Shtetl. Mayn Khorever Heym, A Gedekhtnish (Shtetl. My Destroyed Home. A Remembrance)

Issachar Ryback (Yelisavetgrad, 1897 – Paris, 1935)

Berlin, Schwellen Verlag, 1923

Printed book in Yiddish, illustrated with 31 lithographs

Issachar Ryback (Elisabethgrad, 1897 – Paris, 1935), Shtetl. Mayn Khorever Heym, A Gedekhtnis (Shtetl. My Destroyed Home. A Remembrance), Berlin, Schwellen Verlag, 1923

Issachar Ryback (Elisabethgrad, 1897 – Paris, 1935), Shtetl. Mayn Khorever Heym, A Gedekhtnis (Shtetl. My Destroyed Home. A Remembrance), Berlin, Schwellen Verlag, 1923

The painter Issachar Ryback (1897-1935) was born in Yelisavetgrad in the Russian Empire, now in Ukraine. Although little known to the general public today, he played a key role in the avant-garde movements that revolutionised Jewish art in the early 20th century.

Ryback attended the art school in Kiev between 1911 and 1916. Greatly influenced by the ethnographic expeditions pioneered by S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvl Rapoport, 1863-1920) to the “Pale of Settlement”, where most of the Jews in the Russian Empire were forced to reside, he went on two of these expeditions in 1915 and 1916. During the second, Ryback and El Lissitzky (1890-1941) visited numerous synagogues, whose painted and sculpted motifs prompted him to create a new artistic alphabet. After the 1917 revolution, he was employed as a drawing teacher by the central committee of the Kultur Lige, an association promoting a revival of Yiddish culture founded in Kiev in 1918, of which El Lissitky and Chagall were also members.

In 1918 Ryback co-wrote an article with Boris Aronson (1899-1980) in the review Oyfgang theorising the importance of folk art in a return to tradition and Jewishness, but also to the Orient and archaism. After brief stays in Moscow and Berlin, Ryback settled in Paris in 1926, showing in leading European galleries until he died suddenly in 1935.

This album, regarded as Ryback’s masterpiece, was published in 1923 but most of the plates date from 1917. Shtetl (literally “small town”) was the name of Eastern European towns and villages with a large Jewish community. The illustrations depict daily life in Ryback’s shtetl before its destruction by the pogroms in Ukraine from 1918 to 1922. The book is haunted by a tragic event, the artist’s father’s murder by Symon Petlioura’s Ukrainian troops in 1921, and his evocation of this village no longer in existence is a reminder of this personal drama.

The album comprises thirty-one lithographs numbered in Roman numerals. The dark blue canvas cover is illustrated with an etching of a lion, from a gravestone drawn by Solomon Yudovin (1892-1954), another artist who took part in the ethnographic expeditions to the Pale of Settlement.

The lithographs depict scenes inspired by daily life in the shtetl. Several recurrent elements show the extent to which Ryback is emblematic of this new Jewish art he aspired to: the use of black and white referring to books and the written word (so important in Judaism), the use of Hebrew letters as pictorial elements and the influence of Cubism, which also drew inspiration from primitivism.

The role of animals in this return to folk art’s sources is central. In this new Jewish art the goat is the animal representing of the shtetl par excellence, as it is in Chagall’s work and in El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya (1919). Children are also omnipresent in the lithographs of Shtetl. In the theorisation of Jewish art they are regarded as the ideal recipients of this deliberately naïve art, and Ryback also illustrated several albums specifically for children, including Mayselekh far kleyninke kinderlekh and Mayselekh. Der letster khoylem fun altn demb.

The album’s two penultimate images evoke death in depictions of his father’s burial and the cemetery. Ryback is thus depicting life in the shtetl as the cycle of life, ending in individual and collective bereavement – all that remains in the last image is graves. Death is also present in the album’s subtitle: Mayn Khorever Heym. A Gedekhtnis (“My Destroyed Home. A Remembrance”).

The final lithograph counterbalances these sombre funerary images: a portrait (self-portrait?), with an optimist moral inscription in Yiddish.

Ryback returned to the theme of the Shtetl fifteen years later in 1933, in a series of twelve etchings entitled In the Shadow of the Past, of which the mahJ also has a copy.

On the same topics

El Lissitzky (Lazar Eliezer Lissitzky, known as ; Potchinok, 1890 – Moscow, 1941), Had Gadya, Kiev, 1919
Artists’ books, Modern art

El Lissitzky (Lazar Eliezer Lissitzky, known as ; Potchinok, Smolensk Oblast, 1890 – Moscou, 1941)

Kiev, Kooperativer farlag Kultur-Lige, 1919