Life was beginning with exile. During World War I, the Jews were exiled from areas adjacent to the frontline because of the fear on the part of the Russian authorities that the Jews would collaborate with the Germans due to the similarity between Yiddish and German. Together with thousands of Jewish families, the Axelrod family was banished from the Byelorussian town of Molodechno and had to leave their home where they had lived all their lives. Before the war, the Axelrod brothers, Meir, Zelik and Zalman, had helped their father to drive his beer cart through the streets of the town and learned Jewish subjects in the Heder, but during evenings, hiding from the eyes of their father, Meir had drawn his first pictures and Zelik had composed his poems. Whenever their drawings and poems happened to catch their father’s eye, they were mercilessly destroyed. (It should be observed here that destruction and loss – both in the direct and the indirect sense of the words – accompanied the brothers all their lives).
In 1917, after endless wanderings all over Russia, the family returned to Byelorussia and settled in Minsk (the town of Molodechno had already become part of Poland), and Meir became a teacher of drawing in high schools.
Thirty six Axelrod’s works were shown for the first time at the Byelorussian artists’ exhibition in Minsk in 1921 where they did not pass unnoticed. With a folder full of drawings and a note from David Shterenberg – who until shortly before had been senior official in charge of fine arts — the young artist traveled to Moscow to attend the famous VHUTEMAS, an advanced fine arts school famous for its high level of teaching. The study year had already begun. Unbelievable as it may seem, when Axelrod opened his folder on the snowy ground of the school’s courtyard and showed his drawings to Professor Favorsky, a bearded man clad in valenki (Russian crude felt boots) whom he first mistook for a dustman, Axelrod was accepted to the faculty of graphics, and the talented student soon became Professor Favorsky’s favorite pupil. The young artist soon became less interested in print work and black and white graphics and became more and more attracted to painting, to color. While still a student, he was accepted to the “Four Arts” artists’ association whose members included famous painters of the previous generation: Shterenberg, Falk, Petrov-Vodkin, Rodchenko. Some of them taught in VHUTEMAS, and they used to reserve for the young artist an entire wall at their exhibitions to exhibit as many of his works as he wished. Axelrod was never again pampered in this way.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Axelrod’s works were exhibited in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Norway, and the United States. He never visited any of those countries. He could never travel abroad from the USSR throughout his whole life. The happy period of his artistic life passed quickly, but his disposition kept him content with his lot – the creative process itself gave him satisfaction. To his misfortune, Axelrod was born too late (or perhaps too early). His teachers had studied and lived for long periods of time in France; they were already fairly famous in the 1920’s. Axelrod, like many other people belonging to his circle and his generation who were captivated by the creations of the masters of Ecole de Paris, never had a chance to taste the Parisian atmosphere. They were banished from world culture, or, more precisely, they were never given an opportunity to become part of it. They were also banished from Russian art. The dark years were on the threshold. A short time still remained when well-known art critics could write articles where they enthusiastically praised Axelrod’s creations, and he had time to create his now famous gallery of unfortunate Jewish old people and children, to record on sheets of paper and canvases the tragedy of the Jewish people, their wanderings and displacements, the war and the pogroms. These portraits were not merely accurate representations of individuals: they touched on the essence of Jewish national character. Book illustrations he did in the 1920’s, among them The Story of My Pigeon House by Yitzhak Babel, are characterized by the same unique lines.
Axelrod managed to travel to the Crimea twice (in 1930 and 1931) to visit the Jewish agricultural commune, where he worked with devotion on the great watercolor and gouache series In the Steppe, whose last picture was The Red Convoy. Most enthusiasts of those “communes” that were soon disbanded later fell in the battles of World War II, or perished in Stalin’s or Hitler’s concentration camps.
In the mid-1930’s, the ideology-prompted banal style that symbolized spiritual stagnation and was known as socialist realism reigned in Soviet art, and then a witch-hunt began – the unbridled persecution of everything that reflected life or was original. The clerks assigned to control art used to hang the label of formalism (nobody knew the exact meaning of the term) on everyone who did not respond to the requirement to praise and flatter the regime and the communist party. Naturally, Axelrod’s characters and his free, unconventional style did not meet these requirements. Thus a wave of criticism and blame from the ideological critics began; they accused him of “formalism,” “pessimism,” and once even gave him the nickname of “interpreter of gloom”. In real fact, however, there was no place for gloom either in his character or in his art. There was tragedy, drama, but there was also creative joy, complete commitment to the sacred artistic work that stemmed from his talent. He simply waved off the criticism in newspapers and magazines. One lone voice of praise became lost in the chorus of detractors, the voice of Abraham Efros, who wrote in 1938: “…There is a collective mark of shame on us before a young graphic artist, and this shame has not yet been corrected. I am referring to Axelrod. He is known in artistic circles, but not well enough. He deserves wider publicity, and he is hardly known to the public. This is unjust and even destructive to the young artist. At the moment Axelrod is at a point where every expression of attention and support is required for his unique voice and creative ability to mature, and for his growth as an artist. His ability is most impressive. Such a clear and unique talent as his has not appeared in our region for a long time.”
But Axelrod never again benefited from “support” or “attention”. It was difficult to wave off reality. His works were not accepted by exhibitions, his family starved, and he was forced to seek earnings from casual labor. The same characteristics of his work, which not long before had been received with enthusiasm by critics, now became a stumbling block and the reason for his non-acceptance and rejection. For those concerned with graphics, his work was too picturesque and free, and for those concerned with painting his work was too simple and easily understood, whether from the point of view of materials or of style, because of the speed and the ease with which he drew.
In the flames of the “struggle against formalism” that spread like wildfire, all art associations (including the “Four Arts”) were disbanded, and a united organization, the Artists’ Union, was founded to control all its members and to manage them in the spirit of the only acceptable style – socialist realism.
However, the Jewish theaters in Byelorussia, Ukraine and Moscow had not yet been closed down, and this gave Axelrod the opportunity to reclaim the devastated world of his childhood and youth. He initiated the revival of the Jewish shtetl and of the way of life long gone when he designed his stage sets for performances, and when he created sketches for costumes.
An iron curtain fell on art – but not on the theater. Graphic artists and painters who had never even dreamed about stage designer’s work came to the theater. The dramatic art that is built on illusion by its very nature allowed them to breathe freely and provided an income to starving artists choked by censorship. Jewish theaters created a natural niche for painters who existed inside Yiddish culture – Chagall, Tyshler, Falk, Rabinovich, Altman, Labas, and Axelrod. Almost 20 years remained before the Jewish theater would be destroyed, and hundreds of sketches for the theater of those times were created and survived to grace many museums all over the world in our time. Moreover, these sketches allow us to imagine how the theatrical performances looked: almost all photographed and filmed materials have been lost and specimens of stage scenery have long been burned.
Axelrod’s first work in the theater was the play La Jacquerie by Prosper Merimée, staged by the Jewish traveling theater of Byelorussia (1930). The working conditions of a traveling theater that has no permanent stage impose special “rules of the game” on the stage designer: the scenery has to be light and portable, collapsible, and suitable for assembly on any stage. Axelrod’s brilliant solution was to build a camp of rebel peasants out of coarse fabric stretched on poles. A ladder leaning on a tree (a watch tower) became the center of the composition and enabled the director to build vertical scenes. Axelrod managed to do without a painted backcloth, and he used this method again in the future – in this case the scenery became restrained and gloomy, reminiscent of the hard events of the civil war.
In 1931 Axelrod was again invited to design the stage for the play La Jacquerie, this time in the First Byelorussian theater. It was actor and director of the Byelorussian State Jewish Theater, Litvinov, who staged the play. The director introduced pantomime interludes characteristic of folk theater into the performance. The artist created the scenery on two levels – a ramp in the form of a horseshoe framed the whole stage, and wattle fences, shingle roofs, tree branches, a scarecrow, and a stuffed rooster were placed on it. The medieval French village strangely resembled a Jewish shtetl in Byelorussia. Ladders with bent steps joined the horseshoe to the stage – and the characters were now part of the audience, now the performers themselves.
Axelrod’s principles as a stage designer were already evident in these early performances. His scenery was not illusory. He sought to create an image by means of the structure, giving it life by adding details strictly chosen as to their form, color, and material. The artist made many colored sketches – both cursory and generalized – looking for and finding the key to the final stage design for the play. According to the accounts of directors who worked with him, the character of the performance was often determined by the stage set. As a vibrant and sharp master of portrait, Axelrod created extremely expressive theatrical costumes. The costumes in his sketches were not mere items of clothing for faceless models – they were always tied to a particular actor, to his grace, his movement, and his gesture. A character created by Axelrod who wore Axelrod’s costume was usually the portrait of a live person reflecting his or her unique personality.
In 1933, art critic Abraham Ephros introduced Axelrod to Mikhoels, exactly as he had introduced Granovsky to Chagall at an earlier time. Mikhoels invited Axelrod to design the stage for the play Measures of Severity by Bergelson, about the arrival of the Soviet regime to a shtetl. Mikhoels wrote: “In this work, the theater set itself the task of critical reappraisal of all creative experience accumulated to date. GOSET (the State Jewish Theater) wanted to stage a purely contemporary show…” Axelrod, who was himself born in a shtetl, chose an extremely exact mode of expression. Instead of the usual two-dimensional scenery, he built a dramatic diagonal composition made of a line of houses stuck to one another against a flat dark blue background. The chief outstanding elements were little porches and the steps leading up to them – an ideal space for action on the stage. The painter almost relinquished the effect of color – the monochrome architecture of the shtetl emphasized the tension of dramatic collisions. The lyrical, even amusing characters appearing in the performance sounded like a counterpoint against the background of the severe scenery. The sketches Axelrod drew to depict these characters can be placed in the same row with the artist’s portraits, and they do not lose a single point compared with them.
Axelrod’s next stage design also took place in Minsk – this time at the Byelorussian State Jewish Theater. In The Strike of the Reapers by Lev, the artist again built a village on stage that was very reminiscent of the shtetl, but this time he did it in a very different way. Here the stage was designed in accordance with the rules of naïve art. Bridges surrounded by wattle fences with huge sunflowers growing through them were placed between symmetrically arranged houses. These fences and sunflowers flew skyward on the backcloth, with cows wandering there with no regard for the laws of perspective. In the final version of the backcloth, the cows disappeared, but the spirit of the performance remained as planned. Here once again, as in The Extent of the Law, the artist contrasted the scenery with the costumes. The images of the reapers were highly romantic. By means of this contrast, the artist evidently achieved a more expressive existence of his characters against the background of the scenery.
A creative stage design solution is also noticeable in the performance of Boitre, the Robber by Kulbak in which interior and exterior designs were combined using interchangeable details from everyday life of an old-time Jewish family. The Holy Ark, fancy lions on top of pillars, and twisted candlesticks – all of them created an eerie, mysterious atmosphere in an asymmetrical pavilion.
Beginning with the mid-1930’s, Axelrod chose to go in the opposite direction, to a certain extent, from that of the development of either the Russian or the Jewish theater. The style of socialist realism flourished in the Soviet theater under the pressure of the political leadership, and that signified naturalistic stage design and meticulous depiction of everyday life. In the Jewish theaters, however, a more expressive style dominated, with phantasmagoric images, excessive make up, and the “shtetl-type grotesque.” Axelrod, who always strove for simplicity and modesty in art, created a particularly lyrical atmosphere in the theater that was so characteristic of his painting.
Once Axelrod did attempt to design the stage in the spirit of the times. In Tevye, the Milkman he linked the design of the backcloth with the structure of the stage, thus creating realistic, contemporary scenery, but even in this case he could not withstand the temptation and built a symbolic gate with the inscription “Sholom Aleichem” above it, transforming the spirit of the show into something symbolic and lyrical.
His next work was on Sholom Aleichem’s play staged already during the war in the Jewish Theater of Ukraine. It was The Enchanted Tailor (directed by Goldblatt) and it became the pinnacle of the artist’s stage design work. Like in Tevye, The Milkman, the artist built a gate above which the curtain moved. Little goats in relief were placed on the gate from where they watched the tragicomic merry-go-round revolving on the stage and showing now a tavern, now a synagogue, and now a landscape with a shtetl by moonlight. The creativity of the constructive stage design solution was completed by a veritably musical nature of the play of colors.
Rafalsky, the artistic director of the Jewish Theater of Byelorussia, wrote: “What a wonderful artist this Axelrod is! He combines accuracy and lyricism, romanticism and poetry in his creations. And the most wonderful thing to my eyes is that he evades Chagall’s influence while, in effect, he works with the same world of images. In Axelrod’s work, as in Chagall’s, everyday life sometimes changes its form and becomes a fairy tale, but this change operates according to different rules. There is no literary dimension in Axelrod’s work – the mutual relationship between color and structure grows into spaces situated beyond those of everyday life.”
Axelrod’s last work for the theater was Pinchevsky’s play Ich Leb (directed by Goldblatt) whose plot revolved around the events of the war that had just ended. On a black supercurtain covering the scenery was written: “Am Yisra’el Hay!” (The Jewish people is alive!). The Holocaust survivors among the audience used to rise to their feet at the sight of these words. However, the far-sighted authorities soon gave orders to remove the curtain and replace the inscription…
The last days of the Jewish theaters were drawing to a close. They would soon be closed down, the theater directors would be murdered or jailed, and only one way of earning a living would remain for Jewish artists– to do illustrations for the Der Emes publishing house that would survive for another few years. Axelrod illustrated books, working with the same circle of authors and themes as in the theater. His illustrations for the plays La Jacquerie, Tevye, the Milkman, and The Enchanted Tailor were created at the same time as his stage designs for the plays. Mutual influence between his drawings, illustrations and stage designs can be traced.
World War II was both a universal and an individual tragedy. At the beginning of 1941, the painter’s brother, poet Zelik Axelrod, was arrested in Minsk, and later shot by a firing squad as the war began. Meir Axelrod’s pictures were burned in a museum in Minsk. Only a few preparatory sketches for his picture The Capture of Bielopol survived. These sketches themselves have great artistic value and are kept in museums today. The artist did not engage in large-size paintings later, although he always longed to – large pictures he had conceived required not only inner freedom but also acceptable living conditions and independence from circumstances. He simply did not have enough space to paint them: he lived in a small room of 7 square meters full to rafters with paints, pictures, illustrations, and folders containing his wife’s manuscripts. But it was always possible to do book illustrations (when he received commissions) and to paint on the walls and ceilings (in Favorsky’s group). He worked with joy and pleasure, illustrating books by Sholom Aleichem and other Jewish writers. His best illustrations, now kept in museums, were made in 1948, prior to the tragic end of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Later he had to carry out a fight against the demands by editors who irritated and disturbed him and interfered with his ideas. The planned publication of an illustrated edition of Bergelson’s complete works failed, neither could Axelrod publish illustrations to the book written by his wife R. Rubina.
Jewish themes were banished; thousands of pictures and drawings made on the backs of canvases and posters (he had no money to buy drawing paper and cardboard) were kept in folders, forgotten, and never shown to anybody until after a committee to preserve his heritage was formed in 1970, already after the artist’s death, and was amazed by the abundance of masterpieces abandoned to oblivion.
During his lifetime, the artist managed to exhibit some of his early works in a group exhibition that took place in Moscow in 1966 (Axelrod, Gorshman, Labas). These three Jewish painters had invested unstinting efforts trying to get the right to this exhibition for many years, ever since the “Melting” period that that started in 1956 when their works began to be accepted, little by little, to general exhibitions.
This exhibition brought recognition to Axelrod as a distinguished Jewish painter: Even his portraits of the 1960’s were recognized as an expression of the Jewish spirit. Actors, writers and painters used to be his models. Axelrod had always remained Jewish national artist. During the war, when he worked in Alma-Ata (now Almaty, Kazakhstan), he painted portraits of Jewish writers who had escaped from Poland, and created a series of nervous, tragic compositions on the subject of the Holocaust. He returned to this theme in the 1960’s when he did a series of large oil paintings called Ghetto where, to quote the art critics, “The striking intensity of color and the tension of the stormy, dynamic contrasts… recall to a greater extent that anything else the atmosphere of those tragic events.” The critics wrote about Axelrod’s landscapes that were also shown in this exhibition: “…They always represent sincere, trusting dialogues with nature to which his brushwork adds the feeling of a human voice. In nature, the artist finds each time a unique artistic parallel with human moods. It is possible to say that Axelrod’s landscapes are also some kind of portraits, portraits of human moods, contemplation, and the feeling of life.” This “feeling of life,” setting harmony against the approaching chaos, are dominant even in his most tragic works.
During the last years of his life, Axelrod worked on a series of nostalgic landscapes called Memories of Old Minsk. He did not live to see these paintings exhibited. They were only shown in his large posthumous exhibitions held in his memory in Moscow, Leningrad, Tbilisi, New York, and London, in the Israeli museums Yad VaShem and Ein Harod, and in the Museum of Russian Art in Ramat Gan. Axelrod never had even a single solo exhibition during his lifetime.
The Soviet regime did not allow Meir Axelrod to express himself to his full ability and power. He only knew one desire in life – to create, but he could not help suffering from oblivion during his lifetime, from the lack of demand for his creative power, although he never spoke about this. Could he have ever imagined that doctorates and monographs would be written about his creative activities, that his pictures would be exhibited in over 50 museums all over the world, including the largest and most famous ones, such as the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, as well as in enumerable private collections, including the Straks-Smukler Family Foundation that sponsored the present publication.
Nevertheless, even today, the general public is not fully aware of his work, or else, such awareness is very incomplete. Meir Axelrod was very productive, he worked tirelessly, and he left behind such a great number of works that it exceeds the capacity of even a very large exhibition.
The unique collection of Meir Axelrod’s stage design sketches donated to the Israel Goor Theater Archive and Museum in Jerusalem by Mr. Moshe Kantor, Chair of the Board of Governors of the European Jewish Congress, is waiting for its attentive spectator and researcher.