When was the last time you were at a gallery or museum opening where a featured wine was Manishewitz Concord? Better—when was the last time you were at an opening at the Ukrainian Institute of America of a Jewish-themed exhibition?
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s “Folkways and Fantasies” at the Ukrainian Institute is as much a sociological moment as it is the stunning exhibition that it is. The Ukrainians? Those of the Second World War, Nazi collaborators, with a history and tradition of antisemitism? No—the world has turned over once or twice; Ukrainians now celebrate the work of Ukrainian-born Petrovsky-Shtern, whose “day-job” is as a Northwestern University professor of Jewish history and who is a distinguished scholar of modern Eastern-European Jewish intellectual and social history.
In an exhibition beautifully curated by the Ukrainian Institute’s Walter Hoydysh, Petrovsky-Shtern re-interprets the eponymous “folkways and fantasies” of his Jewish and Ukrainian heritage through revisiting foundational narratives from the Hebrew Bible, Eastern European Jewish folk-characters and folk-tales, images and artifacts from his native Ukraine, and—of course—the Holocaust. Side-by-side Adam and Eve paintings are little gems. Adam holds in one hand an insignificant worm—but wait! Is this not the biblical snake, the vehicle for undoing God’s plan in Creation? And curvaceous Eve naively ponders an array of apples: “Hmm . . . Which of these shall I eat?” The Russian folk-tale of the Golden Fish who promises to fulfill the fisherman’s any wish in exchange for his freedom is re-told by Petrovsky-Shtern as the “The Golden Gefilte Fish” who is “golden” on the dinner-plate of the shtetl couple. And so on, each painting with an ironic, often comic, twist on the original tale or yarn or event, but each with a serious message. The paintings are funny, sad, hilarious, profound—and never Fiddler-style stereotypical—and each conveys a singularly Slavic-Jewish irony. “Irony” is Petrovsky-Shtern’s first, middle, and last names.
And if you missed the point, the captions for the paintings (authored by the artist himself) nudge you in the intended direction. Each caption has a phrase, a sentence, sometimes just a word, that insists that you chuckle—or cry. The captions, in most museum shows a distraction, in this show are by themselves worth the price of admission.
Most of the paintings are in stark red, white, and black, recalling for the viewer early-twentieth-century Soviet propaganda posters. But Petrovsky-Shtern’s depictions turn Soviet art on its head; they are a rejection of Soviet-era art forms, and of Soviet state antisemitism.
Amongst the few departures from the exhibition’s red-black-white format is a small Holocaust painting, tucked in a corner, almost out of sight, a depiction of Jews about to be murdered transformed (reincarnated, as the caption tells us) into beautiful phantasmagorical creatures. The painting is in bluish-grey. It’s the smoke from the crematoria.
But even this bleak depiction of the destruction of European Jewry has its comical side, an inner grin, if you will. Look carefully at the array of Jews shuffling to the death-camp. It’s the entire exhibition, in microcosm.
“Folkways and Fantasies of Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern” is on view at the Ukrainian Institute of America, 2 East 79th Street, Manhattan, from February 27-March 9, 2016.
Jerome Chanes, a frequent reviewer of arts and letters, is the author of four books on American Jewish public affairs and history.