Jakov Feldman`s Mystical Portraits
It is difficult to place Jakov Feldman in any particular genre.
For one thing, he confines himself to portraits. Some are half-length,
others are full-length portraits. Some are set against an interior, against
a landscape. Only portraits.
to the Gallery
Although there seems to be a multitude of human faces, in fact
there are no more than half a dozen types. At first glance, one might think
they are all the same. But the way he manages his brush allows one to see
the faces differently. There is an ascetic aspect to the faces and the
strokes. Moreover, the canvases are illuminated by a light that is both
subdued and powerful. Sometimes, there is a sense of a flash on the canvas.
Another aspect of Feldman’s portraits is their lack of conventionality.
They are not simply portraits of individuals or of a particular person.
He may have as his subjects a philosopher, a poet, an elderly person, in
which his models and sketches become images, become alive.
But what are these portraits about?
They do not seem occupied with anything — be it war, love or prayer.
They are just present. Existing. But they are not created for our amusement
or entertainment. With Feldman’s use of the space, the kind of invisible
barriers which separates the expanses of the ground and of the picture,
the portraits seem to just look at us, almost through us or past us.
Look more closely. Beyond the borders there are fables, feasts
and rites. There is an element of time caught up in myth, for instance
Feldman’s portrait of Judith killing Holofernes before Abraham's eyes,
while the Woman-Tower is probably one of Jacob's dreams.
Then there are Feldman’s artistic preferences. The modern pictorial
experiments leave him cold. And though he returns to old patterns, even
borrowing from them, he is nevertheless provocatively anachronistic. In
some ways, Feldman, in his artistic seclusion, prefers to be unhurried,
wanting thorough talks with his "elders". For him, they are alive — even
more than alive. They have moved to their arks made of canvas or smoked
oak, oblivious to time. They surround him when he paints. Their invisible
presence can be almost physically sensed in Feldman’s studio. There's Giotto,
Van Eyck, Bosch, Bruegel, Rembrandt — though he is rather the object of
tacit reverence than one of an interlocutor. Then is the Russian dimension,
a narrow borderland between the timeless, the supra individualism of icon
images and the specificity of modern European portraits.
Out of necessity, Feldman understands the art of our century, though
most of it is beyond his memory. There are few exceptions: Modigliani and
Chagall. The keen, slightly exaggerated artistry of the former appears
from time to time through Feldman’s affected ponderousness. With the latter,
he feels a kinship.
Yet despite of Feldman’s aesthetic conservatism (which is not deliberate)
his ties with contemporary painting are deeper and stronger than they may
seem at first glance. He cannot fail to know that the pictorial surface
is self-sufficient, no matter if it does not bear any image; or that the
canvas is not only the place of pictorial actions — not even the source
of pictorial life — but the very pictorial life as such.
There is not — and cannot be — any clear cut borderline between
the creative milieu and the plastic mass which grows from it. The borderline
between the existence and the non-existence is elusive. Only the levels
of pictorial reality exist.
Consider Feldman’s treatment of the background. There is a kind
of improvised swiftness in which Feldman applies thin layers of almost
transparent paint to a surface that gives birth to the background, to the
infinity of pictorial potency which is limited only by the canvas's rectangle.
This infinity has not thickened nor congealed yet. It is still able to
take any form in order to fill any concavity. All the while, the flimsy
veil of Nature keeps on slipping through to reveal this primordial chaos.
But one single effort is enough to elicit the universe from this chaos
— a tree, sky, stone and flesh.
In principle, Feldman does not make clear-cut distinctions between
the back- ground and the figure. And even the brightest lines — the most
distinctive silhouettes — are characterized by the redundant pictorial
qualities. It makes us believe that Feldman’s figures were not created,
once and forever, in his studio, but are in fact being born before our
eyes, over and over, each time anew. Either long-cherished dreams are being
condensed by the scorching bright fog, or the bottomless pit reveals congealed
figures of serene poets, smokers, princesses. The existence of the figures
has a dual role: having been detached from the background, gaining in the
process a silhouette and dimensionally, they still remain a gesture as
well as paint.
But if there is anything in these portraits that takes a final
and definite shape, without any reservation or doubt, it is the clear crystal
of the eyes. The live, fixed and piercing looks from the picture's depth,
as if from the looking glass, is not some- thing which is simply created
with brush strokes. This is the major reality of the picture. All the rest,
according to Feldman, is nothing but a setting. That is what makes the
cherished miracle of Feldman’s portraits — not the depth and significance
of allegories, not the interpretation of scriptural plots and parables,
not the refined plays with pictorial traditions. He paints the portraits
of pictures. The pictures themselves look at us from afar — not remote
but still inaccessible — the pictures see us with the magical eyes of their
Nowadays, these pictures are rapidly turning up in many parts of
the world. They feel comfortable in Paris and Amsterdam. They have reached
Melbourne, appeared in Moscow, St. Petersburg, are in collections in New
York. They seem to become good neighbors with Dutch primitives — not a
shadow or echo, but a dialogue and a certain kinship. That is how such
unexpected depicted unity comes into existence.
But while the pictures are being rapidly dispersed, their creator
is not in a hurry. Eight years ago he left his native Vitebsk. After traveling
all over Europe, he settled down at the walls of the holy Jerusalem — somewhat
closer to the expanse of heaven than many of us. Feldman is never in a
hurry. At the age of thirty, people are usually not. Especially since he
is not yet thirty.
In the shadow of the brown hues there is a figure smoking a pipe.
The figure is wearing a quaint wide-brimmed hat, on which a cat and a ball
are poised. The figure is standing in a fixed pose. There is no sign of
flexibility, but the face is soft. The figure is dressed in a puffed up
The texture of the cloth is rich, and its colors and tints are
The figure is examining us with a sneer as we are examining it
and the picture space which it occupies. The figure is the work of Jakov
Feldman. It is painted on wood with transparent brush-strokes of diluted
oil-paint. The picture is painted partly by paint brush and partly by means
of a wet rag. The blend of the deep hues speaks of antiquity and remote
cultures which are closely related to our Jewish heritage as well as that
of foreign legacies.
The painting conveys colors and rhythms remote from those of quotidian
contemporary life. The figure is like other figures in Jakov's paintings.
As in other paintings by Jakov, an ancient foggy landscape forms the background
to the central figure. It seems that the figure has come from far away
in order to linger only for a while in this world.
We are impressed by looking at it fleetingly before it returns
to that twilight fog.
And we do not know why, how and where it comes from. As H. Levin
wrote: "I came, I disappeared, the hell knows how. Everything has passed,
as it is not 1. I've come to the strange world, holding an end of the thread
connected to nothing."
And there, in the same blurred and invisible region, in to which
the figure is disappearing, are the real artists. And there is Jakov Feldman.