmed by Nazis and, as Olidort put it, Klionsky “witnessed the carnage of war firsthand.” Later he underwent vigorous training at the National Academy of Fine Art in Leningrad, where he developed his skills as an artist. In the Soviet Union, though, Klionsky’s artistic talent was stymied by an oppressive regime.
Director of Fine Arts Professor Nancy Scott explained that Klionsky would have been condemned if he had painted in the modernist rather than the social-realist style. His immigration to the United States gave him the liberty to explore other means of expressing himself. She stated that “the overarching theme [of his work] is the transition between intellectual artistic oppression and freedom.”
Olidort elaborated on Klionsky’s struggle in the Soviet Union as an artist. “[His] etchings were done illegally under Soviet rule, it’s a given in America—intellectual freedom, but there it wasn’t.”
“You create something and it belongs to the State,” Olidort said. “My grandfather broke out of that.”
Scott discussed a variety of Klionsky’s works, particularly how his paintings alternated between a photo-realist style to a more imaginative style. In the 1970s he experimented in the surrealist style in what Scott describes as representative of “the freedom of the unconscious mind.” One painting she analyzed was Klionsky’s 1975 “Exodus I,” which features a man with a woman springing from his split head—a surrealist exploration of the divided self.
Division is a theme that has preoccupied Russian Jews and is prevalent in Klionsky’s work. In providing the historical context for Klionsky’s art, Chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Professor Antony Polonsky explained the division that separates first generation Russian Jewish immigrants from the current generation of immigrants. “[There] is a culture gap between the people who fought to bring them here and the Jews that came here,” he said. Polonsky compared this gap to the estrangement of two brothers separated by geography, and he suggested that this break could be healed through the love the brothers have for each other.
Olidort used Klionsky’s “Never Again” (2001)—a painting that depicts a person raising a rifle defiantly into the air, a crowd of Russian Jews and a youth (a depiction based on Olidort) holding a candle and praying—to describe the connection between the older generation and the new generation. He said, “[This painting] shows that a grandfather’s grandson is his future in this new world … rising from oppression.”
Marc Klionsky’s wife Irina also commented on the relationship between generations. In an interview with the Hoot, she stated that “the Jewish heritage, its traditions, is passed from generation to generation. Those who haven’t before are becoming more and more involved in Jewish life.”
BGI’s event was an interesting and poignant exploration of a community’s past and future through the medium of art. Klionsky’s portraits allowed attendees to glimpse the former struggles and joys of Russian Jews and to also see Klionsky’s hope for their potential.
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