Cossacks in the living room: the story of Turka art

The story was close to my heart: I remember my own grandmother telling us about her being a little girl hiding under the kitchen table as the Cossacks plundered her village (also in today’s Ukraine).

'Turka' acrylic on canvas, 100 x 150 cm (photo credit: WWW.DARIUS-ART.COM/WWW.ARIELLA-VERLAG.DE)
'Turka' acrylic on canvas, 100 x 150 cm
 Turka is a small town in Ukraine. In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, it was in Polish territory and occupied by Russian forces. The Stieglitz family was a well-to-do Jewish family with a large house in a prominent position in the town. Unfortunately, it was an ideal place for a military command post. 

The czar’s army sent a troop of Cossacks to requisition the home, possibly knowing they could be relied upon to loot and pillage to their hearts’ content. The Cossacks rode their horses right into the family home, whose parquet floors had always been kept perfectly polished, and whose white tablecloths were always starched and ironed. 

Of course, the wild horsemen wrecked the place, and the family had to leave. They never forgot the horse dung on the parquet floor!

Last year, one of the descendants of the Stieglitz family was putting the finishing touches to his own newly built family home in Israel. He wanted to teach his children, in spite of their elegant house, not to invest too much importance in such material things. He asked me if I could make him a painting depicting a Cossack horseman evicting his forebears from their home in Turka. 

The story was close to my heart: I remember my own grandmother telling us about her being a little girl hiding under the kitchen table as the Cossacks plundered her village (also in today’s Ukraine). 

The artistic task for the Turka painting was quite challenging. The subject was quite dramatic and I thought it was probably unappealing for a living-room painting, especially as the horse and rider were supposed to be dominant.

My last commission had been for a surrealistic desert scene populated with tiny figures – a subject which I had painted many times before in my mystical phase – trying, through my art, to touch the inner essence of the ancient Sinai experience of our people, and to link it to my own personal spiritual search. 

Before that, I had spent years developing my own colorful, naïve style of painting, which led to a project illustrating all 54 weekly Torah portions for a Jewish children’s publisher in Berlin. The current project seemed to be a chance to break out of this rather restricting style and move into more expansive artistic realms.

But where to begin in terms of composition and style? I had no idea, so I looked online for paintings and photos of Cossacks, paintings of horsemen in general, paintings of horses, and photos of the actual town of Turka. I made computer composites with some of the images I had found, and these reminded me of work by Peter Doig. 

However, I couldn’t find an approach that suited both my own style as well as what my patron was looking for. He definitely didn’t want a children’s illustration. The painting had to have gravitas, but also, I felt, some humor and life and color. 

I loved the wonderful horsemen of Raoul Dufy, and used something of their coloring in the sketches. In the end, this coloring didn’t fit with the spirit of the project, and the bright colors I used in the oil pastel and acrylic sketches had to be toned down. 

Eventually, I looked to the artistic world of 1914 itself, to Eastern Europe and its Jewish life, through the inimical lens of Marc Chagall. I reread parts of his amazing, poetic autobiography, and looked at lots of his early artwork on life in his hometown of Vitebsk and in the nearby countryside.

Tentatively, I began to divide up elements of the composition in the manner of cubism. In this way, I was able to gradually bring the color black into the interior of the home, suggesting the sense of foreboding and fear inherent in the scene. The perfect parquet flooring, so often mentioned by my patron, also suddenly took on new life with this treatment, and contributed greatly to the tension in the whole picture. 

I found there was something of the circus ring in this scene with the horseman in the circular room – circular because it was thus in the original family home in Turka. And so the horse is posed to recall the pose of trained circus horses, while the shape and texture of its neck and head are modeled on the hobby horse I had as a child. In this way, the scene became, for me, a “performance” and an entertainment for the viewer, rather than a true-to-life depiction of the actual event. 

Just as Kurt Weill would later write charming but dark songs about lurid goings-on in inner city life, so I hope this painting is, in its own way, a charming and engaging song about a meaningful, if disturbing event from the life of this energetic and flourishing family.

Writer’s note: In the light of our current situation, it should be reassuring to all that the Cossack is definitely more than two meters away from the family.

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