This year the Modern Jewish Art Section of the Center for Jewish Art's Index of Jewish Art, has chosen to document the work of 20th century avant-garde artist, Pavel Zaltzman. The artists chosen to study from the CIS are selected not only because they are Jewish and talented, but because their Jewish identity is expressed in their art.
Many of these artists, have been unknown in the West and have not exhibited. Those who were more fortunate were able to find work in the theater or as book illustrators or lecturers, and occasionally their work was acquired by collectors from abroad. It is quite unusual, therefore, to come across an artist from the former Soviet Union who, for the most part, enjoyed artistic freedom and was able to make an income from his work. Pavel Zaltzman was such an artist.
Born in Kishinev, Moldavia in 1912, Zaltzman spent most of his childhood in Odessa. He was quite young when he started to paint and was considered to be a very gifted artist. He moved to Leningrad when he was 18 years old where he came under the influence of avant-garde artist Pavel Filonov. Filonov was one of three main figures in art during this period, along with Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. He was known for his School of Analytical Art, in which he taught his students to look for each object's inner law of nature, and to analyze and depict the objects' very essence. Zaltzman was very close to Filonov's school, and the influence on Zaltzman can be seen in his work throughout his life.
Although Zaltzman was an assimilated Jew, his vivid memories of his life in Odessa, described faithfully in the stories of Isaac Babel, kept alive his Jewish identity. During his years in Leningrad, Zaltzman traveled to shtetls in Moldavia and the Ukraine to paint scenes from shtetl life. After World War II he returned to these same places to paint scenes of destruction.
Zaltzman studied at the Leningrad film school and together with the entire school moved to Kazakhstan during the blockade on Leningrad in World War II. In Alma Ata, capital of Kazakhstan, he worked in a movie studio as a set designer and taught art and art history at the art school. Here, Zaltzman found himself in a very close society of artists from similar backgrounds. Many of the artists were Jewish and in a like manner separated from their families during the war. Most artists returned to their homes after the war only to find that many of their family members had perished in the Holocaust. Zaltzman chose to remain in Alma Ata.
Because he was cut off from the center of the country, the hub of artistic activity, he held onto the earlier influences of his life. From an artistic point of view, he was unlike the 'official artists' who painted in the nationalist style, and his removal from the center enabled him to work with a bit more latitude. At the same time, because of his remoteness, he was never known outside the Soviet Union.
He was intrigued by the environment in which he found himself, which had a feel of the ancient East. His Jewish identity was strengthened in this "Biblical" atmosphere which was expressed in his paintings of biblical scenes, embodying a prophetic vision. The powerful influence of the Holocaust can also be seen in many of his many paintings in the post-war era. Painting scenes of desolation and destruction, he depicted an apocalyptic vision of the modern world.
Zaltzman resided in Alma Ata until he died in 1989. In 1992 his daughter, Lotta, moved to Israel and organized an exhibition of his work at Beit HaOmanim in Jerusalem. The exhibition aroused much interest in his work. Interestingly, the experts on Russian art from the CIS in the Modern Jewish Art Section became familiar with Zaltzman's work only after coming to Israel. To date, over 100 of Zaltzman's 300 paintings in Lotta's collection have been documented, providing us with a vivid portrayal of Russian Jewish life over the past century.