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Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership faculty member Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is featured on the cover of the new publication from The Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University. While many in the field of Jewish Studies know him as a scholar, historian, and author he is also an artist, who first exhibited his paintings at Spertus in 2012.
By Lisa Stein — adapted from Crosscurrents by permission of Northwestern Unversity's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
As a boy growing up in Ukraine, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern was surrounded by well-known artists who nurtured his talent for drawing. By the age of 10, he was studying with a highly regarded painter, and he continued making art until he was 24.
Petrovsky-Shtern’s father, Miron Petrovsky, was a noted philologist in Kiev with a wide circle of friends, many of them accomplished artists. Petrovsky-Shtern remembers learning from such painters as Boris Lekar, Mikhail Turovsky, and most importantly, the realist painter David Miretsky, who agreed to take the young boy on as a private student. Miretsky encouraged him to develop his talent for etchings, which he said suited the boy’s dynamic, graphic style.
But Miretsky’s training was short-lived. In 1972, terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. Miretsky went with a small group of Jewish mourners to commemorate the tragedy by placing flowers at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev that was the site of the largest massacre of Jews during World War II.
“They went there because there was nowhere else to go,” Petrovsky-Shtern explained. “They were arrested for hooliganism, just to scare them. After that event, the person to whom I was a disciple lost his job, packed up and left. The only person I wanted to study with was no longer there.”
Miretsky left for New York, and Petrovsky-Shtern lost not only his teacher but also his model of how to be a successful Jewish artist in the Soviet Union. By 1979, most of his father’s artist friends had also left for the United States, and Petrovsky-Shtern decided to pursue an academic career. He studied Spanish and earned a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Moscow, and eventually became a professor at Shevchenko Kiev National University. All the while, he also studied the works of Andrei Rublev, an icon painter, and Maria Prymachenko, a Ukrainian folk artist famous for her brightly colored painting of animals, nature and village life. He drew from their works to create a large fresco that depicted Jesus Christ as a Cossack with a saber and Mary as a villager carrying a bucket.
“I was trying to invent an artistic language: how can I convey a religious message in Ukrainian folk art, which is never used to convey these messages? Then I stopped.”
Petrovsky-Shtern married, started a family, and decided in 1993 to pursue his interest in Jewish studies. He relocated his family to the United States to study and teach at Hebrew College, Tufts University, and Harvard University, among other places.
It wasn’t until he experienced a personal crisis in 2007 that he started painting again. After two publishers reneged on their promises to publish two separate books he had written, he became despondent (the books were published soon after by different companies). His wife, Oxana Hana, took him by the hand and brought him to an art supply store. “She says, ‘Here’s $200, get yourself canvases, buy some paints.’”
At first he painted animals — bold, fantastic images of a violet wolf in a landscape, then a green elephant surrounded by villagers — that seemed to come straight from his unconscious. He incorporated Hebrew letters into the scenes, which he has continued to emphasize in his works, and then began painting typically Ukrainian scenes populated by Cossacks, clowns, and circus tamers. In doing so, he combined the influences of Ukrainian folk painting and Jewish traditions to create a unique, startling, and rich visual vocabulary.
Recently Petrovsky-Shtern has turned to painting Biblical scenes, which were on view with some of his other works in the solo exhibition Tales, Myths and Nightmares in December 2012 at the Spertus Institute in Chicago. These paintings portray people who appear to have stepped out of the shtetl in dark, wrenching scenes. In “Exodus,” a family in a paper boat, on which is written Hebrew text telling the story of Exodus, floats on a red, roiling sea; despite the tenderness the figures show each other, disaster is clearly imminent. “Babylonian Tower” depicts an equally ill-fated structure, inscribed with Sumerian text, from which people fall to their deaths.
When asked how his artwork relates to his academic research, Petrovsky-Shtern responds, “I put on canvas what I cannot and do not want to say out loud in a classroom or put on paper. For example, some of my paintings convey the mythological idea of ‘always’ — this is what always happens to the Jewish people. That is to say, there are paradigms in history that repeat themselves, such as the events of 70 CE, 1492, 1648, or 1942, that all show the highest level of anti-Jewish persecution and destruction of Jewish life. On the contrary, in my research I am working against this idea, debunking myths and showing how different are the events that the national memory claims similar.”