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.
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 enigmatic personages. 
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 gown.
The texture of the cloth is rich, and its colors and tints are various. 
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.

Zahi Farber

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