Arts Beat

Drawing From Within To Reconcile a Divided Self

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

When artist Yefim Ladyzhensky lived in the Soviet Union, he felt persecuted for being Jewish. When he lived in Israel, he felt persecuted for being Soviet.

This sense of alienation permeates the exhibition "Reconciling Worlds: The Work of Soviet Artist Yefim Ladyzhensky," on view through Dec. 30 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

In a tempera painting called "Past Is Always With Me I," Ladyzhensky (pronounced Lah-dee-jhen-ski) paints five self-portraits -- just heads, no bodies -- hanging from nooses off the points of a red star, representing communism. Right next to it, in "Past Is Always With Me II," Ladyzhensky repeats the composition of the first piece but swaps in a Jewish star and six hanging heads. The paintings are dated 1982, the year he killed himself, at age 70. Journalist David K. Shipler knew Ladyzhensky and says the artist "had a way of dragging you down." When they were both living in Israel, Ladyzhensky repeatedly asked Shipler to write an article about him.

"He asked me, 'Are you going to wait to write about me until I'm dead?' " Shipler recalls. "And that haunts me. Because I did."

A few of the paintings at the DCJCC's Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery reflect Ladyzhensky's Odessa upbringing in the 1920s -- the flea market, praying in synagogue, wrapping candies. He went on to become an official Soviet artist and worked as a scenic designer for theaters, according to art dealer Mark Kelner.

Ladyzhensky is Kelner's passion. His dream is to stir up enough interest in the artist to one day be able to see his art hanging somewhere like the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, he says. Kelner, a fast-talking 33-year-old of Russian descent, admits that he tries to downplay Ladyzhensky's more morbid work.

"I look at myself as spiritually connected," Kelner says. "I want to protect him. . . . I think people write him off as 'the crazy who killed himself.' I say, lets focus on the body of work and not the endpoint."

This body of work is so varied that a number of people have come out of the show and asked if several artists created the works, gallery Director Wendy Fergusson says. Kelner loves Ladyzhensky's naive-looking Odessa paintings because they evoke the kind of Jewish communities that his grandparents grew up in. Fergusson is drawn to the painting "Three O'Clock in the Morning" because of its mosaic feel, but every time she sees the image she feels "shaken," she says. It's a self-portrait of Ladyzhensky hanging himself, clearly prefiguring his own suicide.

Kelner says he "fought hard" with Fergusson to keep this disturbing work out of the show. Ladyzhensky's family in Israel didn't want it on view and Kelner wanted to honor their request, Fergusson says. She won the fight but compromised with the placement: The painting is tucked behind a temporary wall.

"If you know Ladyzhensky, you know the legend of that painting," Fergusson says. "To know it was out there and not put it in the show would be intellectually irresponsible."

This isn't Ladyzhensky's first solo show. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem presented his work in 1979. He felt disrespected by the museum because his exhibition was in the entrance area rather than the more prestigious back gallery and the catalogue wasn't printed in full color.

"He transported with him [from the Soviet Union] these huge expectations," Shipler says. "He was just lost."

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