Around the Jewish World: Vast Collection of Jewish Art Housed in Moscow Apartment

The Museum of Contemporary Jewish Art is not listed in museum directories and tourist guidebooks.

But this unassuming museum, located in a small apartment in an ordinary, five- story building on the outskirts of Moscow, still draws hundreds of visitors every year — ranging from students from the city’s Jewish schools, other Jewish residents of Moscow and foreign tourists.

The exhibition occupies no more than 435 square feet in the two-bedroom apartment where Alexander Filzer lives with his wife and a teen-age daughter. But what Filzer has amassed is a remarkable collection of paintings, drawings, prints and decorative art created in the former Soviet Union in the second half of this century.

It is nothing less than a catalog of the independent Jewish artistic movement in the Soviet Union since World War II.

The works are displayed close together, from the floor to the ceiling, in two rooms. The mostly unframed canvases hang alongside short descriptions of the works and small photos and brief bios of the artists.

Russian Jewish culture is presented here in all its variety. There are portraits of Jewish authors and actors, images of Jewish life in small towns, illustrations to famous works by Yiddish writers, biblical scenes, sketches of stage costumes and set ideas from the Moscow Jewish Theater, avant-garde paintings whose authors often admired the aesthetic beauty of the Hebrew alphabet.

The quality of the works vary widely. Beside works by masters such as Tanhum Kaplan, Me’er Axelrod and Gersh Inger, whose works are found in other collections in Russia and the West, there are pieces by lesser-known artists also on display.

After World War II, the Jewish population in the Soviet Union “created its own art, which remained unknown both here and in the West,” says Filzer.

“Soviet Jewish culture of the prewar period is better known. Very few are aware, though, that it continued to exist when most of it was forced to go underground,” Filzer says, referring to the years after World War II when authorities put a virtual ban on Soviet Jewish artistic expression.

A few decades ago, “most of the artists could not even dream of the possibility of exhibiting their art in this country.”

Filzer took the matter into his own hands. An active participant in the Jewish dissident movement, he abandoned his job as an engineer and started his collection in the early 1970s.

The task was made easier because his house served as a fulcrum for members of the independent Jewish artistic community — his wife and some relatives are professional artists.

“The exchange of ideas between these artists was hampered because Jewish artists often didn’t know about each other. And naturally, their art remained unknown to the public since it was barred from official exhibitions,” Filzer says.

In 1977, the unofficial museum opened. Then the visitors were mostly artists themselves, Jewish underground activists and refuseniks such as Yosef Begun, a famous Prisoner of Zion.

“What had been created here between the 50s and 80s is an art very different from traditional Jewish art. Yet it’s very Jewish in its themes, imagery, mood and essence,” he says.

In fact, the museum itself stands today as a reminder of the underground Jewish culture of the late Soviet era, when all Jewish activities were confined to apartments like the one that houses Filzer’s collection.

As with any private collection, Filzer’s museum reflects its founder’s taste. Yet the museum has been instrumental in propagating Jewish culture and art among Jews both during the Soviet era and in post-Communist Russia.

During the policy of glasnost, or openness, instituted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, the museum became known to a growing number of Jews.

Admission to the museum is free and can be arranged by appointment. Filzer receives several phone calls daily from those interested in visiting.

“I don’t know how exactly they learn about the museum,” says Filzer. “I believe that mostly they hear about it by word of mouth.”

The collection is not limited to the works of more than 60 artists from different parts of the former Soviet Union.

“When I built a large collection of Soviet-era art, many visitors who were new to Judaism would often ask me what Jewish art was like before the Soviet Union,” Filzer says.

These questions led Filzer to establish a collection of religious Jewish art. Dozens of Jewish ritual objects such as Torah covers and crowns, mezuzot, Passover cups and challah plates were purchased from elderly people who had these pieces in their families for generations.

This year, Filzer turned this part of the museum over to a new Moscow synagogue. The memorial synagogue inside the World War II park on Poklonnaya Gora also houses a Holocaust museum and an exhibition on the history of Russian Jewry.

Filzer also has an extensive collection of photographs of Jewish life in Imperial and Soviet Russia. Dozens of photographs, which Filzer found in family and synagogue archives, became the basis for a one-of-a kind traveling photo exhibition on Jewish tradition in Russia that in recent years was shown in Moscow and Ukraine.

“It is important to educate Jews about their people’s past in this country,” says Filzer. “Photographs are one of the most effective ways to show what Jewish life was like generations ago.”

Today, Filzer is working on a manuscript of the first comprehensive history of Jewish art in the Soviet Union.

Although some Russian Jewish artists continue to explore Jewish themes today, Filzer is pessimistic about the future of such art here.

The idea of the museum, he says, “was to demonstrate that Jewish spirit was alive despite all difficulties.”

“Today, in free Russia, it would be natural to assume that Jewish art would flourish. But this is not exactly what’s happening. The older generation of artists — those who remembered what the cheder or the chupah were like — is almost all gone,” he says referring to Jewish elementary school and the canopy at a traditional wedding ceremony.

“The younger artists are emigrating. What is being done now is a totally new and different chapter in the history of Russian Jewish culture. I’m not sure whether it is going to last long.”

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