Marc Klionsky, 90, Acclaimed Portrait Artist


In the weeks after he arrived in New York City 43 years ago from the then-Soviet Union, where he painted portraits of communist leaders during the day and created artworks with Jewish themes secretly in his Leningrad apartment, at night, acclaimed artist Marc Klionsky worked on a series of distinctly Jewish etchings.

“They represented his ability to be Jewish and his ability to have freedom of expression,” said his grandson, Julian Olidort.

Olidort noted that like many Jewish emigres from the former USSR, his grandfather, who died at 90 on Sept. 17, experienced a “birth of creative freedom” when he settled in the United States, living first in Queens, then in Soho.

Klionsky, who worked in a variety of artistic styles and media, quickly earned a reputation here as a master portrait painter — his subjects over the following decades included musicians B.B. King and Dizzy Gillespie, politician Golda Meir, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who became a friend.

“They sang in Yiddish together,” said Olidort, a graduate student at Columbia University.

In the forward to a collection of Mr. Klionsky’s paintings, Wiesel wrote, “Let the art historians or critics speak about Marc’s art, his talent as a portrait painter, and his gifts as an innovator. Let them explain how he strives to unite present and past, colors and memories. As one who loves stories, I love those which he shows in order to make us smile, weep, or dream.”

An art review in The New York Times in 1984 noted that Klionsky “brings to American subject matter a sense of wonder, an intelligent curiosity and a glad acceptance of his good fortune in being free to paint whatever he pleases.”

But he continued to portray Jewish themes throughout his long career.

Klionsky’s family escaped the Holocaust when his father convinced 200 people from the family’s neighborhood to travel east to Kazan, away from the advancing Nazi army.

A native of Minsk, son of a master printer, Klionsky began working as an artist in his early teens, the youngest artist to have his painting exhibited in Moscow’s prestigious Tretiakov Gallery.

“He was very successful as a young man,” Olidort said. But, “he could not paint what he wanted to do.”

Anti-Semitism and lack of artistic freedom drove him out of his homeland. “He had to give up everything,” giving away some of his work and buying those he brought to the U.S., Olidort said. His grandfather returned once to Russia, two decades after he left, for a presentation of his paintings.

Marc Klionsky is survived by his wife, Irina, a sister, two daughters and four grandchildren.