February 24, 2020

Vilnius Through My Grandfather's Eyes

“I knew my grandfather’s paintings much better than I knew the man himself. After all, I had only met my mother’s father, Moshe Vorobeichic, a few times, and I was barely a teenager at the time of our last encounter. He lived half a world away: I was growing up in Canada, and he lived in Tzfat, in northern Israel, where he had settled in 1934. But several of his paintings hung on the walls in my parents’ house. Some of them featured colorful, highly stylized Israeli landscapes; others showed scenes of traditional Jewish life. To me, they seemed to echo the style of Marc Chagall. He signed his paintings “Raviv,” the surname he adopted in the 1950s.

Moshe spent the final two-thirds of his life painting in Tzfat, where he helped to establish a thriving artists’ colony. This was the Moshe that I remember (hazy as those memories may be)—a man who earned a living selling Jewish-themed paintings to American tourists, up until his death in 1995. (In fact he was more successful than I’d realized, with clients around the world.) But I eventually discovered he was much more than a painter, and a recent visit to his hometown of Vilnius has given me a richer insight into his work—and why it matters today.

*

Moshe was born in a shtetl just outside Vilnius, the capital of present-day Lithuania. He took art classes at the Stefen Batory University, where his talents were quickly recognized. Soon his ambitions took him westward, into the heart of the European modernist art scene. In 1927 he enrolled at the Bauhaus school in Dessau, where he studied under Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Joseph Albers, and László Moholy-Nagy. He continued his studies in Paris, where he would have felt at home alongside other Jewish artists and intellectuals. Now focused on photography, he took classes at the Ecole Photo Ciné and pioneered novel techniques such as the photomontage, in which multiple negatives are printed onto a single sheet of photographic paper. He earned a living taking photos for magazines and designing posters for theater and cinema. In 1931 he published an avant-garde book of photographs of the French capital, simply titled Paris, under the name “Moï Ver” (a contraction of the French “Moïse” and the Russian “Verobeichic,” which could also be read as “Me-Truth”).”

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