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«Photo-archive of An-sky expeditions». Exhibition 4. “Photographs into the ‘Album of Jewish Artistic Antiquities’” 2007

While planning his first ethnographic expedition into the Jewish pale, Simeon An-sky compiled a list of objects to be photographed. Among others, this list included “historical places, monuments, ancient or remarkable buildings,” in other words, everything that was must in any historical-ethnographic research starting with 1860s.
The first expedition (1912) took place in Starokonstantinov and Lutsk, where synagogues definitely fell into the category of “ancient buildings.” However, during this expedition, pictures were taken not only of unique constructions of the XVII c., but also so to speak of quite ordinary synagogues built in the XIX – beginning of XX c.
In the course of preparation to the second expedition, An-sky resolved “to take pictures of synagogues and their internal decorations, grave stones, historical buildings and places, objects of art and ornaments…” The fact that synagogues were specifically singled out in this list should most probably be explained by the decision to take pictures of such buildings irrespectively of their construction date and architectural merits. By far not all the synagogues visited by An-sky could be recognized as “worthy” from the point of view of the search for “the interesting” and “the beautiful,” which invariably accompanied historical-architectural studies at the beginning of the XX c., if not fully substituted them. Even synagogue buildings, constructed on the former Polish territories in the XVII-XVIII c. were not usually recognized as particularly “noteworthy” architectural monuments. As early as 1889, a well-known critic Vladimir Stasov, in his attempt to reveal to the Russian Jews the treasures of their architectural heritage, denied any distinctive character of the European synagogues, ascribing it solely to constructions in Palestine. Stasov regretted the fact that the public position of European Jews prohibited them from professional involvement in architecture. He thought that this precluded every possibility for the unique synagogal constructions, authentically “Jewish” in style, to appear. Certain observations made by An-sky suggest that he shared this opinion.
Rachel Bernstein-Wishnitser in her article published in 1914 in the “History of the Jewish People” discussed not only the stylistic variegation of synagogal décor, but also the transformations of the synagogues’ space-and-planning decisions, and defined these constructions as a specific type in the history of Polish architecture. However, An-sky was looking for a more substantial justification for “nationalization” of architectural works rather then the mere correspondence with functional peculiarities of construction.
Based on detailed inscriptions made on the reverse sides of some photographs, one can infer that An-sky regarded as particularly “noteworthy” those objects that were featured in legends and tales recorded during the expeditions. In these texts synagogue is often portrayed either as a “monument of the bygone Polish landowner,” or a wonderful find, a construction that was miraculously found under the earth and dug out. According to these legends local Jewish communities as if had nothing to do with the construction of their own synagogue. Oral testimonies of this kind, as well as the lack of folkloric features in the architecture of monumental stone synagogues prohibited An-sky from reckoning them among “folk creative works,” which he considered the most valuable national treasure.
One can presume that An-sky tried to conceptualize wooden synagogal architecture as a part of Jewish “folk creative production.” What he portrays in his drama “Dybbuk” is precisely a wooden synagogue. From the inside it is “low,” with “tear-stained walls, which may not be whitewashed,” from the outside, it looks “tall, darkened, with a whole system of roofs, one over the other”.
The same “old” synagogue (wooden, according to the description), with “unique kind of architecture, intricate cornice and porch,” is featured in the memoirs of Abram Rechtman, a participant of 1913-1914 expeditions. As a matter of fact, he singles out two types of synagogues. The first are stone buildings, possessing “grandeur and luster, sacredness and mystery”; legends dedicated to these synagogues makes one doubt that Jewish masters had anything to do with their construction. Wooden synagogues belong to the second type. In Rechtman’s view, their “patriarchal beauty” reveals itself in the interior, whereas the exterior allows discerning stylistic peculiarities of definitely Jewish origin.
In XIX – beginning of the XX c., the notion of “traditions of folk architecture” was usually restricted to the secrets of craftsmanship, “packed” for preservation and passing down to the descendants; these traditions had to be connected with the “soil,” the territory seen as the “cradle of folk culture.” For instance, in the “History of Russian Art” edited by Igor Grabar’, a famous art critic Grigory Pavlutsky described wooden synagogues as “vanished mansions of the Polish gentry,” as he was sure that “Jews could not bring the tradition of wooden architecture from Judea for the lack of forests there.”
Probably, An-sky was prepared to consider Eastern Europe the second cradle, where Jewish masters could show their craftsmanship if not in the construction of monumental stone synagogues, then in wooden synagogal architecture and the art of stone carving. This is what the subtitle of his lecture, delivered in Odessa in 1916, strongly suggests: “Legends of the old stones (Jewish folk creativity in the sphere of plastic art).” Judging by the context of the lecture, it was dedicated to artistic merits of the tombstones and cemetery legends, as well as “cemetery scenes,” i.e. the ritual of visiting cemeteries.
This approach to understanding and presentation of the works of art allowed revealing their connections with local Jewish folklore texts and rituals. It would seem that this approach would make it unnecessary to additionally prove the “ethnic nature” of décor on Jewish tombstones or synagogue architecture, which in these texts are seen as treasures of local communities. Yet An-sky’s intention was to discover samples of truly “folk art.” He wanted to make them known to the Jewish painters, whose ethnic roots were severed but who nevertheless we engaged in the production of “Jewish art”; An-sky was convinced that such samples possess “the Jewish style,” i.e. “their own artistic line, their colors…”
A famous art critic Abram Efros, delighted by the examples of “Jewish graphics,” included in the first book of the five-volume “Album of Jewish Artistic Antiquities,” conceived by An-sky, used a similar expression in one of his articles. In this first volume, prepared for publication, although never published, Efros speaks of works with “unparallel combination of forms, in which national blood is singing.”
Five years after the publication of this article, painter Eliezer Lisitsky, who had written an enthusiastic article about the architecture and mural paintings of the synagogue in Mogilev-over-Dniepr, expressed his skeptical attitude in respect to attempts undertaken by “psychologists and ethnographers” to reach “the depths of the past” in order to construct a “genealogical tree” of such architectural monuments. This skeptical attitude on the part of Lisitsky to the term “folk creative works” was probably determined by his negative view of national projects as such.
For An-sky the project of “construction of the Jewish people” was the essence of his whole life, yet, in spite of this, he virtually rejected the requirement of the “purity” of ethnic aesthetics for the works of national artistic heritage, so characteristic to his generation. The lack of exhaustive information on synagogue builders and craftsmen who made Aronoth Kodesh and bimoth, as well as on objects related to the cult and everyday life, did not change An-sky’s decision to place the photographs of these objects into the second and third volumes of his “Album.” The fourth volume was supposed to bring together pictures of tombstones of “outstanding people and historical persons,” as well as monuments “with singular ornaments.” Photographs of old Jews engaged in tombstone carving indicate that An-sky regarded this craftsmanship as a traditional Jewish art.
Even those who did not share An-sky’s populist ideas, had to give him credits for the fact that during his expeditions he took photographs not only of “noteworthy” works of art and architecture, but also those of common houses, squares, and shtetl streets. Photographic representations of dilapidated Jewish houses with peeled walls, of streets and squares filled with “impassable thick mud,” lop-sided merchant yards – all those were necessary for An-sky to portray the world of the “Jewish poverty,” which borderlines coincided with those of the pale of residence. Monuments of art and architecture that were discovered in the most god-forsaken places, where “Jewish artistic antiquity” and “Jewish poverty” were as if inextricably tied with each other, were probably the most valuable for him. A wooden synagogue with doubled windows and high multi-tired roof became the symbol of this world. Architectural forms of monumental stone synagogues of the XVII-XIX c. turned out to be less suitable for such conceptualization, although at the beginning of the XX c. poor people used to pray precisely in such buildings.
Visual images of the “Jewish antiquities,” created in the course of An-sky’s expeditions, give a chance to look into the Jewish past, which An-sky himself was so much excited about.
What was the way of formation of this tradition, used by Jewish craftsmen as a source of images for their work? A peculiar reply to this complex question may be found in the response by rabbi Minkis from Zhitomir, who lived in the middle of the XIX c.
“I was asked by the people praying in the synagogue where I also pray, where did these images came from, why our fathers in bigger shtetls, in all synagogues, made images of animals and birds, with or without volume, around Aron Kodesh, which obviously was done in accordance with the understanding of the great ones of the first generation, with the thinking of those who themselves were similar to the angles. ... why every synagogue portrays images of animals and birds, and the twelve signs of the Zodiac on its walls. And each Sabbath and Yom tov we open parokheth and take out Sefer Torah in mehila , and both of them are decorated with animals and birds, for example, lions and eagles, embroidered in silk, gold, and silver. For at the first glance we breach the commandment “do not create an image or a statue to yourself,”and are being suspected of this. How bend in the direction of Aron Kodesh when we enter the synagogue? And kiss the parokheth, as if worshiping the image on it? If in fact, God forbid, there existed a prohibition to do so, the great ones from one generation to the other would never , for everything was done in accordance with the well-considered opinion of the teachers. It is also evident, that it is not only not prohibited, but even pious <‘mitzvah’ in Hebrew> to make beautiful images and flowers in all our synagogues, and there in no hidden danger in this. We also make painted mizrachim in all our synagogues, with images of various animals, and birds, and plants, and any member of our communes who stands against mizrach calmly contemplates images both with volume and without it.”



PHOTO (Paris, 2009).

Several flash-movies were exposed at the exhibition "Future Anterior. The avant-garde and the Yiddish book 1914-1939." The Musée d'art et d’histoire du Judaïsme. Paris. France. 2009