Борис Анисфельд

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Boris Anisfeld

1878 - 1973

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Boris Anisfeld – A Wanderer between Russia’s Silver Age and America’s Golden Twenties
  by Eckart Lingenauber

The kind of philosophy one adopts
depends upon the sort of man one is.
                                   (Johann Gottlieb Fichte)
The Intellectual–Historical Context after 1900 – Russian Symbolism
For Russian art, the first two decades of the twentieth century were so creative that they are described as the Silver Age of Russian literature and art. The preceding Golden Age is defined above all by the literary masterpieces of the Romantics such as Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Gogol, and the Realists such as Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
These giants of Russian literature wrote in periods of great social upheaval and they commented on these changes out of a sense of social responsibility. This was how Dmitry Merezhkovsky saw his task. In his 1892 essay
On the Causes of the Decline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature
he laid out the foundations for Russian literary Symbolism. In 1896 the first part of his trilogy Christ and Antichrist appeared, which is influenced by the idea of an epochal conflict between East and West. In this dualism Merezhkovsky rejects Western Enlightenment and promotes the idea of an East that draws on the Old Testament. From 1901, Merezhkovsky and his wife, the poet Zinaida Gippius, held a theologically oriented literary salon in Saint Petersburg that had a great influence within intellectual circles. Prior to this Valery Bryusov, with his three-volume collection of poems (1894–95), had played a key role in making Symbolism the dominant movement of the period. Alexander Blok’s poem
Verses about a Beautiful Lady
(1904), the idealisation of a person into a timeless, mystical figure, is almost a symbiosis of word and sound, and perhaps the clearest articulation of Russian literary Symbolism.
For the fine arts, the Golden Age only began later with the founding of the Society of Itinerant Art Exhibitions (1870–1923). The goal of this independent artists’ association was to develop independently of any support and influence from official organs in order to examine everyday life and Russian history in an unvarnished way. Ilya Repin was its most important representative together with I. Kramskoy, V. Makovsky, V. Polenov, I. Shishkin, V. Surikov, I. Pokhitonov, N. Gay, V. Serov, and I. Levitan.
Symbolism was a reaction to materialism, whose influence on naturalist literature and realist art the Symbolists considered outmoded. They wanted to explore reality in the form of an ideal world.
The symbolist artist creates symbols or allegories from fragments of the real world in order to form a world of ideal, aesthetic, and often also spiritual, perfection. Their task is not the direct description of aesthetic reality but the evocation of this through indirect stylistic means. Horizon of meaning in this context refers to World Spirit in the Hegelian sense of an eternally valid, sublime and ultimate goal, and to Reason in the Kantian sense of a union of inner and outer worlds.
Hence, the Symbolist does not describe reality directly; rather, the poet fathoms a deeper relationship between things and words, and the painter that between things and their intuition; he creates an artificial world that represents his reality. For the Symbolist the symbol is a mediating element between the material, sensible world and the world of the spirit.
Many Symbolists were also synaesthetes. This was probably also true of Boris Anisfeld. Synaesthetes experience several perceptions from a single sensory stimulus. While listening to music, for example, a synaesthete is not only able to hear sounds but also to see forms and colours.
The theory of Symbolism was ambiguous. On the one hand, the theory of symbolic self-expression referred to the world of the spirit. Lev Kobylinskij described this method entirely in Hegelian terms:
Climbing the symbolic ladder of knowledge rung by rung, the symbolising spirit unavoidably develops in itself the striving for knowledge of that great symbol that is, so to speak, the symbol of all symbols, combining all of them together and separating them from one another, causing and conditioning them
.(1) The reference to the original symbol as an intellectual–historical reaction to positivism and materialism refers to a spirituality, which in a theologically inflected symbolism is also called God. On the other hand, the theory of the world was seen as a tightrope walk between life and death, between being and appearance. Hence, Russian Symbolist painting is pervaded by the deep relatedness of all spiritually effective forces, by asceticism and sentiment, by a spiritual elevation, by the mythic oneness between man and nature, and it bears witness to the conflict of its time, poised between ideality and a presentiment of death.
Art operates as a temporary calming of the will. This phenomenon results in the negation of the world. Man, as the highest form of will objectivising itself in the world of appearance, has been given the possibility of sublimating the will and suffering and to thereby enter into a state of non-being. True artwork helps him to do this by making him conscious of the inner being of an object, an idea, and in this way helping the observer to an objective way of seeing that raises him out of his subjectivity, his willing. In becoming aware of an idea, Schopenhauer understands the anticipation of an intuition, its presentiment, which is triggered by the artwork.
In this context, music acquires a special status since, according to Schopenhauer, it provides an objective representation of all the willing of this world, whereby pitch is accorded a key role in distinguishing between the different forms of the will: the deeper the pitch, the closer to the laws of matter; the higher, the closer to the causes of man’s motivation.
The Socio-Political Context around 1900 – Pogroms, and Paths to Liberation
For Jewish artists as well as for large parts of the general population, the years from 1905 to 1914 constituted a period of unheard of freedom. In this new political climate the arts flourished – Russian as well as Jewish. The domestic situation, a series of revolutionary disturbances lasting from 1905 to 1907 and the debacle of the Russo-Japanese war, had forced Tsar Nicholas II to change the form of government from an autocracy into a constitutional monarchy with far-reaching reforms. From now on, Jews were allowed to organise themselves into political parties to gain access to the newly formed parliament. Indeed in the First Duma (the state assembly) in 1906 there were already twelve Jewish deputies. Nevertheless, these were opposed by powerful right-wing parties such as the Union of the Russian People and allied groups who openly called for the elimination of Russian Jewry. Although the constitutional concessions were soon rescinded and the Duma was thwarted by the power of veto of the upper house occupied by the aristocracy, the newly awakened intellectual climate inspired both Russian and Jewish artists. Political censorship was liberalised.
In 1791 Catherine II had decreed that Jews could live and work only within the established Pale of Settlement.(2) This region comprised an area towards Russia’s western border, which had formerly been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Following the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, this region, with its population of approximately five million Jews, came under Russian rule.(3) Life in the shtetls (small market towns) was hard and marked by poverty.(4) The high concentration of Jews in the Pale of Settlement led to pogroms and violent attacks. The May Laws of 1882 prohibited Jews from settling outside cities and towns. The pogroms and restrictive decrees as well as administrative pressure led to mass emigration. Between 1881 and 1914 approximately two million Jews left Russia, many of them emigrating to the United States of America. Due to the high birth rate, however, this did not lead to a decrease in the Jewish population.
In 1915, during World War I, when millions of Jews fled from the advancing German army into central Russia, the Russian government abolished the Pale of Settlement. The removal of the restrictions on Jews’ geographical mobility and educational opportunities led to widespread migration to the country’s major cities. For the entire population, the consequences of the war were grave, making the February Revolution of 1917 inevitable and leading to the abdication of Nicholas II.
The Provisional Government under A. Kerensky, which was favoured by the Jews, suffered from internal disputes, but above all from the economically disastrous situation in the country as a whole. Despite this, the period under Kerensky was a time in which Russian Jewry flourished. In March 1917 one of the first measures of the Provisional Government was to abolish all restrictions on Jews, simultaneously according them the right to become active in the administration, to practise as lawyers and to advance within the army.
The collapse of this government and the subsequent civil war led to new pogroms. Anti-Semitic excesses came from both the White and Red Armies. Among the Whites, it was particularly the Ukrainians, and hence the neighbours of Anisfeld’s native region, that proved themselves to be particularly ferocious anti- Semites. Here old resentments bubbled to the surface. In the sixteenth century the Polish Crown had given Jews in Ukraine the leasehold of the state’s taxes. Due to their position as leaseholders – they were responsible for collecting the revenues for Polish landowners – the Jews became the target and victims of uprisings and the hatred of the masses. Under the Reds, Leon Trotsky as People’s Commissar of War quickly quenched any anti-Semitic excesses, imposing penalties on any breach. Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronstein) was himself Jewish and from Ukraine. The Jews therefore saw in the Bolsheviks a protection against pogroms, even if they did not sympathise with Communist ideas that attempted to abolish the traditional trade and living structures in the shtetls as well as their religious practices. Thus, after the October Revolution, many Jewish artists assumed a new identity as Russian artists within the Soviet state with cosmopolitan ambitions – even if also of Jewish origin.
The Primary Socialisation of Boris Anisfeld
In 1812, after being ceded to Russia, Bessarabia became part of the Pale of Settlement. Around 1900 the Jews made up approximately 15% of the population; up to 50% was concentrated in the cities since the acquisition of land by Jews was still prohibited. The landowner for whom Boris Anisfeld’s father worked as an estate manager is still not known, but, as mentioned above, for more than two centuries the pogroms were principally directed against such administrators and fee collectors.
Around 1900 Jewish life in the Bessarabian capital Kishinev, lying 79 miles to the south of Bieltsy,(5) was flourishing, but of the sixteen Jewish schools with their 2,000 students not a trace has been left. The city entered history ingloriously in 1903 due to a particularly violent pogrom, which drew the attention of the world.
Boris Anisfeld was not yet four years old when Alexander III imposed the May Laws of 1882. In 1887 the Russian Ministry of Education introduced quotas (numerus clausus) for Jewish schoolchildren and students: 10% within the Pale of Settlement, 5% outside, and 3% in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Nevertheless, corruption ensured that these quotas were rarely adhered to. In addition, the Society of Itinerant Art Exhibitions (also known as Peredvizhniki, The Wanderers), mentioned above, not only counted important artists such as Isaac Levitan among its members, but its socio-critical engagement also led to the quota system being practically abolished in private art schools and studios. As Marc Chagall pointed out in his autobiography, this shift allowed some Jewish artists without residence permits to justify their stay in the large urban centres.(6)
Thus, in 1895 Anisfeld was able to enrol at the Odessa Drawing School. In 1860 the Society of South Russian Artists was founded and became known as the Odessa Drawing School, but first and foremost it was known as the entryway for Jewish students into Russian art institutions.(7) Odessa had become the home of a large Jewish community, and by 1897 Jews were estimated to make up almost 40% of the population. However, they were repeatedly subjected to severe persecution. Pogroms were carried out in 1821, 1859, 1871, 1881, as well as in 1905 during the 1905 Revolution. The chief organisers of the pogroms were the members of the Union of the Russian People (commonly known as the Black Hundreds).
The Secondary Socialisation of Boris Anisfeld
On reaching 21 Anisfeld enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. By this time, the teaching staff was made up of leading Peredvizhniki, and two years later Anisfeld switched to Repin, or more accurately to Dmitry Kardovsky, Repin’s assistant. Although the Peredvizhniki had officially broken with the tradition of the Academy, their revolution of 1870 affected content rather than form from an artistic point of view. In the meantime new international movements were emerging, which had already been embraced by Russian collectors such as Mikhail and Ivan Morozov, Savva Mamontov or the tea-trade dynasty of the Botkins. Around the turn of the century, Russia experienced a flourishing of Modernism. In their salons, forward-looking collectors such as Sergei Shchukin showed the most recent paintings by Renoir, Picasso and Matisse.
One of the Russian artistic responses to this was delivered in 1899 by Sergei Diaghilev with the publication of the journal
Mir iskusstva
World of Art
), which had been preceded the year before by the loose formation of an artist’s group of the same name. The founding members A. Benois, L. Bakst, K. Somov and E. Lanceray were joined by Diaghilev in 1899 as editor of the journal. From 1898 to 1904 and again in 1906 the group organised yearly exhibitions in Saint Petersburg and Moscow that also attracted Symbolist painters such as M. Vrubel and M. Nesterov. As early as 1903 a splinter group,
The Union of Russian Artists
, started to organise parallel exhibitions. This group continued the intellectual legacy of
Mir iskusstva
in the period from 1904 to 1910. In 1910 A. Benois and N. Roerich reactivated
Mir iskusstva
and organised exhibitions almost yearly in Saint Petersburg and Moscow until 1922. The aesthetic foundation of
Mir iskusstva
was Neo-Romanticism. In addition, the reception of Symbolism and decadent literature allowed texts showing a high degree of formalism and rarefied language. The art critic I. Grabar introduced the 26-year-old Anisfeld to the impresario S. Diaghilev.
The year 1905 must have been decisive for the formation of Anisfeld’s political consciousness. He met Maxim Gorky, who protested against the so-called Bloody Sunday massacre of unarmed civilians on  January 9, 1905 in Saint Petersburg, and was briefly arrested. In the short period of political calm in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1905, Gorky worked untiringly for the Revolution; he founded the journal
New Life
, for which Lenin worked as editor-in-chief.(8) In this period Anisfeld produced illustrations for the satirical journals Жупел
) and Адская почта  (
Hell’s Mail
), and Vladimir Burtsev’s Calendar of the Russian Revolution.
In the first two months of 1906 Anisfeld lived in Paris. Whether he met Gorky there is not known, but it seems likely. Anisfeld used the months in Paris to meet with Diaghilev who later included four of his works in the upcoming Salon d’Automne.
Unlike Gorky, Anisfeld was allowed to return to Russia. There is no other known political engagement by Anisfeld in 1906, and his teaching post at Elizaveta Zvantseva’s Art School in Saint Petersburg alongside Leon Bakst seems to have allowed him to concentrate on his art.
By the following year he had produced his first stage designs for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s
Marriage of Zobeide
(1897). Hofmannsthal’s early works are oriented to French Symbolism and literary Art Nouveau. The premiere of the reworked version of this tragedy set in the world of
1001 Nights
opened simultaneously in Vienna and Berlin. The play’s subject is the drama of a failed relationship.(9) Hofmannsthal makes use of the fin de siècle atmosphere of impending catastrophe with its mystical eroticism, and Anisfeld’s stage designs are steeped in the black religiosity of the femme fatale as enigmatic and inescapable destiny. In 1912 Anisfeld returned to the theme of the femme fatale in
, but it is above all the Symbolist striving for transfiguration to be released from this world.
A year after his stage design for the
Marriage of Zobeide
, Anisfeld again dealt with the tragic destiny of reified sexual relations. His
is given the title
The Golden Tribute
. In the same year Gustav Klimt also painted a
, but while Klimt chose the Leda-type, drawing on the
Neapolitan Danaë
painted by Titian for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese,(10) Anisfeld chose the Venus-type in reference to Titian’s
Venus of Urbino
. In Anisfeld’s work the central figure is given an active eroticism characterised by an inviting pose and an exposure of her body that verges on the physically offensive, emphasised further by the intense red of the drapery.
In Klimt the female figure is stylised into an autoerotic narcissism, in Anisfeld into an allegory of the corrupting power of gold. If the Leda-type shows coitus in a forthright fashion, Anisfeld varies the Venus-type. He does without the shower of gold, the implicit representation of coitus, and replaces it with a golden tribute as a sign of subjection. His courtesan holds a bouquet of yellow roses in her lap that in some cultures is understood as a symbol of envy or greed. If the golden tribute at the courtesan’s feet and in the bowls consists of golden apples, then according to the Ottoman tradition this would be synonymous with unattained but alluring goals.
Anisfeld’s method is characterised by employing heuristics as strategies to mine for symbols in foreign cultures. As difficult as the decoding of Anisfeld’s symbolic language is for us, it must have been all the more bewildering for the examining committee, since in December 1908 it failed the candidate and his
Golden Tribute
.Doubtless, Repin saw no difficulty in the divergent course taken by his student Anisfeld when he supported his scholarship to study abroad. Anisfeld’s adaptation of Symbolist painting stood in direct opposition to Repin’s realism, his anti-idealism and his ambition to raise the everyday life and suffering of the Russian soul above the (in Repin’s view) distorted image of the ideal.
Boris Anisfeld’s Symbolism
1904 - 1908 were the most active years of a Moscow-based group of Symbolists,(11) whom Anisfeld was certainly aware of. Its name,
The Blue Rose
, was taken from a poem by Novalis;(12) but above all the term was meant to refer to colour as the principal means of creating rhythm in a painting and thereby avoiding formal composition.(13)
The Blue Rose
artists were closely associated with the Symbolist poets and writers in Moscow who were linked to the journals Art,(14)
The Balance
The Golden Fleece
At the origin of this movement in Moscow was the exhibition
The Crimson Rose
, organised in Saratov in 1904, which was named after
the symbol of hope, youth and earthly passion
,(16) as described by the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, and brought together artists connected with the Russian Symbolist movement. P. Kuznetsov and P. Utkin,(17) who organised it, invited S. Sudeikin,(18) N. Sapunov and others to participate. Their teachers, Vrubel and V. Borisov-Musatov, were also represented.
The extent to which Anisfeld was artistically linked to
The Blue Rose
movement is most clearly evident in his paintings from the years 1905 and 1906. A trip to the Neva, the Western Dvina, and to the Dnieper in the Crimea allowed him to paint landscapes that were directly inspired by nature. Anisfeld always asserted that he drew great inspiration from nature and stated that he painted several landscapes en plein air in summer:
In painting I think in colour first. I paint what I think, not always what I see. In summer I paint only from nature and try to express my impressions of nature in all her phases. I do not always paint the colour another might see, but only what my impression of the scene is at the time. My moods vary, and I paint the scene before me to correspond with my mood of the moment.
(19)  In
(cat. P 151) Anisfeld transforms this landscape. Here he exhibits nature in its delicate colours. His extraordinary sense of colour combined with a vivid imagination were the properties admired in his painting and later most celebrated in his theatrical work. When Diaghilev visited Anisfeld’s studio upon the artist’s return from the trip, he was so impressed by what he saw that he selected 20 works on the spot for the next show of World of Art. The critic Nikolai Tarovaty saw in Anisfeld’s
Spring Evenings a fabulous opulence of nuances
, and Constantin Sunnerberg called his painting
a fairy tale of deep tones of scarlet, blue, emerald green, and yellow
. (see
Anisfeld in the Critics’ Eyes
, p. 18)
However, Boris Anisfeld also became renowned as a painterly pantheist and in this he found himself very much in line with other Symbolist artists.(20) His pictures seemed to be imbued with religious symbolism, even when they are not. Anisfeld’s fascination with Far Eastern religion was typical of his generation. Symbols from a particular religion are not consciously inserted by Anisfeld; rather, they are absorbed by him as part of the ethos of Symbolism and the general atmosphere of interest in theosophy and the esoteric. Anisfeld seems to have used symbols insofar as they served to guide the viewer towards a spiritually unified consciousness.
Between 1909 and 1912, Anisfeld spent each spring in Paris where he worked as Diaghilev’s assistant. Anisfeld’s particular gift in the field of stage and costume design comes from his understanding of music, which was certainly also linked with an interest in innovations in music, opera, theatre and literature in the Paris scene beyond that of the Ballets Russes.
Similarly, Anisfeld also showed his admiration for the literary achievements of Edgar Allan Poe. He baptised his daughter Morella after a short story of the same name that appeared in 1835, in which Poe treats the question of the identity of two different characters. In
Poe deals with historical question of identity in the work of the German philosophers Fichte and Schelling. Is there an identity (21) that can survive death?(22) Poe explicitly mentions Schelling.(23) The poetry of Poe became one of the main foundations of Symbolism and thus of modern poetry. Charles Baudelaire translated Poe’s
The Raven
 (24) and was considered by the subsequent generation of poets – Symbolists such as Verlaine, Mallarmé or Rimbaud – as an epochal model. We can assume that Anisfeld was aware of Baudelaire’s translation. Poe’s great subject is the death of a beautiful woman (
Perspectives of an Assimilation for Boris Anisfeld in Russia
Anisfeld signed his works using either the Cyrillic or Roman alphabet, with most of the early works having a Cyrillic signature. A work signed or titled in Yiddish and/or with Hebrew characters has still not been found. Although Anisfeld grew up in a purely Jewish household,(26) his father considered it important for him to learn German and French as additional languages. While Bessarabia and Ukraine were favoured destinations for German Jews and the German language was part of a military career, French was still thought of as the language of Russia’s cultivated upper classes. The official language was Russian, which also guaranteed access to the educational system. To the extent that it was permitted by the quota system, such an attitude to learning languages was sensible for a Jewish schoolchild. Even in periods of the greatest
repression and severe pogroms the Russification of the Jews, particularly the adoption of Russian as their mother tongue, continued. At the end of the nineteenth century a census showed that, in the large cities, 51% of all male and 31% of all female Jews spoke Russian, although only 3% officially gave Russian as their mother tongue.(27)

The fact that Anisfeld did not use Yiddish or Hebrew characters does not mean that he denied his roots or spoke out against the Jewish faith. In any case, professions of faith in his works tend to be eclectic and never profound. Within the heuristic mentioned above Anisfeld applies his eclecticism to the world religions. Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism: the transitions are fast; the analysis is never obligatory; however, the execution has an artistic depth.
In 1916 Anisfeld painted
Buddha with Pomegranates
(cat. P 456), a still life seemingly loaded with symbolism. In all probability, Anisfeld was familiar with the basic principles of Buddhism, which were widely disseminated at the time. Two years earlier Anisfeld painted Christmas (cat. P 317) depicting his beloved daughter Morella under a Christmas tree. Stylistically the most likely influence for Christmas is Vrubel’s famous
. Anisfeld painted a
Jewish funeral
(cat. P 081) at about the same time.
However, the eclectic use of religious motifs in Anisfeld’s works might also result from the need to assume a number of identities in relation to the complex situation of being Russian, Jewish and an artist. In this, Anisfeld was in the best society. Isaac Levitan, initially the leading landscape painter of the Peredvizhniki, then later also a beacon for many Symbolist painters, was then as now still seen as the father of Russian landscape painting. Levitan not only painted almost exclusively Russian landscapes, since with membership of the Peredvizhniki movement he committed himself to national themes, but his pictures also reflect the Russian soul and the characteristic features of the Russian landscape better than the paintings of his Peredvizhniki colleagues. Levitan descended from a very poor Jewish family in Lithuania. In 1870 his family moved to Moscow. The May Laws of 1879 banished the family to the suburb of Saltykovka. Public pressure then forced the government agencies to let the now famous artist return to Moscow. In 1897 Levitan was admitted to the Imperial Academy of Arts. Is Levitan an example of successful assimilation and social advancement? Or did he remain Jewish and therefore exposed to discrimination and even to pogroms? A few Jewish artists converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, others changed their names or joined left-wing revolutionary groups. The politically motivated groups particularly had a disproportionately high number of Jews in relation to the total population. Jewish artists in revolutionary circles had two options: either to accelerate the Russification of Jewish art or to draw on the Jewish traditions of the shtetl. Those who attempted to preserve Jewish traditions founded the Union (Bund), an association that felt itself to be committed to both Socialism and the secular Yiddish tradition.
After 1907, the disproportionate number of Jews in revolutionary circles led tsarist Russia to blame them for the social disintegration.(28) However, the worsening situation in Russia did not prevent the Jewish elite in Saint Petersburg from founding a Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society.(29) This Society published the journal
Evreyskaya Starina
Jewish Antiquities
) from 1908 to 1930. From 1911 to 1914 it assisted S. Ansky on a project (financed by Baron Vladimir Guenzburg) to conduct ethnographic research within the towns of the Pale of Settlement. Ansky’s knowledge of folklore inspired and laid the foundations for his famous play The Dybbuk, which he wrote in both Russian and Yiddish, and his research led to the creation of a Jewish museum on Vasilevsky Island in Petrograd,(30) where the finds were exhibited temporarily as early as 1916, undoubtedly creating an interest in Jewish folk art.(31)
The effect that this museum and its artefacts had on the artistic community should not be underestimated. Not only did Jewish artists such as N. Altman, M. Chagall, J. Chaikov, R. Falk, El Lissitzky, I. Rabinovich, I. Ryback, N. Shifrin and S. Yudovin make use of the traditional folkloristic motifs, to import them mixed with Western artistic influences into a new formal language, but also purely Russian artists, above all the Neo- Primitivists, drew inspiration from the rich formal canon. Even such radical, if short-lived, movements such as
Donkey’s Tale
with M. Larionov, N. Goncharova and A. Shevchenko made use of the themes provided by the shtetl and Pale of Settlement, by Jewish folklore and the Talmud.
In the autumn of 1915 Anisfeld became a member of the Jewish Society for the Benefaction of the Arts. The Ethnographic Society followed two years later in January 1916 with the founding of the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (JSEA) by I. Gintsburg, N. Altman, Askenazi, Maimon and M.Vinaver.
The primary aim of the JSEA was to develop and encourage the plastic arts among Jews, because Jews do not know their own artists
.(32) Anisfeld still did not take part in the first exhibition organised by the JSEA in Petrograd from April to May 1916; however, five of his works were included in the second exhibition,
Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture by Jewish Artists
, in the Lemercier Gallery in Moscow in April 1917. In August 1917 Anisfeld was discharged from military service, which from a legal point of view was also the condition for his official emigration in September of the same year. Like many of his Jewish colleagues Anisfeld became involved in the JSEA, but the works exhibited by him do not demonstrate a particular interest in Jewish themes – even if one of his works was entitled
J. Bowlt notices the same phenomenon among other Jewish artists:
Of course, given the mandate of the Jewish National Museum, the JSEA, and the many other Jewish ethnographic and folklore centres, that sprang up in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev in 1914–17, it is surprising to learn that, by and large, young, visible artists such as Altman, Falk, Lissitzky, Shkolnik, and Shterenberg did not give their exclusive concentration to Jewish history. It would be a mistake, therefore, to look for their ethic commitment only in their recognizable ethnic subjects
)Bowlt describes the laicization(34) of Jewish artists, their ability to assimilate themselves and to take up themes that had nothing to do with traditional Jewish life, as a particular characteristic of Jewish artists in the 1910s. It was precisely this disengagement in the process of assimilation that provided the basis for further important artistic developments and movements.(35)
However, Anisfeld no longer took part in these new and radical developments. On the one hand, he paid more attention to the theatre; on the other hand, he proves with his mystical world view that Jewish artists in times of the greatest crisis tend to draw inspiration from political turbulence and human uncertainty that they then convert into their own language. That this language does not represent reality in the same measure is characteristic of Jewish cultural experience.
A Russian heart: Anisfeld’s Incomplete Assimilation in America
The United States of America has long been safe haven for refugees. Russian immigrants arriving in the United States had left their beloved homeland due to war, revolution, famine, pogroms or other domestic repressions. Each generation of refugees brought with them the cultural values of their homeland, trying to adapt these to the multilayered American culture while never forgetting Russia.
In the nineteenth century, only a few Russian artists visited the United States. And they did not stay. Their art had no influence on American artists, who were more interested in the academies of Düsseldorf, Berlin and Munich, or in new developments in France. Understandably, therefore, there was little public interest in Russian art before 1905, the year E.M. Grunwaldt (36) put together the first major American exhibition of Russian art in St. Louis, using his own means. However, this was a commercial failure, and after receiving a bill from U.S. Customs in February 1906, Grunwaldt tried to sell the paintings at auction. Unfortunately for Grunwaldt, this auction was hindered by legal problems, leaving him with heavy debts and an ongoing legal dispute concerning the artworks’ ownership.
Nevertheless, the 35-year-old and still unknown journalist Christian Brinton recognised that, by romanticising this unfamiliar art, there was still money to be made. In the February 1906 edition of
Appleton’s Booklovers’ Magazine
he explained to the American public that the real Russia was not the Revolution, but the Russia of art and culture.(37)  Even if Brinton’s engagement could not resolve Grunwaldt’s debacle, Brinton still managed to establish himself as an art critic and expert in Russian art for the American public.(38) He was neither of these, nor was he qualified to be, but he had an infallible instinct for a type of journalism that would instill faith in his readership. After receiving an M.A. in art history from Haverford in 1906, Brinton embarked on a career as a lecturer focusing exclusively on Russia.(39)
At the beginning of the twentieth century the American public’s appreciation of theatre, opera and ballet was perhaps more enthusiastic than its appreciation of fine art. The famous Russian dancer Anna Pavlova and the choreographer and dancer Michail Mordkin made their debut in the United States on February 28, 1910 in
at the Metropolitan Opera House, a performance which was widely acclaimed in the press.(40) Pavlova and Mordkin danced
on October 15, 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera.(41) On December 20, 1911
Swan Lake
was presented with Catherine Geltzer, a Prima Ballerina of the Moscow Imperial Opera. By the end of 1914 and the beginning of 1915 Anna Pavlova performed in
Les Preludes
Seven Daughters of the Mountain King
. In 1916 the first American appearance of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes took place at the Century Theatre in New York. On April 12, 1916 Vaslav Nijinsky danced in
Le spectre de la Rose
with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Metropolitan Opera. The second New York season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes opened on October 16, at the Manhattan Opera House with Nijinsky’s
Till Eulenspiegel
. An American tour followed.
Anisfeld’s already well-established reputation as a stage designer for musical theatre and as a designer of brilliantly colored costumes, would have logically continued the fame of Russian ballet in the eye of the American public. As mentioned above in the article The Set Designer Anisfeld,(42) the American public had already seen his designs in 1914/15 with the appearance of Anna Pavlova in
Les Préludes
Seven Daughters of the Mountain King
. Hence, just after his arrival, Anisfeld deservedly received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera for the scenery of
La Reine Fiammette
.(43) Over the next six years, Anisfeld would design sets for a further six operas. His work took him from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the Chicago Civic Opera.
However, it was Brinton who, through a scandal that was possibly orchestrated by Brinton himself, skillfully brought Anisfeld to the attention of the press. Anisfeld's special position, as one of the first Russian artists to arrive in America following the October Revolution, made him Brinton's first Russian "client". Although Brinton constantly played the art critic, he was essentially interested in the money. Already in the year of Anisfeld’s arrival Brinton’s good relations with William Fox, Director of the Brooklyn Art Museum, allowed him to organise a large monographic exhibition for Anisfeld in the United States, which traveled to a number of other museums after Brooklyn. Anisfeld would be one of the chief beneficiaries of Brinton's meteoric career. Without Brinton's involvement, a New York exhibition would have been impossible.
During the winter of 1919 - 20 Brinton arranged another exhibit at the Fifth Avenue galleries of Grant Kingore, where Anisfeld was granted a twenty-five  percent share on sales. Through this and other exhibits Anisfeld was soon able to sell […] at prices ranging from $400 to $1,500
.(44) Brinton selected the young art dealer G. Kingore, because he was best suited to Brinton’s social and economic interests. Hence, for his shows at Kingore, Brinton could always get influential New Yorkers to serve on the committee of honour.
Over the next four years Anisfeld’s privileged position would come to an end. Many newly arriving Russian émigré artists put themselves at the service of Brinton, who was now planning another major show at the Brooklyn Museum. In January/February 1923 this was finally realised with 362 works by 23 different artists. Anisfeld was no longer among the exhibited artists. Furthermore, in 1923 the Moscow Art Theater put on performances in New York, while Anisfeld had already been active for the Metropolitan Opera for almost two years.
Brinton now allied his own critical perspective with the burgeoning efforts of art museum directors in America, and with their full support, organized numerous itinerant exhibitions. His newly acquired personal wealth, and the economic leverage that went with it, allowed him to buy from "his" artists on favorable terms, and to create his own art collection.(45)
In 1920 Brinton had already been drawn into the activities of the newly formed
Société Anonyme
founded by Katherine Dreier, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp for the support of avant -garde art. As a result, he increasingly tended to fill his own exhibitions in museums and American galleries with avant-garde artists, and hence was no longer able to offer space to Anisfeld. In 1922 Dreyer, who was an artist herself, had already bought works by Kandinsky and Malevich for the
Société Anonyme
. In 1924, however, Brinton organised a monographic show for Anisfeld north of New York in Worcester, which subsequently travelled to Boston. After 1924 the Soviet government flooded the New York art market with their own exhibitions – partly to improve their political reputation internationally, but mainly to get hard currency for the acquisition of urgently needed machinery. Their pressing goal was the industrialisation of the Soviet Union, which could only be accomplished through a technological transfer. The abovementioned Russian art critic Igor Grabar, who in the meantime had become Director of the Tretyakov Gallery, organised these mega shows that included more than 900 paintings. It was also I. Grabar who had introduced Anisfeld to the impresario Diaghilev in 1906.(46) Now, however, Grabar promised Brinton a commission of ten percent for every sale he arranged. Brinton subsequently discovered that, compared to the resources within the Soviet Union, the Russian émigré market was indeed limited. Thus Anisfeld lost Brinton as a promoter. The man who had successfully introduced him to the market, now had other interests. Yet years later in 1931, when Anisfeld was already living in Chicago, Brinton remembered Anisfeld in connection with a planned show in Wilmington, Delaware:
As I have a great many friends among the art patrons of Wilmington I feel sure that there is a strong possibility of sales being made during the exhibition and naturally I shall push the works of Boris Anisfeld to the limits
.(47) But Anisfeld’s reluctance suggests that he no longer wanted to participate in Brinton’s shows.
During the Depression, many of Brinton’s old émigré friends fell on hard times, and they could have used Brinton’s help. Yet the division between émigré and Soviet bearers of Russian culture was by now all too apparent, and Brinton had chosen the latter.(48)
At the same time, the credit of the Russian émigré artists as refugees from the terror of the Revolution, was now exhausted. It was not only American collective amnesia, however, that forced Anisfeld and other émigrés out of the art market; it was also their reluctance, or their inability, to assimilate.
Although Anisfeld had been an American citizen since 1926, he remained at heart a Russian artist. When Anisfeld joined the American section of the artists’ association
Cor Ardens
(49) founded by N. Roerich in 1921,(50) this was more than a matter of mere formality. Anisfeld’s heart burned with the desire for an ideal, aesthetic and spiritual perfection.
The reasons for Anisfeld’s incomplete assimilation are probably not to be found in the political circumstances of American society, which were in any case alien to anyone from Russia. The reasons may not even be possibly understood for anyone originating from the Western hemisphere. The Weltanschauung of the West is dominated by science and conceptual rationalism. Russian thought, on the other hand, is deeply anchored in mystical experience, which draws its energy from the imagination and from allegory. It searches for truth in the unutterable, which - according to Plato -
suddenly arises in one’s soul, like a light ignited by a flickering fire
. Russian thought draws on Platonic ideals by recognizing these ideals as the only means of giving symbolic expression to the unutterable.
If the original Russian Symbolism was a reaction against materialism, then for a synaesthete such as Anisfeld convinced of the deep bond between all spiritual forces, American capitalism’s exuberant Golden Twenties was a period in which an authentic artist would have to go his own undiverted way.(51) It is hard to imagine that Anisfeld resented Brinton's financial success, or his alliance with the new exponents of Soviet art in America. However, Brinton's overtures to the avant-garde may have disheartened him.
In a world that he felt to be torn between ideality and a presentiment of death, a real world made up of fragments of revolution, world war, depression and excessive materialism, Anisfeld, in his heart wanted  – for those around him, his students, but also for us, as spiritual heirs – to create an art that would unlock a world of the ideal.
1 Kobylinskij-Ellis, L.,
Russkije simvolisty: Konstantin Balmont, Valerij Brjusov, Andrej Belyj, Tomsk 1996, in: Brychkov, V.V., XIVth International Congress of Aesthetics. Aesthetics as Philosophy. Ljubljana 1998. Proceedings. Part II. Selected Papers. Filozofski vestnik. 2/1999, supplement, Ljubljana 1999, pp. 237–245
2 The Pale of Settlement covered an area of about 386,000 square miles between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
3 According to the census of 1897 nearly five million Jews or 94% of the total Jewish population of Russia lived in the Pale. This constituted 11.6% of the general population of the region.
4 Jews were also restricted in their occupations, principally to commerce and crafts.
5 According to the 2004 Moldovan Census the population of Bieltsy (Bâlti) was 127,561 with only 411 Jewish inhabitants (0.3% of the population).
6 Chagall, M.,
My Life, New York (Orion Press), p. 78
7 Syrkin, M.,
Vystavki, in Novyi voskhod, no. 11, 17.03.1910, p. 29
8 As the political climate again became restrictive, Gorky went to France, from where he protested against a loan made by the Western States to a Russia that was now weakened by the Russo-Japanese War
9 On the day of her wedding Zobeide rejects a forced marriage with a rich but elderly merchant to pay back her father’s debts and surrenders herself to a young man in the illusory hope of erotic fulfilment. However, this young man is soon unmasked as unloving and dissolute. The leap from the tower with which Zobeide finally attempts suicide, symbolically enacts woman’s Fall, while giving her back the self-determination that she was not able to claim in a world ruled by greed and reified sexual relations.
10 This disguised mythological representation is probably a portrait of a courtesan, since for this genre of Venetian painting the Danaë forms a mythological screen that is both suggestive and rich in associations.
11 The members of the group were A. Arapov, P. Bromirsky, V. Drittenpreis, N. Feofilaktov, A. Fonvizen, N. Krymov, P. Kuznetsov, I. Knabe, N. Milioti, V. Milioti, A. Matveev, N. Ryabushinsky, N.Sapunov, M. Saryan and S. Sudeikin.
The blue rose stands for love and longing as a symbol of the metaphysical striving for the infinite, for knowledge of nature and hence self-knowledge.
13 Blue, the colour of the sky, of water and of boundless space held a symbolic meaning for these artists. It encouraged a mystical interpretation, combining poetic dream with reality, sadness and hope.
14 The short-lived journal
Art was founded by Nikolai Tarovaty, a wealthy Muscovite. It was essential for the propagation of the ideas of The Blue Rose, and it answered the need for an artistic and theoretical base. Tarovaty was forced to shut down its publication after only eight issues because of heavy financial losses. But in many ways Art was the progenitor of The Golden Fleece.
15 When
The Golden Fleece appeared in 1906, its rejection of social and political reality assimilated it directly with The Blue Rose artists. The Golden Fleece became their organisational and theoretical voice. It was financed and edited by the millionaire Nikolai Ryabushinsky, and it sponsored the first exhibitions in Russia of modern and contemporary French art. In its first two years, this beautifully produced, well-illustrated and lively journal was principally dedicated to Russian Symbolism. The poets Alexander Blok, Konstantin Balmont, and Andrei Bely were regular contributors and co-editors, as were many painters of the World of Art.
16 Solovyov, V.,
The Crisis of Western Philosophy. Against the Positivists, Lindisfarne Press 1996, p. 43
17 Utkin’s Night (1904) was typical, showing the connection between Russian Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Here, framed by golden leaves, night-birds fly in and an eagle claws at a duck in a vision of nature made complex through its symbolism.
18 When Sudeikin was thrown out of the Moscow Academy as a result of his obscene drawings he immediately joined
World of Art. Thus, as early as 1906 he was able to participate with Anisfeld in the Salon d’Automne. Like Anisfeld, he later created stage designs for the Ballets Russes under Diaghilev and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
19 Brinton, C.,
The Boris Anisfeld Exhibition, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, 1918, n.p.
20 The foremost Russian symbolist composer was A.Scriabin who in his First Symphony praised art as a kind of religion.
Le Divin Poème (1902–1904) sought to express the evolution of the human spirit from pantheism to unity with the universe.
21 Modern psychology, however, sees Morella’s reincarnation as grounded in Poe’s own biography. Poe, who was orphaned at a young age, saw his younger cousin Virginia as the reincarnation of his prematurely dead mother, the actress Elizabeth Poe, the first Morella, whom he loved with a love that could not be a sexual love, for which reason it turned to hate.
22 Tate, Allen,
Our Cousin, Mr. Poe, in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Regan, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1967, p. 39
23 Campbell, Killis,
The Mind of Poe and Other Studies, New York: Russell & Russell, Inc. 1962, p. 13
24 Poe’s
The Raven is often noted for its musicality and mystical symbols. Its musicality is based on a highly complicated rhyme and rhythm. Poe chose the raven as a non-reasoning creature, which utters just one word, but it is important that his answers to the questions are already known to illustrate the self-torture to which the human being in search of beauty exposes himself. Poe considered sadness to be the highest manifestation of beauty. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones, in: Poe, Edgar Allan. The Philosophy of Composition. Full text of the first printing, from Graham’s Magazine, 1846
25 Kennedy, J. Gerald, Poe,
‘Ligeia’, and the Problem of Dying Women, in New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales, edited by Kenneth Silverman, Cambridge University Press 1993, p. 119
26 Nearly all the Jews in the Pale spoke Yiddish, and Jewish/Yiddish literature and culture flourished there.

27 Stanislawski, M., The Jews and Russian Culture and Politics, in: Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890–1990, exhibition catalogue, The Jewish Museum, New York 21.09.1995–28.01.1996, Prestel: Munich 1995, p. 19 28 Syrkin, M., Vystavki, in Novyi voskhod, no. 11, 17.03.1910, p. 29
29 Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronstein) personifies the extent of the Jews’ integration and their total Russification as well as the dangerous limits and potential consequences of that same political process.
30 The Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society was founded in 1908 on the initiative of the historian S. M. Dubnov on the basis of the Historical and Ethnographic Committee established in 1892 as a part of the Educational Society for Russian Jews. M. M. Vinaver was the first chairman of the society.
31 For a description of the material gathered during the expedition and its disposition in subsequent years, see: Krupnik, I.,
Jewish Holdings of the Leningrad Ethnographic Museum, in: Soviet Jewish Affairs 19, no. 5, 1989, pp. 35–48
.32 Tumarkin-Goodman, S.,
Alienation and Adaption of Jewish Artists in Russia, in: Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890–1990, exhibition catalogue, The Jewish Museum, New York 21.09.1995–28.01.1996, Munich 1995, p. 30
33 Bowlt, John E.,
Jewish Artists and the Russian Silver Age, in: Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890–1990, exhibition catalogue, The Jewish Museum, New York 21.09.1995–28.01.1996, Munich 1995, p. 48
34 Ibid., p. 49
35 Ibidem
36 Edward Michailovitch Grunwaldt, councilor of commerce for Russia in the US, died November 17, 1915 in New York (
New York Times, November 18, 1915)
37 Williams, Robert C.
Russian Art and American Money 1900 – 1940, Cambridge 1980, p. 83
38 Over a thirty-five year career, he wrote more than 200 articles and curated scores of exhibitions that introduced to American audiences the modern and contemporary art of Northern, Eastern, and Southern Europe. He also contributed to a number of exhibition catalogues, including those featuring the works of Prince Paul Troubetzkoy (1911 and 1916), Ignacio Zuloaga (1916), and contemporary Scandinavian, Belgian and Russian art
39 Andrew J Walker describes C. Brinton in his doctoral thesis
Critic, curator, collector: Christian Brinton and the exhibition of national modernism in America, 1910 - 1945  (University of Pennsylvania, 1999) as a critic, collector, and curator, who moved with an astonishing ease through diverse communities of intellectuals and artists.
Her technique is of a sort to dazzle the eye...it would be difficult to conceive a dancer who so nearly realizes the ideal of this sort of dancing. Carl van Vechten in: New York Times, March 01, 1910
It is impossible to describe the poetry in her dancing…Carl van Vechten in: New York Times, October 16, 1910
42 Sugrobova-Roth, O. in:
The Set Designer Anisfeld, p. 45
43 Ibidem
44  Williams, op. sit., p. 88
45 At the end of his life Brinton donated his own collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its director Fiske Kimball paid hommage to C. Brinton in
Phildelphia Museum Bulletin, (vol. XXXVII, no. 191, November 1941): What is essential, if a collection is to have interest and validity for others, is that it have some vital unity, so that, like its individual components, it takes on a being and life of its own. This being, this created life, reflecting the genial personality of the donor, is the outstanding characteristic of the collection of Christian Brinton, of which the Museum now opens the inaugural exhibition.
46 See note 21 in: Sugrobova-Roth, in:
The Artist Anisfeld, p. 36
47 Williams, op. sit., p. 105
48 Ibid., p. 100
Cor Ardens refers to a florilegium created by the Russian poet and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov (1866 -1949). Ivanov had studied in Berlin in 1866, where he came under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche and German Romantics, notably Novalis and Friedrich Hölderlin. At the turn of the century, Ivanov elaborated his views on the spiritual mission of Rome and the Ancient Greek cult of Dionysus. He spent much time in Italy, where he converted to Roman Catholicism. His poetry in his Cor ardens established him as a key figure in the Russian Symbolist movement In 1905 he settled in St Petersburg in a turreted house where he and his wife Zinovieva-Annibal was frequented by Alexander Blok, among other poets, philosophers, such as Nikolai Berdyayev, dramatists  like Vsevolod Meyerhold, and many artists. Konstantin Somov drew the frontispiece for his Cor Ardens.
50 Brandesky, J.,
Boris Anisfeld in Chicago, p. 62
51 see: Chatfield-Taylor, C.,
Anisfeld’s American Legacy, p. 68: his (Anisfeld’s) staunch individualism and his insistence that he belonged to no particular school.