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The last shore of Teofil Fraerman

On 4 March in Berdichev an artist was born who knew Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin, worked with Edgar Degas and was friends with Anatole France.

The Odessa music school is famous around the world: Gilels, Oistrakh, Feltsman… The Odessa art school is no less important, but many names and paintings were returned to the public recently thanks to Yakov Pereman’s collection. The 4th of March marks the birthday of one of the most outstanding Odessa artists from the “earlier time”.

Painter, student of Kostandi

Teofil Fraerman was born on 4 March 1883. He got the place wrong, not in Odessa but in Berdichev. But he made up for it by moving to the city by the sea. The classic phrase that “the great artist was born into a poor Jewish family” remains debatable. Indeed, according to one opinion, the artist came from a well-off family, but gave it all up and went to Odessa to study painting. According to another opinion, which is given by Fraerman’s pupil and friend Yevgeny Kibrik, the Fraermans were poor. But when they discovered that their son wanted to paint, they found him an apprenticeship with a painter – he would paint and learn a trade. At the age of 14 the boy discovered the Odessa art academy. He initially enrolled in free Sunday courses, and then graduated from the academy. And at the age of 20 the issue of his further education arose. The circumstances were the following: Russia, a Jewish youth, the pale, the percentage norm for enrolling in educational institutions. Taking all of this into account, it was easier to move to Germany than to go to Moscow or Petersburg to study. And on Kostandi’s advice, in 1903 Fraerman enrolled at the Munich academy of Naton Ashbe. Here he learned the technique of painting to perfection, but because of the academically dry style of teaching he decided to go to Paris. On foot. He walked for two months, doing odd jobs here and there.

His ease of moving from one place to another is impressive: Odessa, Munich, Paris,. Languages: Yiddish, Russian, French, German. Yiddish was obviously his native language. He could easily learn Russian French and German in the multilingual and lively Odessa, which in the early 20th century was compared to Babel. Vladimir Zhabotinsky recalled that in his high school class 30 pupils represented 11 nationalities, and a third of the class were Jews. And incidentally, Zhabotinsky himself began to publish from the age of 16 in the major Russian provincial newspaper “Odessa Pamphlet”, and went to Italy as a correspondent for the paper. He learned Italian brilliantly in a few months. Kornei Chukovsky worked on repairing roofs in Odessa in his youth, and learned English on these roofs. And he learned it so well that millions of children read English poems in his translations. Perhaps in Odessa the so-called “genius of the place” operated, which gave such a powerful creative surge.

The Paris beehive

In Paris, our hero moved into the famous “Beehive” on Montparnasse. Essentially it was a dormitory with studios for poor artists and writers. Its residents included Leger, Modigliani, Chagall, Soutine and Nurenberg… Fraerman soon began working at the workshop of the sculptor Aronson, turning plaster into marble. Aronson was 11 years older than Teofil. He was from a poor Hasidic family, and at one time without money and a knowledge of French he went to Paris, where from 1891 he attended the free municipal school “École des arts décoratifs” – after studying there for two years, he received the main prize for his work. Later, Fraerman found work at the workshop of Auguste Rodin. He worked at the Luxembourg museum, took part in organizing various exhibition, and selected works for purchases.

In 1905, Fraerman enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts (L’Ecole des beaux-arts), where he studied under the professor of the painting faculty Gabriel Forrier and at the workshop of the brilliant portrait artist Leon Bonn. Fraerman signed his works in a very French style: “Teo Fra”, and when they were displayed in 1909 at the autumn salon, they were immediately noticed and purchased. And Fraerman was finally able to buy a workshop. After another exhibition at the autumn salon, he was elected as a permanent member of the jury.

Another Odessa artist, Amshei Nurenberg, who crossed the Russian-German border on foot and then reached France, recalled that 1911 was the highpoint in Fraerman’s work. People wrote about him, talked about him, bought his works and wanted to meet him. “I remember Fraerman well as he was at that time: a sturdy figure, broad, gentle gestures, and an easy gait,” Nurenberg recalled. “He wore a light grey suit and a wide-brimmed hat. He carried a cane with a heavy gold knob. Fraerman often appeared in cafes, on streets, in parks, at exhibitions and at artists’ workshops, leaving a bright trail behind him. He had Russian and French friends.

Fraerman worked a lot, and liked going to the provinces or to the ocean in autumn. Nurenberg said that Fraerman missed his Homeland so much that he left Paris and returned to Odessa. According to another theory, Fraerman went to Odessa because his mother was ill, and was simply unable to go back to Paris. And the second theory is more believable. We shouldn’t forget that Nurenberg also got stuck in Russia and worked with the Soviet press for many years. What else could he have said?

Lucky crusts

Fraerman came to Odessa as a recognized master. He painted large lyrical and poetic landscapes in restrained grey shades, and became one of the main organizers of the “Independents” association. Fraerman was glad to share his knowledge and experience with young artists. “Fraerman was a rare teacher in his culture and knowledge,” Nurenberg wrote. “He was also a brilliant story-teller. His knowledge of schools, groups, rare names, and his subtle analysis of artworks made him stand out. He knew and had a good feeling for the old Paris. He could talk about French artists and their work with taste and humor.

The year 1918 was a tumultuous one in Odessa. The authorities constantly changed, there was nothing to eat. There were thieves and bandits everywhere. Nurenberg recalled that one evening he and Fraerman were stopped by bandits with revolvers. They searched them, and in their pockets they found… dry bread. They let them go and cursed them. “Skint artists” the bandits called them. “We were saved by the bread that we used to erase coal from drawings, to replace the rubber that had disappeared from the city,” Nurenberg said. And Fraerman was happy that the bandits didn’t take his expensive coat from Paris.

But in 1919 the bandits were luckier. Again Fraerman and the Nurenberg family were stopped in the center of the city. Amshei Nurenberg tried to persuade the bandits to let them go. And he recalled that “Fraerman, with his customary irony, said: “give them the money and don’t interfere. They’re at work.

In order to survive, the artists cooperated with the new authorities – they joined the Committee for preservation of monuments of art, the chairman of which became Amshei Nurenberg. The Bolsheviks entrusted them with inspecting the homes of the bourgeoisie for items of art. “There had been reports that the notorious Mishka-Yaponchik and his gang are already robbing abandoned mansions,” the commissar said. Three brigades of workers and artists were organized. In several days they brought many items. The result of the work was incredible: the number of forgeries was off the scale.

Of the 25 Levitans, 18 turned out to be forgeries, of the 15 Repins only 8 were genuine, and of the 17 Aivazovskys only 8 came from the brush of the renowned maritime artist. Works of Serov, Polenov and others were also forgeries,” Nurenberg wrote. He also noted: “The expert commission (Olevich, Fazini, Fraerman and Midler) knew the authors of the forged paintings well. They were pupils of the art academy, Zuser and Berkovich,” Nurenberg wrote.

Incidentally, the genuinely valuable items that the commission found became the basis of the Odessa museum of western and oriental art, which was organized by Teofil Fraerman.

There was also time for joy in this troubled period. Nurenberg recalls that once a week the great friend of the artists, the engineer Oskar Mishkiblit, hired two coachmen, and put a group of artists in the carriage (Yukhnevich, Fraerman, Uspensky, Malik, Nurenberg) and took them to the famous “Winter Garden” restaurant. Sasha, the renowned museum who was eulogized by Kuprin, played there. “When he saw us he raised his violin above his head in a sign of joyful greeting, and kept it there for several minutes. He knew that we were artists, and he valued and loved us. The philanthropist Oskar ordered a lavish meal for us with Santsenbaker beer and free music. We thought that Sasha only played for us the entire evening. We constantly clinked our glasses with him. We drank to his talent and health, and to his incredible violin. He drank a lot, but was never drunk. We liked to look at his lumpy figure and enormous stomach, his expressive feminine face with a protruding jaw and deep-set little shining eyes. We drew him. We made tender inscriptions on the drawings. He smiled gratefully, but didn’t take the drawings. He knew songs from all over the world and performed them with all their national features. Sasha played with a mute on his violin and sang them in recitative. Sailors from all corners of the globe were very fond of him,” Nurenberg recalled.

Teofil Fraerman managed to survive the tempestuous times in the unruly and hungry city of Odessa. He found his place – he taught young artists and worked in his own museum. But he must have missed Paris terribly. His pupil, the artist Ilya Shenker, recalled: “The Soviet regime stuck in his gizzard. He talked a lot about his travels in Europe and life in Paris. Italy and France were an artistic paradise for him. Teofil Fraerman felt warmly towards his students. He was a truly cultured man without any mercantile interests. A true human being.

In Odessa, Fraerman married. His wife was the applied artist Lidiya Vladimirovna Pestryakova-Fraerman. Contemporaries noted that the Fraermans’ home was suitable for devoted work and a little detached rest, “when you want to sum up the results of the day, and see the concerns and searches of the next day. It was a kind of home museum – a collection of paintings, antiques, furniture of different times and countries, incrusted boxes and charming miniatures.

In the journal “Migdal” Naum Pelts wrote that often, looking at the blue surface of the gulf, Teofil Borisovich would say: “That’s my last shore.” When he said these words in this detached way, you could feel that he had other shores before his eyes. One of Fraerman’s last works was called “The Shore of the Great Water”.



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