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Inna Rogatchi
War & Humanity Special Project

As Happy As God in Paris: Visiting Homeland. Part I.

Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition at the Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, National Museum of Art, Vilnius. Lithuania. Photo: Gintare Grigenaite. (C) National Museum of Art of Lithuania. With kind permission.
Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. May - September 2023.

LITVAK ARTISTS IN PARIS EXHIBITION IN VILNIUS

PART I. GEMS & DISCOVERIES

Alone with Chagall

If this exhibition were to be on display in Paris or New York, the queues and hype there would be the same as at the Vermeer show in Amsterdam or van Gogh’s one in London. I was lucky in Vilnius. I came to the Vytautas Kasiulius Museum of Art, part of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art,  next to Neris river, just before its opening, and was among very few first visitors of the day. A fantastic day, a gift which would stay with me for good, as any great exhibition does. 

Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition at the Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, National Museum of Art, Vilnius. Lithuania. Photo: Gintare Grigenaite. (C) National Museum of Art of Lithuania. With kind permission.

In an unbelievable exhibition opened at the end of May and running until the end of September this year, as many as 130 works are on display of 21 great artists of the Ecole de Paris, all Litvaks of the group. The bulk of the collection comes from France, from two great sources, the private collection and estate of the Chagall family, and from the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris. There are also very good works from the rich collections of the Lithuanian museums, and very valuable works from several notable private collections, including the Rafael Chwoles family,  the TARTLE Art collection, the Lost Shtetl forthcoming museum in Seduva, and the others. 

And there is an entire large hall of Chagall with 33 works in different mediums. To find oneself in such a hall alone is like day-dreaming. You are struggling in between your awe, love, tangible misbelief that you are not dreaming, and a pulsating thought that you would like to be there alone for as long as it takes. 

Marc Chagall exposition at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition. Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, National Museum of Art, Lithuania. Vilnius. Photo: Gintare Grigenaite. (C) National Museum of Art of Lithuania. With kind permission.

Yet before and after the Chagall hall, there are gems of art and history at every step of this remarkable exhibition. How on earth has  it become possible ? – one wonders. 

Joined Effort of Loving Attention 

The story of this exhibition, the largest show of the Litvak Artists in the Baltic states to the date, is the same miraculous as twists of destinies of many if not all of its participants, those unbelievable-but-true lives of the Jewish artists from the western parts of the Russian empire ( meaning Baltics, Belarus and part of Ukraine), who were flocking out of there en masse on the first opportunity. Who would not?

A bit over a century later of the Litvak artists’ exodus, energetic, smart and talented Arunas Gelunas who is currently leading the Lithuanian National Museum, a vast body that includes 11 first-class museums all over the country, and who previously was the minister for culture in Lithuania and the country’s representative in UNESCO, receives a telephone call from Paris. His good friend on another end of the line, son of soulful and very special Litvak painter Rafael Chwoles, Milij asks in a matter-of-fact way: “Arunas, would you like to have a Chagall exhibition?”  Arunas who always values a good joke starts to laugh. 

Milij, who is prone to humour too, was not joking though. The idea of exhibiting Chagall’s works at home was a perfectly working one, thanks to Milij’s many years of close friendship with Meret Meyer,  one of the Chagall’s grandchildren and vice-president of the Comite Marc Chagall, the world’s authority on the master. This was a covid-time, but the exhibition has got its start already. Madame Meyer visited Lithuania, saw the place, saw the space and was quite satisfied with what she was seeing, not surprisingly. Vilnius has an exceptionally high and intense level of cultural life, to the credit of people who are working in the field both professionally and devotedly. Civility and taste for civility is a well-known quality of Lithuania, its capital and its people. 

Madame Meret Meyer, granddaughter of Marc Chagall and vice president of the Comite Marc Chagall, and Milij Chwoles, son of Rafael Chwoles, at the opening of the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. May 2023. Photo: Gintare Grigenaite. (C) National Museum of Art of Lithuania. With kind permission.

At the approximately same time, in a fantastic, blessed development Pascale Samuel, curator of the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris which has a great collection of art by the Litvak artists, came to Vilnius, to meet with Dr Vilma Gradinskaite, arguably the leading authority on the Litvak artists not just in Vilnius or Lithuania, but throughout the Baltic region, at least. Ms Samuel was planning to discuss an appealing cooperation with Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, exchanging exhibitions and working together on the new discoveries of the boundless treasury produced by the Ecole de Paris and its Litvak members. 

The two great initiatives appearing at approximately the same time converged into the unprecedented exhibition. A gift, a celebration, a joy. Having a unique chance to bring quite a substantial number of Marc Chagall’s works, Vilma and the museum’s director Ilona Mazeikiene, who generously provided a space of the entire floor of the museum to the Litvak Artists and who treated the project lovingly, had to squeeze a bit of previously selected works from Museum of Art and history of Judaism collection, in order to produce a coherent, very rich and multi-dimensional narrative. 

Other participants of the exhibition from Lithuania, including two well-known museums, Vilna Gaon Museum, The Lost Shtetl Museum, K.Ciurlionis Museum, Lewben Art Foundation and private collectors provided truly unique works to this rare show of love, expertise and respect. 

Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition at the Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, National Museum of Art, Vilnius. Photo: Gintare Grigenaite. (C) National Museum of Art of Lithuania. With kind permission.

As the result of all these synchronised efforts of quite different people and institutions from different countries and cultures, a very harmonious exhibition was born which is a rare case and big achievement of the exhibition’s curator and organisers. On each step of one’s route through five large halls of the exhibition, there are gems and discoveries. 

Gems and Discoveries: from Aronson to Mane-Katz

It is very difficult to cause an effect of distinction in a space furnished with carefully selected masterpieces, but a large enough rare painting by famed sculptor Boris  Schatz does exactly that. 

Boris Schatz. Bouquet of Peonies and Lilacs. Oil on plywood. 71,5,x 58 cm. Lithuanian Art Centre TARTLE. Exhibited at the Litvaks Artists in Paris. Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, Vilnius. M1y 23 – September 29, 2023. (C) Inna Rogatchi.

A powerful, mighty work literally flows in the air, being suspended in between heaven and earth. It is painted on both sides of plywood, that’s the secret of this unusual way of exhibiting it. And it is superbly masterly done. On one part of the large work is an arresting flower still life, on another elderly Jewish man with his silver beard and in a dark hat. Both works remind me of old Dutch masters, and it was done by the artist on purpose, I believe. Boris Schatz who is known as the father of an Israeli art and founder of Bezalel Art Academy, was a famous and internationally recognised sculptor, yet before he became an ardent Zionist in the beginning of 20th century, acquaint of Herzl and his circle, and the Secretary of the First Zionist Congress. 

Boris Schatz. Jewish Sage. Oil on plywood. 71,5, 58 cm. Lithuanian Art Centre TARTLE. Exhibited at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition. May 23 – Spetember 29, 2023. Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, National Museum of Art of Lithuania. Rogatchi.

Any painting or drawing by him is a rarity per se, but the work which was loaned to the exhibition by TARTLE, the leading private art institution and collection in Lithuania, is a great work by any standard. So it is not surprising that Meret Meyer was impressed by it, especially by its flower still life part. My favourite is another part, but both sides of this great and rare work are a discovery for many visitors. 

Rolandas Valiunas, well-known art collector and proprietor of TARTLE, has mentioned to me that visitors from Israel are quite surprised to find Boris Schatz’s work in his collection in Vilnius. I am not surprised given the level of the TARTLE collection,  but am grateful to Rolandas who determinedly reconstructs Lithuanian history and its cultural dimension. It is a worthy mission. 

TARTLE also provided the exhibition with three more extremely meaningful sculptures, including the Mephistopheles Head by Mark Antokolsky, a classic of classics of late 19th century art world-wide. Antokolsky was not only the first Jewish artist who started to sculpt, but he also was the first artist from the Russian Empire whose work was acquired abroad. His Mephistophel Head is comparable with Rodin’s most well-known works. 

Yet another sculpture loaned by TARTLE attracts attention, the famous The Encounter  by great Jacque Lipschitz. The exhibited version of it is one of a very limited edition piece,  signed by Lipschitz, and casted in bronze. We are seeing the number six of nine pieces. So much talent, so much elegance, such a strong message of superb art is in this great sculpture which Lipschitz created back in 1913 when he was just 22. I still cannot get it how even a very talented youth can create such a perfect and matured piece of art being twenty two years old. 

Jacques Lipchitz. The Encounter. 1913. Lithuanian Art Centre TARTLE. Exhibited at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. May 23 – September 29, 2023. Vytautas Kasiulis Museum, National Museum of Art of Lithuania. (C) Photo: Inna Rogatchi

Visitors to the exhibition would also be treated to see several plaques in bronze made by extremely talented Victor Brenner, one of two artist Brenner brothers. His exhibits include a small plaque which not only made him world-famous, for those who know the fact, but also has made his work arguably the most often reproduced artistic image in history. Why is that? And what’s the piece? 

Well, once back in 1909, Theodor Roosevelt visited the studio of Victor Brenner who came to live in America after some time spent in Paris. Brenner was a well-known sculptor by then, and Roosevelt knew some of his works before visiting the artist. I bet he was going to speak with Victor Brenner about the possibility of creating a sculpture portrait of himself. But entering the studio, Roosevelt saw Brenner’s bas-relief of Abraham Lincoln who he adored. 

Victor Brenner. Plaque of President Avraham Lincoln.1909. M.K. Curlionis National Museum of Art. Lithuania. Exhibited at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. Photo (C) Inna Rogatchi.

“Chronologically, it was the time when in the States, they were discussing what image there should be on the most usable coin in the country, a penny – curator Vilma Gradinskaite was telling me. – And at that moment, seeing Brenner’s Lincoln which is truly elegant, Roosevelt got his moment of insight. ‘That’s it!’ – he exclaimed just in the middle of Victor Brenner’s studio. – We’ve got our penny image now. It is Lincoln!” And so it happened. Litvak emigrant Victor Brenner’s portrait of the first American president since 1909 has been on the US dime ever since. 

Three great sculptures by Victor Brenner’s brother Michael loaned for the exhibition by the forthcoming The Lost Shtetl Museum in Seduva impact a viewer with their utter contemporary features. It is simply impossible to understand that these works were done more than a century ago, so modern is their style, so appealing is their dynamic, so tangible is their message of our contemporary posing the dilemmas of our time in front of his viewers today. The Lost Shtetl has received a series of twenty works by the artist in a priceless gift of his family, and in a year’s time, they are supposed to be on display in a new museum telling the story of real and metaphorical shtetl of Lithuania. 

Another very good, ‘speaking’ portrait in sculpture is famous depiction of Beethoven by great Naum Aronson, one of three very good and well-known works loaned for the exhibition by a very famous in post-Soviet Lithuania institution, Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History founded by my dear friends, late Markas and Emanuelis Zingeris brothers soon after Lithuania regained its independence in early 1990. 

Aronson, who studied under Rodin, and it can be seen in all his works, had a special affiliation towards Beethoven. It was the only character who had such a deep effect on the sculptor that Aronson, who was an accomplished master  and who worked very quickly, did spend at least six years and carried on a lot of studies of all sorts before he knew what his Beethoven should look like.

Naum Aronson. Ludwig van Beethoven. 1905. Patinated gypsum. 42x32x24 cm. Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History, Lithuania. Exhibited at the Litvaks in Paris exhibition. Photo (C): Inna Rogatchi.

A large portrait of this dramatic Beethoven is one of the most famous sculptures in Bonn where it stands in the garden next to the house in which  Beethoven was born, since 1905. At the exhibition in Vilnius, we are privileged to have a close look at this modern classic in patinated gypsum. It is the remarkable work of the great Naum Aronson. 

Among three works by Emmanuel Mane-Katz exhibited in Vilnius, one is a miracle. Coming from the super-rich collection of the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris, large Etude with the Holy Scripture created by the artist in 1931, is living and breathing Jewish life. It is a magnetic work in which every single object there is alive and reflecting our all inner development and rhythm of a human’s attitude to postulates which changes throughout life, and which is never predictable. 

Emmanuel Mane-Katz.Etude with the Holy Scriptures. 116x 88,8 cm. 1931. Musee d’art et de’histoire du Judaisme, Paris. Exhibited at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. Photo (C) Inna Rogatchi

When I saw how a great Lithuanian personality, former president of the country, its first post-Soviet president, superb intellectual  and dear colleague Vytautas Landsbergis was watching this very work at the exhibition’ opening, I was deeply glad.

President Vytautas Landsbergis and the Vytautas Kasiulis Museum director Ilona Mazeikiene at the opening of the Litvaks in Paris exhibition. Vilnius, May 2023. Photo: Gintare Grigenaite. (C) National Museum of Art of Lithuania. With kind permission.

The  fact that a painting created by a Litvak master ( who was on his way to become a rabbi at early stage of his life, so this work is really a first-hand experience of a spiritual Jew )  in Paris 90 years ago was the subject of such vivid interest, sympathy, and awe to non-Jewish person, filled me with joy and gratitude, for both the great master and to a great viewer who was perceiving the brilliant reflection of the Mane-Katz Etude so deeply. 

The same palette of the other great work created about the same time, in 1935, by the other great Litvak from the Ecole de Paris as if brings us into the studios of those superbly talented people who were very often outpouring their souls onto their canvases.

Pinchus Kremegne. Still Life with Figurines. 60 x 73 cm. 1935. Musee d’art et d’histoire de Judaisme, Paris. Exhibited at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. Photo (C) Inna Rogatchi

Still Life with Figurines of Pinchus Kremegne, also from the collection of the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris, has it all what was the culture medium of Litvak Artists in Paris: van Gogh’s books as if coming directly from his famous still lives with books, even colouristically wise, Matisse’s flowers in those vases, Picasso’s fragmented vision of the space. All that was in no way a direct appropriation by Kremegne, but signs and marks of the cultural atmosphere in which Litvak artists found and lived through while in Paris. 

The central place of the statement-like work of a Jewish master has a violin created with emphatic warmth, a small portrait on the wall addressing possibly to the artist’s mother ( Kremegne was 45 when the work was completed, and he left his home being just over 20), and that sculpture bust of a young man’s head just next to the violin, with that sad and thoughtful reflection on the face which is not quite typical for a sculptured bust. It is rather a metaphorical portrait, or perhaps self-portrait of the artist at the age when he left for Paris, crossing the border of the tsarist Russia illegally, as he had no passport at the time. 

It was a huge problem for Jews in Russia to get the document which would allow them to run from there. Another small portrait of the wall might refer to Kremegne’s home in Lithuania, his family and his father who loved his son and never was against his devotion to art, which was not quite typical for most of the families of the Litvak artists. That Still Life is the statement of love. And it also translates that customary for all Litvak artists of the Ecole de Paris sadness, one of the most tangible and most common features presented in their’s all art. 

It is truly challenging to choose between many superb sculptures presented at the exhibition in Vilnius, but a small work by Lazar Segall, Three Heads, won my heart.

Lasar Segall. Three Heads. Polished bronze. 10 x 11 x 10 cm. Musee d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme, Paris. Exhibited at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. Photo (C) Inna Rogatchi

While working in an abstract genre, it is extremely difficult to make an artist’s narrative so coherent and so well articulated as this very talented artist who is known today as one of the founders of the modern art in Brazil where he lived most part of his life, did. 

I was thinking – it is amazing, the boys from shtetls not only contributed in 20th century in the unique way to the entire history of art, but some of them has become the founders of entire art scenes in such countries as Israel ( as Boris Schatz was), or Brazil, in the case of Lasar Segall. 

Segall was so noticeable at the art scene that the Nazis were quick to seize as many as 50 of his works in Munich ( he used to live and work in Germany yet before Paris, and before moving to Brazil in early 1920s), and eagerly exhibited some of the at that infamous Degenerate Art exhibition celebrating our inferiority in their sick racist perception of the world and their illusory superiority of mediocres.

Looking at the Three Heads exquisite small sculpture composition in polished bronze, in our ongoing exchange during the touring the exhibition, its curator Vilma Gradinskaite mentioned:  ‘This work, it is as if it was made  just yesterday, isn’t it? – Yes, indeed,- I replied – even today” .  Just to think of the might of real talent. Not only was it visionary at the time of its creation, but it is perceived now, many decades later, so acutely contemporary, demonstrating the unbeatable strength of pioneering artistic thinking.  

Among the small series of Segall’s etchings from his famous Memory of Vilna series created by the artist in 1917, a year after he visited his native city after a decade of absence ( Lazar left the Russian empire at just 15), Couple work is a classic for all seasons. 

Lasar Segall. Memory of Vilna: Couple. Etching and drypoint on paper. 49,5 x34,2 cm. 1917. Musee d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme, Paris. Exhibited at the Litvaks in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. Photo (C) Inna Rogatchi

The whole series is resolved by Segall along the lines of acutely fashionable at the time cubism. But there is a cubism cubism, and there is a Jewish cubism, and there is a palpable difference in between the two. The difference, seen so well in Lazar Segall’s works, is defined by a short word: a soul. 

Surprisingly, this thoroughly historical exhibition also brought important discoveries to the wide public – like one of just two known today so very good works of Jacques Missene whom specialists are also known under his original name as Jokubas Mesenbliumas. This masterly Portrait of a Young Woman from the collection of the Lithuanian well-known M.K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art is such a special echo and greeting from the master who was highly appreciated in the beginning of the 20th century, who was known as a prestigious teacher for some of the brilliant Litvak artists, and who died being just over 40, in 1933. 

Jacques Missene. Portrait of a Young Woman. Oil on canvas. 84 x 62,5 cm. M.K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art. Exhibited at the Litvaks in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. Photo (C) Inna Rogatchi

Vilma Gradinskaite is seriously hopeful that more of Missene’s works can be found. If somebody can do it, she is the person on whom I bet. During her career as art historian, Vilma re-discovered as many as 75 Litvak artists all over Lithuania – only two of whom were known. This is an incredible achievement for Lithuanian, European and world culture, and we will take a closer look into that treasure of talent and mirror the dramatic history of the 20th century soon. 

Facing the re-discovered and rarely if ever presented at the international exhibitions Missene, there are two fantastic Zadkine’s works at the exhibition, and these sculptures are speaking in a paradoxical way. Woman with Fan in a sculptured way of Picasso painting from the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris, brings us back to the blossoming of cubism in all spheres of life, including, if not starting, from the way of thinking and visioning the world – until you are totally astonished by reading the work’s annotation telling that Zadkine did it as late as in 1961, just six years prior to his passing, and most likely, being in a process of recollecting his own life and its different periods. 

Ossip Zadkine. Mythological Character – a Sculptor. Bronze. 46 x 20,5 x 22 cm. Lewben Art Foundation. Exhibited at the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius. Photo (C) Inna Rogatchi

While seeing very interesting, intricate, masterly multi-layered Mythological Character – a Sculptor from the collection of Lewben Art Foundation, you are positive that it is the work of the late, if not latest period of Zadkine, so much it is in the stylistic of  the late 1960s  in general – to see in the annotation that the work was actually designed in 1941. This work poses so many questions which clearly were as if dancing in the artist’s mind when he was running from the occupied Paris to New York where he spent the years of the Second World War before returning to Paris in 1945. 

Part II to follow.

Vilnius, 

June 2023

About the Author
Inna Rogatchi is author of War & Humanity special project originated in the aftermath of the October 7th, 2023 massacre in Israel. Inna is internationally acclaimed public figure, writer, scholar, artist, art curator and film-maker, the author of widely prized film on Simon Wiesenthal: The Lessons of Survival and other important documentaries on modern history. She is an expert on public diplomacy and was a long-term international affairs adviser for the Members of the European Parliament. She lectures on the topics of international politics and public diplomacy widely. Her professional trade-mark is inter-weave of history, arts, culture and mentality. She is the author of the concept of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational projects conducted internationally by The Rogatchi Foundation of which Inna is the co-founder and President. She is also the author of Culture for Humanity concept of The Rogatchi Foundation global initiative that aims to provide psychological comfort to wide audiences by the means of high-class arts and culture in challenging times. Inna is the wife of the world renowned artist Michael Rogatchi. Her family is related to the famous Rose-Mahler musical dynasty. Together with her husband, Inna is a founding member of Music, Art and Memory international cultural educational and commemorative initiative with a multiply projects in several countries. Her professional interests are focused on Jewish heritage, arts and culture, history, Holocaust and post-Holocaust. She is author of several projects on artistic and intellectual studies on various aspect of the Torah and Jewish spiritual heritage. She is twice laureate of the Italian Il Volo di Pegaso Italian National Art, Literature and Music Award, the Patmos Solidarity Award, and the New York Jewish Children's Museum Award for Outstanding Contribution into the Arts and Culture (together with her husband). Inna Rogatchi was the member of the Board of the Finnish National Holocaust Remembrance Association and is member of the International Advisory Board of The Rumbula Memorial Project ( USA). Her art can be seen at Silver Strings: Inna Rogatchi Art site - www.innarogatchiart.com
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