A brush with danger

An exhibition of Russian-Israeli artists honors the work of five St. Petersburg dissident painters.

This past summer, if you took the pleasant walk to the House of Quality to see painter Tanya Kornfeld's solo exhibit, you would have seen layered watercolors depicting desert scenes with androgynous silhouetted figures, with clear eyes shining through ambiguous forms. You might not have imagined that Kornfeld - who graduated from Moscow's prestigious Repin Institute - had been a part of Moscow's and Leningrad's underground art movements. Yet before she even finished her formal studies, Kornfeld took part in a group exhibit in 1974 at the Palace of Arts, which was the first show of non-conformist works in Leningrad. "People stood in line for up to five hours in frosts reaching [minus] 20º Celsius," recalls Larisa Skobkina, head of the Contemporary Art Department of the St. Petersburg City Culture Committee. "Groups of visitors would be allowed in for a maximum of 30 minutes. It was such an experience for the city." Skobkina organizes exhibits at the Manege Central Exhibition Hall, a giant 5,000-square-meter space located near St. Isaac's Cathedral and the famous Bronze Horseman. She curates several large-scale exhibits, including two biennials: one called Dialogues, which exhibits contemporary artwork in all mediums, and another called Festival of Experimental Arts, which focuses on performance, installation and video pieces. She also curates an annual exhibit of new works by St. Petersburg artists, in which more than 500 participants each show one work completed in the past year. Skobkina is currently in Jerusalem as the curator of an exhibit at the Culture Center at Rehov Hillel 27, where she organized a group show that took place this week of five ex-Petersburgers who moved to Jerusalem. The show, titled "Petersburgers in Jerusalem," is dedicated to the memory of Eugene Abeshaus, who passed away in August. The five painters exhibiting - Abeshaus, Kornfeld, Anatoly Basin, Aleksandr Gurevich and Sasha Okun - had been part of a group of Jewish artists called ALEPH, founded by Abeshaus. "I joined for one reason: out of fear," says Okun. "I was afraid that if I didn't join, people would think that I was afraid [to be a part of an openly Jewish group]." He adds, "It was bad enough that we were dissidents. But we were Jews, too." They began to organize kvartirniki (apartment-shows), and it wasn't long before people started losing their jobs. Since the authorities would only continue to put pressure until the group stopped its activities, they began to plan their emigration. Kornfeld and Abeshaus moved to Jerusalem in 1976. Okun moved in 1979, Basin in 1980, and Gurevich in 1993. "Some of these artists rarely come to visit," Skobkina says, teasing Okun. "Others, like Basin, regularly exhibit in St. Petersburg. Either way, they're an important part of the Leningrad underground art movement." She explains that all these artists continued to work in art in Jerusalem, to have entered to some degree into the local Jerusalem cultural history. And yet they also belong to the Petersburg cultural history. This double significance, she says, is what makes this exhibit of ALEPH painters important. "Those who took part in the original show in 1974 are heroes," adds Skobkina, who has published a book on the subject of underground art in Leningrad. "And people who live here in Israel may not necessarily know about this history. Now they'll have the chance."