Article for the catalogue “Writing book”. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, 2006
Meer Moiseevich (and among friends – Mark) Axelrod was born in the beginning of the last century in Belarus, in the Jewish small town Molodechno, which later emerged later as the city. He began to study painting in Tambov (the Jews were evicted from their homes, which had been in the years of World War II near the front). During the years of the revolution in Minsk he made posters for the movies for his living, and has continued to study and already showed at an art exhibition his sketches of the Jewish neighborhoods and cemeteries. But the real school, which made him professional and highly-artist, Meer graduated with Favorsky at Vkhutemas in Moscow (Higher Art and Technical Studios).
Provincial young man found himself in an unfamiliar environment. He had to absorb not only the capital’s art, but also the everyday life. His younger comrade Victor Elkonin recalled the story of Axelrod of how he was sitting at the table for the first time in the house of Favorsky, where the wine was surprisingly sour for him, and berry (olive) salt.
Meanwhile, creative maturation of Axelrod was fast. Have not graduated from the institute, he participated in exhibitions of the art of cultural associations of the 20ties – Company of “Four Arts”, together with its teachers of Vkhutein. “And in this constellation, Mark was able to immediately take its distinct and special place, was seen as a first-class talent” – recalled Elkonin. In fact, he was quickly identified by critics – A.Fedorov-Davydov, Ya.Tugendhold, A.Sidorov and especially – the watchful and demanding A.Efros, who had extremely high expectations of the young artist. “Had not seen such a clear and reliable graphical talent,” he wrote in 1928. And this year, has just finished Vkhutein, Axelrod teaches drawing there and at the Textile Institute.
At the same time, he continued to exhibit his work in Minsk, and more often at home. In search of the characteristic features of “color range of Sholem Aleichem” he is traveling with bulky artistic luggage on Jewish settlements of Belarus: “We must live in the people’s house. See their everyday life. Meet people. Try to win their trust and … persuade them to pose”, – he said.
These many drawings from nature, fast, temperamental and sharp, not only, but perhaps most important that the artist executed in the late 20ties. At first he sketched more in pencil, but over time – more often used brush with broad stroke and generalizing the form, often sparing, generalized and sometimes quite conditional color range. These were almost always the portraits. Axelrod keenly saw nature and knew how to highlight the specificity of the natural poses and facial features. Quietly posing bearded old men, pensive, quiet children, girls and elderly women were concentrated, allocated in their quiet routine by some reflections concealed inner life. The artist was endowed with the gift of participation, emotional contact with nature, despite the fact that he always bravely and accurately decided on plastic sheet certain tasks. “Through these as if only” realistic “like it was” fine “sketches appear the deposits ‘isms’ of the left art, understood, processed, differentiated, clearly imposed” – Efros wrote about this in very aphoristic way.
In 1930, Axelrod was on mission to the steppes of Crimea, where in the second half of the 20ties, had launched one of the Soviet utopian projects “land employment of working Jews”. Jewish poor from the small towns of the former “Pale” was moved to the Crimean steppe, where they were given land for the organization of agricultural communes. The history of these settlements did not last long and was sad. But at first, being unfamiliar with the rural labor migrants hotly took up a new business. Vkhutein graduates come to them to draw and share their enthusiasm (together with Axelrod in the brigade were Mendel Gorshman, Lev Zevin and Lydia Zholtkevich). A year later, Axelrod came here again.
The result of these two trips were a series of “The Steppe”, which are free and quick sketches of soft and light color on paper (mainly it gouache, watercolor less). It is evident that the artist painted them from nature, catching multiple impressions of not well-established, almost camp life of the Communards. The moving scenes of a collaborative work and communal living, dining experiences in the field, bathing children, holidays were added to the portraits. Axelrod was endowed with a gift of holistic, complete compositional vision of nature, he did not compose his groups, but saw them perfectly and rhythmically organized, and at the same time natural, like in life.
Effortless, quick drawing with a brush, operated not as a line, but live plastic and mobile forms, free use of color, the mean and the subordinate ranks picture, and then the picturesque sonorous, all these determined at the end of the 20ties the artistic language of Axelrod. He confidently finds his work place somewhere at the junction of drawing and painting. During his student years at Favorsky, he tried himself at woodcuts. Engravings of his then highly praised, and deservedly (particularly by A.A.Sidorov). But multistage, hard work on the board wasn’t attractive. “I do not engrave any more”, – he explained his refusal of use a popular, in those years, technique, to his younger comrade G.Filippovski, who had come to see Axelrod’s work. “The engraving prevents me directly to express what I feel at the sight of the model.”
Thus became evident some separation from the tightly knit school to which he seems to have belonged. Later, follower pedantic teachers reproached Axelrod by this “treason”. However, there was no betrayal. He accepted and learned Favorsky’ lessons quite organically. But it turned out that he didn’t need the features of the individual creative style of master, which were lovingly perceived and assimilated by so many students, and only the most common, but, moreover, the deeper principles of pictorial space, the organization of the plane sheet and plastic color patch, which is the essence of his theory. Of loyalty to them, perhaps most clearly show performed by Axelrod illustrations.
Such is a large series of drawings for “Jacquerie” of Prosper Merimee (1932). They never dried, filled with free, sweeping strokes of the pen and rich black ink brush. Yet they were precisely put on paper, correlated with the plane, which spatial structure is not reducible to the school rules of perspective.
Other works in this genre were executed in the late 20ties and 30ties, more freely. Juicy, without details, broad brush molds living shapes moved with characteristic sharp silhouettes on the white field of the paper. The drawings are not fenced off the frame of the text, live with it, in the same space … Such a reversal sketched way of illustration at the time was widely distributed. He gave a feeling of very close, direct relationship with illustrations depicting the life. However, fluency in drawing illustrations of Axelrod is just a method. The illustrations were built in accurately, spatially and semantically w rhythmic and very bookish way. Its mise-en-scènes are free, creative and in addition natural. In general, these were illustrations for editions of modern Jewish literature. Artist reproduced well familiar to him home environment, its characteristic types, everyday life, hacked revolution and civil war, which were reshaped by the time in a new way…
Jewish themes predominated in master’ theatrical works of 30ties and 40ties. There were not many – a dozen with a little more, but in his artistic heritage they have specific and important place, show facets of his talent, which are not as noticeable in other art forms. Axelrod mostly designed spectacles of Jewish theaters in Moscow, Belarus and Ukraine. They had the same, as in the illustrations, familiar to him details of the small town’s everyday life and alike characters. But, least of all, the artist was interested in the domestic credibility, the details of the situation. He was looking for the emotional atmosphere of the play; creating an expressive and complete structure of the spectacle … Space of the stage became movable, active. Curved-sided houses were molded up to the hills, roads twisted between it, rickety ladders climbed the slopes. The expression of space matched with the dynamics of action. Numerous master’ sketches, ranging solution scene were always sharp, fluent, contrasting. They searched the main, and the rest is given as a hint. The main thing here is the rhythm and color range. It is always the painting, more expressive and nervous then he had allowed himself working with nature. And costume designs were outlined in specific and vivid images of the spectacle’ characters, he painted not only clothes, but a human.
In becoming a Moscow’s resident and accepting the principles of Russian art school, Axelrod did not come off the Jewish culture. It was rooted not only in himself, but in his living environment, his family and friends. The younger brother of the artist, Zelik, a professional poet, wrote poems in Yiddish, he was arrested on the eve of the war, and soon died. Jewish writer, translator and critic, was Axelrod’s wife, Rebecca Rubin. Their daughter, poetess Helen Axelrod writes poetry in Russian and translated prose of the mother and poetry of the uncle.
Such a combination of both national cultures was typical to many Jewish artists of his generation. Back in the pre-revolutionary time then young critic Abram Efros, indifferent to the fate of Jewish art in Russia, sharply and precisely outlined the problem of its identity. In visual art there is no national Jewish tradition, which could be extended. In contrast to the national literature, it is not separated from the Russian by the language. “Jewish artists belong to art of the country where they live and work, they also share the fate of the art, and as well responsible for it, on the other hand, the art itself attaches them to its glory, is responsible for them.” Meanwhile, national identity, which became more acute in the years, encouraged to find the independent Jewish origins in this area too, to identify national creative tendencies. “One may notice a national hunger for aesthetics, national forming shapes.” (“Notes on Art”, 1916).
This organic need to feel a Jew in the art wasn’t exhausted even in Axelrod’s generation – the artists, formed already in the post-revolutionary period. Their relationships to their origin, with childhood and youth, held in the places of “Pale” together with the national media have not been broken. From this “small” world where they did not have opportunities for creative development, they had brought in to the “big” world of Russian culture some specimens, striking memory of the abandoned, in some cases even hated, but still native nest. Nostalgic haze kind of national romanticism in varying degrees colored work of these artists.
Positive attitude, with which the criticism welcome first exhibited works of Axelrod, was soon changed. Already in 1933, in the final article of the schedule for the 15 years of Soviet Regime, A.D.Chegodayev reproached him “amorphous, vague emotional expressionism” and other such sins. However, it was not the individual features of the artist’s work, but the incremental change of the leading trends and, mainly, formal conventions in art. The circle of Favorsky, to which Axelrod belonged, was found entirely under attack. Being far away from any extreme avant-garde extremes, these artists were still suspected of “formalist” tendencies. And then, up to the beginning of the 50ties, they constantly re-educated, driving under the general official rankings of “realism.”
Meanwhile, Axelrod was unyielding. He, however, didn’t refuse to paint in oils “thematic” paintings, at first, in the late 20ties, the dramatic themes of the Civil War – “Belopolskaya occupation”. Then – on the material of their Crimean farm studies – “Red Caravan” (1932). By the mid-30ties industrial plots were needed – “Cannery” (1934), “Glass factory”. The latter was commissioned from the artist for a huge agitation and thematic exhibition “The Industry of Socialism”, which was prepared for several years and opened, finally, in 1939. As suggested, the Committee concluded the exhibition with the artist contract: “THE COMMITTE shall request, THE ARTIST undertakes to paint, for the exhibition named “The Industry of Socialism”, on the material of glass factory an art work under the theme
“GLASS FACTORY IN KONSTANTINOVKA”, sizes 1,5 x2″…
But even with such a topic, Axelrod’s work was not quite fit into the flourishing set of Soviet “thematic paintings,” noted for their compositional freedom and beautiful expression. It was a master of self, sustainable and creative system, and he did not yield to attempts to bring him “to the common denominator”. Advices, which he gave in the early 40ties his younger comrade Viktor Vakidin, speak of a distinct statement of artistic problems and developing ways to solve them.
“They observed my paintings, drawings of 1938” – recorded Vakidin. – “Advised not to be afraid to make a bad painting, not fear of bad starts. He scolded the painting for small format, for the lack of pace (the line were lethargy and also not accurate), for lack of constructability (need for more angles), advised us not to be afraid of light and shade and avoid the “dogma of Favorsky,” love the Impressionists. He advised to change the material – pencil on the brush, gouache paintings, watercolor, in one, two, three colors.”
These advises were not exactly creative trends of Vakidin, artist who has very different temperament. But they transfer very precisely the way of Axelrod’s working, sharpness and mobility of his graphic manner. Clearer than before, in this conversation delineated the rejection of absolute submission to the artistic preferences of Favorsky. In his logical theory his recent student and disciple now saw the features of dogmatism, domination of abstract propositions on immediacy of creative practice. The advise “love the Impressionists” is typical, which answered one of the important trends of the time, his search for a color integrity picturesque perception of the world. Meanwhile, in the circle of the teacher strong dislike for such art remained, “where space becomes a medium, even the weather, as the subject – a blot on this weather, atmosphere clot” (Favorsky). It was, in his opinion, “the naturalistic trend.”
Axelrod was never impressionist. In his work definitely dominated willed, constructive beginning, clearly expressive in the early years. But over the years he has markedly enhanced scenic trends, striving to build a space of color and shape, always tight, but difficult and finely nuanced. Perhaps the lessons of Impressionism, which didn’t affect the structure and plasticity of the artist’s works, were liberating the eyes, helping to direct perception of nature, the wealth of color vision. Later, in 1945, he once said the same Vakidin that “art should be music. You will write a tune when you can sing it, kind of.”
In recent decades of the master’s life, in the 50ties and 60ties, “color graphics” of his older works definitely supplanted by painting. Numerous Baltic and Crimean landscapes of the time and an extensive series of portraits in tempera were painted on large sheets of paper and paperboard. These works are deprived of the same fluency, striving to grab something on the fly, catch and fix the only important thing. A much more complete, the work also is laconic, never dried, very solid. Active, stressed by mobile, enhanced internal contrasts of color range is perhaps the main means of expression of the artist. Korney Chukovsky had seeing landscapes of Axelrod in Peredelkino, said: “This is the way how happy you see the world!”
Heroes of the late artist’s portrait series were mostly people of culture: artists – I.Chaykov, N.Niss-Goldman, I.Shpinel; writers – K.Chukovsky, V.Shklovsky, R.Frayerman, B.Slutsky, A.Voznesensky and others. Talent of portrait painter, inherently to this master, not only is in the ability to grasp the resemblance. Rather, it’s ability to realize the only accurately selected pose, turning and vision, but not less than that – in coloring range and plastic, all is in the compositional structure of a portrait, unique personal principle, the unity of appearance and character, manners, and of the human mind. It seems that Axelrod’s heroes are very simple: closed-up, closed to the viewer, in a shallow space, without further explaining the details. But, despite this case, they all differently live on the plane of the paper and specific to each model, a state of mind is accurately select!
Meanwhile, in the relatively liberal “thaw” years elderly artist remains outside the circle of officially encouraged, recognized masters. He was not spoil by contracts and procurement, professional and mature works are not always passing through the sieve of vigilant exhibits committees. It is their profound artistic culture, the desire to resolve creative problems honed beautifully-plastic, and not literary narrative means, is rejected. The national preferences in the choice of models also played a prominent role and.
Almost all of his half-century artistic life, Axelrod was not allowed to expand his work in the solo exhibition. Only in 1966, he was able to show respect to their wide panorama (in the catalog – about three hundred pages) to the group exhibition. Once again, at the very end of his life, he had an exhibition in Rostov-on-Don. Many years and living conditions of the master and his family were very scarce. Culture and creative freedom treated the artist very expensive.
Series “Ghetto”, dedicated to the tragic fate of the Jews during the Nazi occupation, he executed in his last years. The drama of topics did not ask him return to the expressive language of his early work. He was very restrained. No direct images of horror or ecstatic gestures of despair are not in these mournful compositions. Axelrod is seeking solutions, far from hysteria or sentimentalism, in the stifled compositions, in their hopelessly cold color range.
The latest series of Axelrod landscapes are “Memories of the old Minsk.” Daughter of the artist writes about it: “The impetus served accidentally discovered in the old folder watercolor and pencil sketches, to which his father at the time, apparently intended to return, because the outline in some places even indicated what color should be this or that spot”. Reminisce about the past with a brush in hand is naturally for the artist. He sees mentally the town of his youth, after the destruction and rebuilding, which does not exist, squalid quarters of the Jewish poor, and its pictorial memories inspired by the inevitable touch of nostalgia.
He started his career as an artist and stayed in touch with this medium for life. Later he studied in Moscow, lived there and worked for half a century, and died there. The descendants of the artist, who settled in Israel, are bringing now his legacy to our exhibition from this country. All this is very tightly intertwined. Fate and work of Meer (Mark) Axelrod are inseparable from both the Russian and the Jewish culture.