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Self-portrait in a Straw Hat. 1890s, oil on canvas, 26x18
Byelorussian Museum of Arts

Yehuda Pen

"I learned about Pen when I was riding on a tram. 
It was crossing the Cathedral Sguare and I saw a signboard -
white letters on blue: 'Artist Pen's School*. 'What a 
cultured city is our Vitebsk’ I thought:”
The history of the Vitebsk School, its peculiarities and poetics, can hardly be understood without passing judgment on the personality of its founder, Yehuda Pen, as a certain historical-cultural phenomenon; he represented a type characteristic of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia of the late 19th century, but a type that nevertheless remained virtually beyond the scope of studies or writings. 

   He was born into a big and poor family in the small township of Novo-Alexandrovsk (now Zarasai, Lithuania) on May 24 (June 5 New Style) 1854. He was only four years old when his father died. Soon his mother sent him to a cheder, where the little boy displayed a gift for drawing. He avidly devoted himself to that pastime, drawing letters in books, coloring Purim rattles, making mizrachim and taking an order for the ornamental decoration of the title page of the Pinkos for the local religious community. The young artist also drew portraits of local inhabitants, generals and mounted Cossacks, giving preference to that type of "art". His passion for drawing met with no approval or support in the family, and his mother, despairing of her son's ever doing well, left him to his own devices. Meanwhile, a distant relation of theirs, who had a small business making signboards and painting parquet floors in the town of Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia) not far from Novo-Alexandrovsk, heard about the gifted lad. In late 1867 Yehuda Pen left for Dvinsk, where he became the housepainter's apprentice.

   Pen's experience was repeated by those of his compatriots and peers who were would-be artists, among them Marc Antokolsky (1843-1902), Isaac Asknasii (1856-1902), Mordecai Zvi Mane (1859-1886) and Moses Maimon (1860-1924). Their gifts, however, went beyond rigid canons and sought free expression in a different artistic culture, defying the system of traditional Jewish cultural values. Small wonder that Pen's master, an avowed Chassic scrutinised works by his apprentice and exclaimed that he should throw all those "little men" out of his head and stop fancying himself an artist because "Artists were drunkards and beggars who died of consumption or went mad." Many of the artists mentioned above had to overcome the opposition of their parents who sought to turn their sons' artistic directions towards respectable trades or pious vocations. Marc Antokolsky was sent lo serve as an apprentice, first tН a galloon-maker and then to a wood-carver, Mane was for some time a soifer, a scribe of various religious texts, and Maimon was an apprentice to a clock-maker.

Pen was to a certain extent lucky to becorne an apprentice to a housepainter and to do what he had been trained for. He gained some experience, and his master soon began entrusting him with the more important and demanding orders. 

In Dvinsk, Pen also became acquainted with the Pumpiansky family, whose house was a center of cultural life in the town. On one occasion in that hospilable place, Pen met Boruch Girshovich, a student on vacation from St.Petersburg's Academy of Arts, who spoke favorably of Pen's work and assured Pen that he was capable of entering the Academy. A little over twenty at that time, Pen was devout, wore traditional Jewish clothes and spoke next to no Russian. He never-theless dreamed of becoming a professionally trained artist, and the prohibition to write and draw on Salurdays was the only thing that interfered with his dreams. All doubts were finally cast away when he received a letter from Girshovich in the summer of 1879, and he left for St.Petersburg to take entrance examinations to the Academy of Arts

He was not a success at first. He failed the entrance exams, but decided to stay in the capital and try again.
For twelve months he could visit the Hermitage Museum and the Academy copy room, polishing his drawing skills and preparing for the exam. Girshovich and Asknasii, already fairly well-known at that time, offered him their help, and in 1880 Pen became an Academy student. Among fellow-freshmen that year were Maimon and Mane, as well as Mordecai Ioffe (b. 1864, last record dated 1924), who had taken drawing lessons from Pen in Dvinsk.
Pen graduated from the nature class in 1885 with another Silver Medal. However, as be failed the exams in general educalional subjects and could attend Academy classes in the second term only as a non-matriculated student, he received only a small "encouragement" medal. In October, 1885 he took an exam presenting his summer works, and was soon given the diploma of an extraclass artist. He attended the Academy for another year, completing the scholarly course in 1886. He returned to Novo-Alexandrovsk, then moved to Dvinsk in search of work and finally to Riga. There he met Baron N.N.Korf, who invited the artist to work on his estate outside Kreizburg, a township halfway between Vitebsk and Dvinsk. Pen recalled that the local Jews had received his arrival at the estate with great enthusiasm, as they were convinced that he was Baron Girsch of Austria who had come to buy them out and send them to Argentina.

It can be surmised that Pen came to Kreizburg in 1891 and stayed there for five years. Though he personally considered those years as lost because he drew mostly portraits from photographs, it was still an important period in the artist's life. In the year of Pen's arrival at the Baron's estale, Ilya Repin bought the Zdravnevo estate outside Vitebsk. He moved there with his family in May, 1892 and lived there, except during the winters, till 1896. 

Repin had met Pen at the Academy of Arts and had spoken favorably of his younger colleague's works. Pen visited Zdravnevo on many occasions and received reciprocate visits from Repin. Landscape artist Yuri Klever (1850-1924), who enjoyed renown at that time and who was also a graduate of the St.Petersburg Academy, lived in neighboring Vitebsk. Zdravnevo, where many artists came, including those from Vilebsk to visit Repin, was beyond doubt the place for Pen to make new friends among his colleagues. Thus, living in Kreizburg, he was in no way secluded from news of artistic life nor deprived of "professional" contacts. On the contrary, Pen could establish business contacts in Vitebsk in those years and find patrons among the local Jewish bourgeoisie. 

However, after leaving Kreizburg, Pen first tried to settle in St.Petersburg and he ultimately received a passport for "permanent residence" in the Russian capital in March, 1896. Nevertheless, his fate was decided in Vitebsk: apparently his Vitebsk friends and benefactors urged him to come back, promising their help in opening a private drawing school, long in Pen's dreams; they made efforts to obtain permission of the governor and central authorities. The chance to open a school that could guarantee him a stable income and normal working conditions proved for Pen a decisive argument in favor of moving to Vitebsk.

Pen found Vitebsk to be a major cultural center where he was eagerly awaited. He was offered a flat in one of the central streets; he organized a studio in one of the rooms and opened his School of Drawing and Painting in November, 1897. It seems that his School was the first, and for some time, the only Jewish art school. Pen was hardly pursuing any special program of national artistic training: in the late 19th century, little thought was given to the need for such a program. On September 17, 1896, the Vitebskie Gubernskie Novosti (Vitebsk Gubernia News) carried Pen's advertisement that his School offered a course in drawing geometric figures, ornaments, plaster statue's and nature and open air paintins. 

Pen's private school existed until Marc Chagall opened the пublic Higher School of Art in 1918. He invited his first teacher to head Нe of the studios in it. After the Higher School became an institute, Pen, in addition to teaching, also served as vice-rector. Despite the lactless attacks made on him by Malevich, Pen was invariably irealed with love and respect by students, many of whom often came to his classes, though working in other studios. Unable to accept methods of art education and practices introduced by the new School authorilics headed by M. Kerzin, Pen was forced to leave that educational establishment, together with Brazer, Minin and Yudovin, in 1923. By that lime it was again reorganized, and oО that occasion was reduced in status to a vocational school, Pen retired on pension. That fact, however, had little effect on his authority and popularity: in 1927 his thirtieth anniversary of work in Vitebsk was officially celebrated in the town and his home continued to attract young artist and all art lovers. People came to his place to see the pictures that completely covered the walls (Pen painted till his last days), to seek advice and to visit the respected mosted and kindhearted Friend. 

In the early hours of March 2, 1937, Yehuda Pen was murdered at his home. The motives of that wanton murder have remained obscure to this day. But the history of the Vitebsk School did not end with Pen's death. His disciples, no matter how as: they might have distanced themselves from the artist principles Нf their first teacher, sooner or later reverted to them and returned to Vitebsk, the town of their youth, which in their minds epitomised a harmonlously integral world. This was what happened to Yefim Royak, who first studied under Pen and Chagall and theri became an avowed follower of Malevich. Even in the most gruesome period of the 1930s in the 1950s he adhered to Suprematism (to quote J. Chervinka), but in the long run came back to a small room in his parents' house, to Jewish dressmakers and to Vitebsk, pervaded with Fen's art. Chagall might have foreseen all that when he wrote to Pen: "We, sorne of your first students, will have a special memory of you. We are not blind. No rnatter what extremily may hurl us in a direction far away from you in the field Нf art, your image of an honest toller-artist and the first teacher is still great. I love you for that." 

20 February 2020
25 Shevat 5780

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01 January 1970
10 Nisan 5780
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