The pride of Russian Art was born in Vilnius
In the summer of 1902, a traveler visited Vilnius, the old capital of Lithuania. Walking around the ancient city, he suddenly noticed that all the people whom he met on the streets of the town were in a hurry going all in the same direction. He stopped someone and asked where they were all moving. People told that they were rushing to the station, where to in an hour will be arriving the train with the body of Mark Antokolsky, whom the inhabitants of his hometown were going to pay their last respects. After the stop in Vilnius, the train continued for Saint Petersburg.
The great Russian sculptor Mark Antokolsky was born in 1842 in a poor Jewish family from Vilnius, Lithuania. As many last names of that time, his surname derived from the suburb of Vilnius (Vilna), Antokol. His first name from birth was Mordechai, Motti, at home. His father kept a tavern; he was harsh, angry, and even cruel. Mordechai was one of the seven children, and his childhood was very hard. He was an unloved child and was often beaten by all.
The father made the boy work all day in the tavern, serving the visitors. But Motti had a dream, and he had a great talent. He loved to draw and to cut from wood. Of course, he could do that secretly, only by night. An overwhelming desire to paint only grew stronger over the years. And then, once, a happy occasion helped the boy. Accidentally seeing a print of Van Dyck’s painting, he repeated it in small sizes and carved from wood.
Anastasia Nazimova, the wife of Vilnius governor-general, an educated and loving arts lady, noticed his work. She was very impressed and obtained the approval of Mordechai’s parents to send him to St. Petersburg, to the Academy of Fine Arts. She gave him a letter to her friend in the Imperial court. After considerable difficulties in a strange big city, Mordehai attended the sculpture class as an external student in the Imperial Academy of Arts.
The beginning of his way
Antokolsky created his first works in 1864-67 on a Jewish subject that has been close to him since childhood. Academy awarded him a Grand and Small Silver Medals for the sculptures “Jewish Tailor” and “A Stingy Man.” In 1867, he exhibited his works at the world exhibition in Paris. And again, these were two works on the Jewish theme: “Harif” (Sharp mind) and “Baki” (Proficient).
In St. Petersburg, Antokolsky meets democratically-minded writers, artists, critics, composers (among them Repin, Stasov, Rubinstein), and they inspired him with the humanistic ideals of the time.
He turns to the tragic pages of the history of his nation. Particularly expressive and dramatic is his high relief, “The Assault of the Inquisition on the Jews at their Secret Passover Celebration.” This work was met very positively among the Russian democratic community.
By the mid-1870s, moral and ethical issues more and more attract the artist. Ideas of a universal, philosophical nature begin to prevail in his art. In his new sculpture, “Christ before the people,” Antokolsky uses the bible story to translate the ideas that concern contemporary Russian society. He seeks to show Jesus as a reformer, as a fighter for the freedom of those same people who shouted, “Crucify him, crucify!”. Never before a collision between a hero and a crowd was so expressively embodied in a single human figure.
Great historical figures
A native of Jewish Vilna and a practicing Jew, Mordechai Antokolsky becomes one of the leading artists of the historical theme of the Russian Empire. He intends to create the image of Ivan the Terrible, an outstanding statesman, a man of inexhaustible passions and a furious temper, smart and cruel, powerful and brutal, in a word, a man of complicated and contradictory nature.
He portrays the tsar in a bitter personality split of his soul, in a moment of a hard psychological state. He is left alone with himself, immersed in sad and painful thoughts. This interpretation of the image of one of the most influential personalities of Russian history reflects Antokolsky’s and his soulmate’s understanding of the historical processes in connection with the relevant problems of the present times.
Sculpture of Peter the Great
Soon, Antokolsky begins to realize his cherished dream – the creation of the image of Peter the Great. In contrast to Ivan the Terrible, with his rampant and suffering, cruelty, and repentance, Peter I, in sculptor’s view, is bright, colorful, and, most importantly, the holistic and powerful personality of a prominent statesman.
For him, Peter I is extraordinary in all respects: growth is remarkable, strength is unusual, the mind is exceptional. And his passions and purposefulness, often brutal, were also fantastic.
The artist correctly understood the historical significance of Peter and his role as a reformer of Russia. The solemn elation of the image is embodied in the monument to Peter, standing on the sea wind and going out to the vast expanses of Russia to fight, to build, and to reform. It is no coincidence that the monument to Peter the Great stands on the shores of the Baltic Sea in Peterhof, where he often loved to visit. There are also copies of Antokolsky’s Peter in other cities seaports of Russia, and also we find his image on today’s Russian money, on a banknote of 500 Russian rubles.
“Friends of Mankind”
An essential stage in the creative work of Mark Antokolsky were the images of “Friends of Mankind”: the sculptures “Death of Socrates” and “Spinoza,” as well as the busts of the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev and the famous critic, his great friend, Vladimir Stasov. Their life, moral and political collisions of their fate, philosophy, courage, and the tragic end inspired the sculptor-humanist to create images of people of high principles.
The image of Baruch Spinoza, a lone fighter, independent and free, with unlimited faith in the triumph of truth and goodness, was especially close to Antokolsky. When you visit the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, you can go around the sculpture and see the mastery and exceptional talent of the sculptor. From one perspective, you see one person, while from another point, you find another person, you discover quite different, unfamiliar character traits.
Of course, he sculpted many sculptures by request, especially portraits. Among them were the busts of his patrons, railway magnate of Russia Samuel Polyakov and Baron Horace Gunzburg, the famous doctor Sergey Botkin, members of the royal family.
Difficult fate at homeland
The art of Antokolsky in Russia was perceived ambiguously. The artist had many admirers and supporters in his homeland. However, there were many opponents and envious people who sought to humiliate and insult him. He was sharply attacked, especially by conservative right-wing and clerical figures.
Anti-Semites of all kinds accused him of not understanding the “Russian and Christian soul”, of daring to depict Christ, not following the academic canon, but in the way, he realized on his own. All this, as well as worsening health, made him leave Russia and settle first in Italy, and then finally in France.
Antokolsky as a writer
Mark Antokolsky was a man of broad interests. The end of the 1890s was the period of his most intense literary work. He writes articles on different subjects of art and religion, essay on the books of Leo Tolstoy, and an article about the Paris World Art Exhibition.
He sharply responds to the exiting problems of his time. So in the article of 1899, he angrily opposes the vicious reprisal against Dreyfus, a French officer of Jewish origin falsely accused of spying for Germany. To the end of his life, Antokolsky wrote a big novel, “Ben Izak,” in which he describes the challenging and hungry years of his childhood in the suburbs of Vilnius, learning in the heder, reproduces scenes of old weddings and funeral rites of Lithuanian Jews. According to contemporaries, the best pages of the novel are close to the prose of Sholom Aleichem.
What is Lithuania known for?
The history of Lithuania is decorated with numerous people who became famous outside it. The same is about Antokolski. He left when he was a young man and never settled in Lithuania. Although he was connected to it, and his wife was from Vilnius. Besides Mark Antokolski, there are many more people who made Lithuania famous in an indirect way. You can read about Moses Montefiore, Haim Sutine, Jasha Heifetz.
On July 9th, 1902, Mark Matveevich Antokolsky, one of the most outstanding artists of Europe of the XIX c. passed away in Frankfurt on Main, Germany. His friends and admirers insisted on burying Mark in Saint Petersburg. At the mourning ceremony at the Jewish cemetery, they spoke excitedly about the life and work of the sculptor, his role and place in Russian and world art culture. An impressive matzevah (tombstone) in the shape of the Star of David marks his grave, listing the names of his most famous sculptures. It can be seen there up to date.