After the Shtetl: N.Y. Museum Showcases A Century of Russian Jewish Art

A new exhibition in New York surveys the past 100 years of Russian and Soviet history through the eyes of 50 Jewish artists.

Another exhibition explores the complicated question of what it means to be Jewish in a society in which Jews are alternately persecuted and accepted but nearly always regarded as outsiders.

Actually, it's the same show, and it works on several levels, offering a glimpse at the turbulent recent history of both the Russian and Jewish peoples. In the process, it raises interesting questions about the way a minority assimilates into a dominant culture, while being subjected to varying degrees of tolerance and repression.

The show, ''Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change,'' running for four months at the Jewish Museum, is vast: more than 300 paintings, sculptures, photographs, porcelain objects, and posters displayed on two floors.

The curators were able to assemble it in large part because of the Soviet Union's collapse. As countries formerly under Soviet control opened to the West, the museum could for the first time borrow artworks rarely exhibited outside Russia.

One of the exhibit's most interesting aspects is the different degrees to which the artists focus on their Jewish heritage. For some, it is the dominant theme; other pieces show no discernible trace of the artist's ethnic background.

In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, several artists of note focused on the rapidly disappearing culture of the small market towns, or shtetls, in the western provinces of the Russian Empire, where Jews had been forced to live for more than a century.

There was Yehuda Pen, who founded Russia's first Jewish art school in 1897 in Vitebsk, Belarus, and whose most famous student was a Vitebsk native, Marc Chagall.

The show ends on an uncertain note. Many of the contemporary artists are now working outside the former Soviet Union, raising even more questions about what it means to be a ''Russian Jewish artist.''

One thing is clear: Two of the governments that in different ways and at different times sought to eliminate Jews from their midst - the czars and the Soviets - are gone, while the Jewish people endure.

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