The Schmooze

The Return of Mark Epshtein, a Forgotten Master of the Yiddish Avant-Garde

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

The name Mark Epshtein (1899-1949) no longer occupies a prominent place in Yiddish cultural history, but a current exhibit in Kiev brought the artist back to the city where he created his most important work. “The Return of the Master,” which runs until February 20 at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, is the first full-scale exhibition to showcase the legacy of this strange but forgotten master of the Yiddish avant-garde.

Born Moyshe Epshtein in Bobruisk, White Russia, Epshtein moved at a young age to Kiev with his family, where he entered art school. According to one story, when Epshtein was barely 10 years old, his mother sent him to bring water from the well. When he didn’t return his mother went looking for him, and found him building a sculpture of Leo Tolstoy out of snow. A neighboring photographer took a picture of the boy with his sculpture, and the picture was later was given to the Tolstoy Museum.

The story illustrates not only Epshtein’s talent and love of art, but also the tragic fate of his work. Like his childhood snowman, almost all of Epshtein’s sculptures have been lost or destroyed, with only a photographic record of them remaining. Moreover, because of his overt Jewishness Epshtein was never included in official versions of Soviet art history. Neither has he been much appreciated by Jewish art historians, presumably because his artistic vision didn’t accord with their own ideas about Jewish art.

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The Return of Mark Epshtein, a Forgotten Master of the Yiddish Avant-Garde

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