A joint exhibition of Michael Morgenstern and the late Yosef (Joseph Meerovich) Ostrovsky (1935-1993) is taking place in November at Hechal Shlomo – The Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in Jerusalem until December 25. It promises to be an exciting show, considering both artists have met with much success in their art and express deeply – each in his unique way – what may be described as a Jewish spirit and profoundly humanistic experience through their paintings.
The question as to what a particular “Jewish spirit” might entail is, of course, debatable. However, if one traces the Jewish contribution to modern art with the likes of Soutine, Chagall, El Lessitsky, Rothko, Newman, Modigliani and so on, one might typify such works as intensely Romantic in spirit, breaking with the classical tradition and finding new creative outlets. In one sense, such art reflects a Jewish spirit; in another, it is a universal sensibility. In fact, Ostrovsky said something to the effect that art traverses boundaries, and the deeper one peers into and within one’s own culture and people, the more acute a universal sensibility of all nations is somehow manifest. In this sense, one might describe both artists as simultaneously tribal and particularistic, as well as universal and humanistic.
One might recall the “degenerate art” at the time of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Official state art was said to be classical, robust, realist and powerful, reflecting a “pure race”, while modern art at the time and in particular “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” art was expelled, demoted to an exhibition that was intentionally haphazard, unflattering and seemingly illogical in contrast to officially sanctioned “classical” art.
Yet such “degenerate art” persisted, and the Jewish contribution to Modernism flourished. Artists such as Rothko and Newman formed a powerful contribution to Abstract Expressionism, for example, as it took root in New York. In this sense, I would argue that the two artists concerned continue such a legacy – enthralling viewers with a Romantic Jewish spirit and, in effect, triumphing over both the ills of Fascist and Socialist art, endeavoring in the process to both find an individual soulful expression and universal undertones.
Under threat for their art, they made aliyah
In fact, both artists were under threat from the Soviet government at the time in their Jewish subject matter and the fact that their art did not conform to the official art of the day – Social Realism. In this sense, their art appeared to not be nationalistic and therefore undermined the authority at the time. But Ostrovsky and Morgenstern were unfazed by this, their childhood dream to connect with Judaism and Jewish culture remained unstinting with their dream of finally making aliyah in 1989 and 1991, respectively, having come to fruition, unscathed by the demands of Soviet pressure.
For Ostrovsky, it was the memory of his grandparents and shtetl life that made an indelible impression, while for Morgenstern, the memory of his grandfather donning a tallit in prayer was etched in his soul. These childhood memories and their friendship remained unwavering, and their art is testament to the enduring spirit that wanted to express such vivid memories and return to the land of their birth, metaphorically speaking. And once in Israel, both artists made a strong impression artistically and creatively with numerous exhibitions. While Ostrovsky immersed himself in Jewish cultural life, quickly learning the language and becoming a significant artist, Morgenstern too was to become a leading figure and found his way to the spiritual-religious depth of Judaism. Both in a sense represented Israel as artists, and their long exile was overcome as they would find “home.” Yet a cursory glance at their artistic output and history reveals that they also exhibited widely even outside of Israel. In fact, Ostrovsky had a retrospective in 2015 in New York which showcased his art with the intent of forging a link between Russian Jewish artists and the Jewish people as a whole.
Ostrovsky was born in Shepetovka in 1935, moved to Odessa, and later studied at the Odessa State Academy of Arts. His oeuvre reveals a modernist style with echoes of Cezanne, Breughel (who was modern for his time), Picasso and Chagall. In this sense, while no one category suffices, one could say his work spans the post-Impressionistic, the Cubist and the Expressionist. Notwithstanding the fact that his work deals with traditional subject matter – the portrait, the still life and genre scenes – he has carved out his own style. One might describe it as hieratic and Romantic in the mystical sense without descending into kitsch and mere “types.”
His figures appear dense and solid; bodies somewhat distorted and simplified in geometric shapes. Still, he creates movement, and solidity gives way to a kind of surreal distortion where, for example, his violin players or keen subjects appear to dance and yield to a higher energy that is defined by solid blocks of color, almost abstract backgrounds that are less descriptive and a vision wherein the strength of the subject becomes a powerful reality where textured surfaces and the play of light and shade exude both warmth and an air of spiritual fecundity.
There is almost childlike naivety in the rendering of figures offset by more cerebral metaphorical allusions. One might be so bold as to say that his work exudes a sort of other-worldly worldliness and that his journey to Israel and his success as an artist here connect his understanding of light, color, space, and line to the ethereal, to a dimension where the visual becomes musical, almost kinesthetic. This prolific artist in the 1970s through to the 90s is such that his eye reaches the dimension of soul and may aptly describe an artist that expressed a Jewish vision, at once an Israeli artist and yet meditating on the human condition in general.
I find Morgenstern’s work more abstract and lighter, yet curiously his style is more eclectic, at times even hyper-real. There is an air of the other-worldly, a metaphysical plunge into the philosophical and ontological question as to what the nature of existence as such is. Born in 1955 in Moscow and a graduate of the Moscow Art Academy and accepted by the Union of Artists in the USSR, he nevertheless found the richness of Jewish spiritual life in Israel.
This emerges in form and content in his painting output. He also did several stained-glass works, murals, and frescoes, as well as sculptural works. It appears that he somehow alludes to the world of sense as Samsara in the Buddhist sense and the need to transcend the boundaries of sense to find a deeper, more permanent truth or reality. He has perhaps achieved this in his energetic mark-making and translucent colors, where lights and shadow dance a duet of unceasing movement amid the permanence of the Romantic Jewish spirit.
The exhibition joins these two artists. In a curious twist of fate, the “I Had a Dream” exhibition, the brainchild of Meir Ostrovsky, is all the more poignant considering that Meir, the son of Josef Ostrovsky – and now a rabbi in Israel – married the daughter of Michael Morgenstern. So, the generations continue, stronger than ever and bound by the power of art and love of Israel. ■
‘I Had a Dream’ An exhibition of Michael Morgenstern/ Yosef Ostrovsky Hechal Shlomo - The Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in Jerusalem 58 King George St., JerusalemExhibition hours: Sun-Thu: 08:00-20:00Exhibition curator: Maayan Saria972-588-9000https://museums.gov.il/en/museums/Pages/hechal-shlomo.aspx