Art, Culture & Revolution in Odessa: New Immersive Exhibition at YU Museum

Through November 13: Odessa: Babel, Ladyzhensky and the Soul of a City
Yeshiva University Museum
15 West 16th St, New York

 Yefim Ladyzhensky, The Movies Come to Town; tempera on canvas; collection of the artist’s family.
Yefim Ladyzhensky, The Movies Come to Town; tempera on canvas; collection of the artist’s family.

New York, Paris, Berlin: Crucibles of art, culture, and politics in the early 20th century. With a beautiful new exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum, Odessa is poised to join them.

Through the pairing and perspectives of two artists – the writer Isaac Babel and the painter Yefim Ladyzhensky – ODESSA: BABEL, LADYZHENSKY AND THE SOUL OF A CITY offers an enriching dialogue between two masters across different media, bringing to life a city in the midst of revolution.

The original exhibition immerses visitors in the legendary Black Sea metropolis’s frontier commercial life, polyglot swirl of cultures, colorful underworld and masterful artistry, all in the midst of the revolution, civil war and dramatic social transformations of the 1920s and 1930s. ODESSA pairs the iconic writing of Babel with the monumental works by the lesser-known Ladyzhensky. The writer and painter identified with the bawdy culture and swashbuckling underworld of the heavily Jewish Moldavanka neighborhood of Odessa. Each interpreted his city and country during the years leading up to and following the Bolshevik Revolution through an Odessan lens, characterized a by an unmistakably Jewish sardonic whit and humor.

Odessa looms large in Jewish culture and history. In the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Jews flocked there in pursuit of economic, social and cultural opportunities. By 1900, over a third of Odessa’s population was Jewish, with a mix of peoples from all over the rest of the world. They made the city into a crucible of Russian and Jewish culture, and a breeding ground for Jewish literature, art and politics palpable today.

ODESSA features over fifty paintings and drawings by Ladyzhensky, most exhibited for the first time in the U.S. His large tempera paintings of daily urban life in Odessa, inspired by his childhood memories of the city, closely relate to Babel’s characterization of the city in The Odessa Tales, chronicling a group Moldavanka Jewish gangsters during the Soviet Revolution. Ladyzhensky twice executed a series of illustrations of Babel’s Red Cavalry, which was based on the writer’s experiences in the Red Army during the Soviet-Polish War. The exhibition features an almost complete set of Ladyzhensky’s pen-and-ink drawing, as well as a number of earlier paintings based on Babel’s harrowing account of war and army life.

Excerpts from Isaac Babel’s writings are displayed in the gallery alongside the paintings and drawings to reveal often darkly-comedic subtexts of Ladyzhensky’s colorful vignettes. Along with artwork and texts, video and sound installations, composed of period films and music, recreate the urban dynamics of 1920s Odessa so resonant in Babel’s and Ladyzhensky’s work.

In conjunction with ODESSA, the Museum will present a series of public and educational programs, exploring the Jewish culture of Odessa from different vantage points for a broad audience. Area universities will be using the exhibition as a primary educational resource.