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Leonid Pasternak: descendent of the glorious family of Abarbanelei

On 3 April 1862, the outstanding artist, father of the brilliant poet Boris Pasternak and husband of the famous pianist Roza Kaufman was born.

In his homeland, the name of the artist was unjustly forgotten for many years. But his illustrations delighted Lev Tolstoy, Einstein and Lenin posed for him, a street in Tel-Aviv is named after him, and a museum with his name is open in Oxford

…two names were not enough

The life of this painter is incredible. We will try to discuss the main events in the life of the great Pasternak Senior. And here we can’t do without the customary formula: “the great Russian artist was born into a poor Jewish family”.

Leonid Pasternak was born in Odessa. His parents were people of little education, and kept a tavern. But nevertheless, the Pasternaks descended from the famous Abarbanelei family. They generously gave their sixth child two names – Abram and Isaak. The first was put in the papers of the village council and from there it moved to high school documents, while the second went into metric books. “But evidently two names were not enough, and I received a third one, Leonid,” our hero subsequently wrote. “From the first day of my birth, my family, my relatives, everyone began to call me Leonid.”

Leonid was born at one of the most favorable periods in the life of the Odessa Jewish community. Steven Zipperstein in his book “The Jews of Odessa. The history of the culture of 1794-1881” gave the impressions of a Jew from Lithuania who visited the city in 1861. He was amazed be the “prosperity of the community and the presence of various Jewish organizations, and the feeling of dignity and confidence that the local Jewry had in itself. Jews calmly walked around the streets, talked to each other in the Richelieu Café, and enjoyed the music at the Italian opera.

Portrait of Leonid Pasternak (Loris Korint, 1923, youth photo of Pasternak (1880), self portrait (1908).

No one is equal in love…

But ten years later, in 1871, a terrible pogrom took place. It stayed in Leonid Pasternak’s memory all his life. “I just don’t remember how I woke up in an empty hotel room, where our mother evidently hid us, her children, from the revenge of the savage, animal crowd. When this crowd reached our home, my mother – a skinny, weak-looking woman – opened the window of the lower floor that led to the street, jumped out of it, and dropped to her knees before this savage crowd, begging it with tears in her eyes to spare her children!... This completely unexpected sight of the woman pleading for her children made such an effect on the crowd that the “leaders” gave the command – “On you go, guys!” So our mother saved us with her maternal fearlessness and heroism,” the artist wrote in his memoirs.

He preserved a tender attitude to his mother all his life. This feeling was reflected in Pasternak’s’ book “Rembrandt and Jewry in his work”: “What a Jew! What a woman! And I remember my… Sacred Jewish women! How much sorrow and mourning, how many tears your eyes have cried. How many anxious and sleepless nights you spent over the cradle of your children. In constant worries and torments, the days and nights of your life until the grave. You are truly special: your brain and heart, your ideas, will and soul – you burnt it all to ashes, with self-sacrifice, in your love for them. You grew old before your time. Truly, you sacredly fulfilled God’s commandment – for no one is your equal in maternal love!

The first barefooted man in literature

The parents decided to give their youngest son the best education. And at that time in Odessa, this was found at the Richelieu lyceum. Leonid tried to spend every spare minute drawing. His parents were categorically against this hobby – they only knew “painters of signs”, but dreamt that their son would became an “apothecary, or a doctor, or at worst a “petitioner of cases”. Could he upset them and go against their wishes? Probably not. So he enrolled secretly in drawing school. Although the young artist already had his first customer, and first admirer. In one letter to his sister, Leonid wrote: “Do you remember my first Lorenzo Medici? The janitor patron, who ordered “Hunting for rabbits with borzoi”, and paid five kopecks for each of these pictures? He hang them on the walls of his janitor’s room.” In the senior classes at school, Pasternak began working with the satirical magazines of Odessa. In 1879, the magazine “Pchyolka” published the story “The Barefooted Man”. Many years later, Gorky said to Pasternak: “I remember your “Barefooted Man”, it was the first in our literature.
The Student of Two Universities

Letter from home, 1889

In 1881, on his parents’ insistence the young man enrolled in the Moscow University at the medical faculty. But he soon gave it up, unable to overcome his loathing for corpses. “But the section of anatomy that an artist needs, osteology and mycology, i.e. the science of bones and muscles, I passed with great interest, and even passed the half-year exam with honors under the very strict Professor Zernov,” Leonid wrote with pride.

Pasternak transferred to the law faculty of Moscow University, and then to the Odessa Novorossiisky University. This was the only university in the Russian Empire where students were allowed to travel abroad freely. In 1883, Leonid Pasternak enrolled with the first number in a competition at the Munich Royal Academy of Arts in the class of the famous painter Ludwig von Herterich. Two years later, he graduated in absentia from the law faculty of the Novorossiisky University, and with a gold medal from the Academy, after which he did obligatory military service in one year. The painting “Letter from Home”, as yet unfinished, was acquired right from the easel by Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov for his famous gallery. This deal could also be considered to be another diploma of Leonid Pasternak.

The children feed the adults

In February 1889, Pasternak married the pianist Rozalia Kaufman. And if Pasternak was still a promising artist, Rozalia Isidorovna was already considered to be a famous musician. Rubinstein admired her talent. At the age of 26, Rozalia Kaufman was already a professor of the Odessa department of the Imperial Conservatory in Petersburg.

The young family settled in Moscow, and a year later their first child was born – the future Nobel Prize winner, the writer Boris Pasternak. Then came another son, Alexander, and two daughters, Zhozefina and Lidiya.

Boris and Alexander Pasternak

Family portraits and drawings became a favorite topic of Leonid Pasternak. They conveyed the atmosphere of warmth and comfort in the family, and sold very well. People joked about Leonid Pasternak that his children fed their parents.
The Pasternak home in Moscow was always open for guests. Here Scriabin and Rachmaninoff played their new works, or heard them performed by Rozalia Pasternak. Yurgis Baltrushaitis, Fyodor Chaliapin, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, Mikhail Gershenzon, Yelizaveta Breshko-Breshkovskaya and many other people visited them and posed for portraits.

The Jewish academician

In the summer of 1890, Jewish craftsmen were sent out of Moscow. The Pasternak family was professorial, and repressions did not pose a threat to them. But the “panic among the Jews” was such that “I don’t feel like working. And where will they go, all these miserable people. It’s horrible!” Leonid Osipovich wrote to his wife, who was stayed with her parents in Odessa, along with her six-month-old son. Pasternak himself didn’t even consider abandoning his Jewishness. In 1894 he was invited to teach at the Moscow academy of painting, sculpture and architecture. However, he was given one condition – to convert to Christianity. The artist categorically refused. “I grew up in a Jewish family and will never abandon Jewishness for my career or to improve my social position in general.” But he was still hired – Leonid Pasternak worked at this academy for quarter of a century. At the age of 43 he was elected as an academician of painting.

Lev Tolstoy’s favorite illustrator

The art historian Yelizaveta Plavinskaya noted that Pasternak was the first Russian artist to call himself an impressionist. At the same time he wasn’t afraid of a cold attitude to impressionism from the itinerant painters, who placed truth above beauty in their program.

Lev Tolstoy, 1903

He was more of a modernist than they and Repin were. He allowed himself swift generalizations and approximate flowing curves in the spirit of the Parisian Dutch artists, and also drastic transformations of a line into a spot, which Repin was not capable of, as he was unfamiliar with the Munich school. And Pasternak did not lag behind his German comrades in his master of color, achieving gentle and colorful lighting in an interior, like the impressionists, and dramatic, in the spirit of the founder of the forgotten Caravagism,” wrote Plavinskaya. Incidentally, the association of itinerants in Moscow did not accept Pasternak into their ranks.

Nevertheless, Pasternak regularly took part in exhibitions of the itinerants, and at one of them in the spring of 1893, he met Lev Tolstoy. When Tolstoy stopped by Pasternak’s painting “The Debutante”, the artist Savitsky introduced Leonid to the writer. “Yes, yes, I know that time. I follow his works,” said Tolstoy. The Pasternaks become frequent guests of Tolstoy both in Moscow and in Yasnaya Polyana.

As a result, a series of portraits of the great writer was born, and additionally, Pasternak became one of the best illustrators of Tolstoy’s works. His illustrations for the novel “Resurrection” were exhibited in 1900 at the Russian pavilion of the International exhibition in Paris, where it won medals. Many drawings from the “Tolstoy series” went to the Tretyakov Gallery.

The first Russian painting in a Paris museum

The chief curator of the Odessa art museum Lyudmila Yeremina said that Pasternak’s painting “Students” was acquired by the Luxembourg Museum. “This is a wonderful fact,” the art historian wrote in the Odessa press about this event. “Luxembourg is one of the first art museums in the world. Only a very great artist can be exhibited here, and only if he’s French. There are just a few paintings at Luxembourg by foreigners. There isn’t a single Russian painting.” Thus, Pasternak’s “Students” was the first Russian painting in the famous museum.

Students before an exam (1985)

A friend of Einstein

In the reading room of the mathematics library of the Jewish University in Jerusalem, there is a portrait of Albert Einstein by Leonid Pasternak. Pasternak’s daughter Lidiya said that Pasternak and Einstein met in Berlin at the Soviet embassy. They went there to listen to a concert and lecture, and watch a short theatrical production or take part in relaxed socializing. Once Roza Pasternak played the piano at the embassy, and someone asked her if she could accompany Einstein. But Einstein resisted. He said: “I won’t risk performing after such an artist!” “But Mama persuaded him. And he really did play, and she accompanied him. And my father drew it. And this is how the drawing came into being with Einstein playing the violin,” Lidiya recalled. Einstein and Pasternak kept in touch for long years. The result was a series of portraits of the great scientist.

Incidentally, the portrait gallery by Pasternak is extremely rich. His canvases depict Prokofiev, Gorky, Bryusov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Balmont, Verhaeren, An-sky, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Mechnikov, the English conductor Craig, the Duma figure Maklakov, and the theoretician of anarchism Prince Kropotkin. He was also the founder of the portrait series of Leniniana.

Einstein, charcoal drawing on paper (1927) and oil on canvas (1924)

Emigration

In 1921, the Pasternak family left for Germany with their daughters. In 1924, the artist took part in a historical ethnographic expedition to Palestine. He made dozens of drawings and studies during the trip.

After 1933, it was difficult for Pasternak to stay in Germany – as a Jew, he was prohibited from painting and teaching. His books were burned. In 1938, Pasternak and his wife left for England, where their daughters already lived. Shortly afterwards, Rozaliya Isidorovna died, and Leonid Osipovich moved in with his younger daughter Lidiya in Oxford. He died there on 31 May 1945.

Boris and Rozaliya Pasternak – joint photo and self-portrait (1927)

Half a year later, his son Boris Pasternak wrote: “Papa! But this is a sea of tears, sleepless nights, and if you wrote it down, it would be volumes, volumes, volumes. Amazement at the perfection of his skill and gift, at the easy with which he worked (joking and playing, like Mozart), at the extent and important of what he did – the amazement is even more alive and hot, that comparisons on all these points shame and humiliate me. I wrote to him that he shouldn’t be offended, that his gigantic efforts were not appreciated to the 100th degree, while I have to burn with shame, when my role is so monstrously inflated and overvalued… I wrote to Papa… that in the end he would triumph, after living such a genuine, unfeigned, interesting, energetic, rich life, part of it in his blessed 19th century, part in faithfulness to it, and not in the savage, desolate, unreal and fraudulent 20th century…”

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