Soviet-era Russian art is usually viewed through the lens of propaganda—posters emblazoned with Communist party slogans, paintings of Lenin or Stalin, and statues of farmers, factory workers, and Red Army soldiers thrusting rifles at unseen enemies or reaching gleefully toward the sky.
That’s not surprising, given that artistic form and content were severely limited in the Soviet Union, with sexual, religious, abstract, and expressionist subjects forbidden. But there were artists who strayed from the party line and pushed the boundaries of artistic freedom, even as many of their contemporaries were being persecuted or rounded up and sent to work camps in Siberia.
Felix Samoilovich Lembersky was one of them.
A retrospective of the Polish-born Jewish artist’s work opened September 1 at BU’s Florence & Chafetz Hillel House Rubin-Frankel Gallery. Faces of Revival: Postwar Russia in the Art of Felix Lembersky (1913-1970) explores his contributions to artistic revival in post–World War II Soviet Russia. About 15 oil paintings, along with watercolors and drawings—many of them never publicly displayed before—are featured in the exhibition, which runs through December 21.
Tonight’s opening reception, at the Rubin-Frankel Gallery from 6 to 8:30 p.m., features a keynote talk by Ori Z. Soltes, the Goldman Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts at Georgetown University. The event is free and open to the public.
Gallery director Holland Dieringer (CFA’05), the exhibition’s curator, says it is the first major showing of Lembersky’s artwork in the United States, and it chronicles his journey from a student and practitioner of Socialist realism, a style that dominated Soviet-era art, to his embrace of the nonconformist avant-garde.
Dieringer says Lembersky’s art tells a story of hope and resilience amid war and upheaval, capturing the lives of average people struggling to emerge from a long period of darkness.
“It can be seen as post-Holocaust artwork, or in a more negative light, as showing the faces of a downtrodden Russian culture after the revolution and war,” she says, “but his art is really about facing that destruction and coming out of that period with a sense of revival and strength.”
Yelena Lembersky, the late artist’s granddaughter, says her grandfather’s work is unique because it doesn’t fit into the stereotypical Western view of Russian artists under Soviet totalitarianism.
“In the West, Russian art is traditionally viewed as two-dimensional: there is the official art, which enforces the party line, and nonconformist art,” Lembersky notes. “But he was neither. His work was a multidimensional view of life, art, and culture in Russia during that time in history.”
Born in 1913 in Poland, Lembersky grew up in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev—then a thriving center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe—where his family had taken refuge during World War I. He started painting at an early age, honing his artistic skills at the Jewish Arts and Trades School in Kiev before graduating with honors from the Russian Academy of Arts in Leningrad.
When the Nazis attacked Leningrad in 1941, beginning a blockade that lasted nearly 900 days and claimed the lives of more than 640,000 people, Lembersky witnessed firsthand the horrors of war, capturing scenes of a city under siege in paintings and drawings. He survived the siege, escaping across a frozen lake with thousands of others who eventually fled the battered city, but lost his parents in the Holocaust.
After the war, Lembersky returned to Ukraine and settled in the Ural Mountains, throwing himself into his art. He earned a living teaching and painting portraits in the industrial city of Nizhny Tagil, focusing on the lives of factory workers and miners who toiled under communism.
Increasingly, however, his work began to depart from Socialist realism, employing bright colors, abstract images, and Jewish symbols. His subjects were the downtrodden, a sharp departure from the heroic figures of traditional Soviet Communist–era art. His landscapes didn’t attempt to hide scenes of poverty and neglect.
“He made a choice not to conform, and it gave him freedom to live honestly and speak truth in his work,” says Yelena Lembersky. “He was dedicated to his art. There was nothing more important.”
The artist is best known for a series of three oil paintings, titled Execution: Babii Yar (1944–52), depicting scenes from the 1941 massacre of 34,000 Jews by the Nazis at Babi Yar, in Kiev, the largest killing of Ukrainian Jews during the war. The paintings are filled with hidden symbols, from a boy with a red yarmulke to ghostly silhouettes of Nazi soldiers with dogs in the distance. One of those paintings appears in the current show at the Rubin-Frankel Gallery.
Lembersky’s depictions of the massacre were a bold act of defiance, not only against the Soviet regime’s refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy, but against Stalin’s ruthless campaign against Jewish arts after the end of the war. These works were never exhibited in Russia.
Despite Lembersky’s contributions to Jewish art, his work is seldom displayed. “Very few Russian artists of that time, particularly Jewish artists, are well known,” Dieringer says.
While some of his oil paintings are held by galleries in Ukraine and Russia, most of Lembersky’s work was taken to America by members of his family when they immigrated in the 1980s. Yelena Lembersky, an architect who lives in a Boston suburb, says the family’s collection includes several hundred oil and watercolor paintings, sketches, and drawings, many of which have never been exhibited.
“We haven’t made a strong effort to bring it together, until recently,” she says.
Felix Lembersky’s contributions to post–World War II Soviet-Russian art will also be discussed at the academic symposium Revival in Art and Culture after World War II on November 10, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Hillel House. The symposium, moderated by Katherine O’Connor, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of Russian, is free and open to the public and will include several distinguished speakers.
Faces of Revival: Postwar Russia in the Art of Felix Lembersky (1913-1970) is on view through December 21 at the Rubin-Frankel Gallery at the Florence & Chafetz Hillel House, 213 Bay State Rd. Tonight’s opening reception, from 6 to 8:30 p.m., is free and open to the public, with keynote speaker Ori Z. Soltes, the Goldman Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts at Georgetown University. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.