Friday, March 8, 2013

Angel and Prophet

A number of years ago, an artist named Alek Rapoport was invited to come to WTS as Artist-in-Residence. Trained at the V. Serov School of Art and the Institute for Theather, Music and Cinema, both in Leningrad, he worked as a stage designer, illustrator, and book designer, while also teaching drawing and painting at the Serov in the 1960s and early 70s. In 1974, he joined a non-conformist art movement known as TEV (Fellowship of Experimental Exhibitions) and co-founded Alef, a union of Jewish artists in Leningrad. As a dissident artist who challenged official artistic orthodoxy, he found it difficult to exhibit his paintings, especially those based on biblical themes.
Born in 1933 in the Ukraine, Rapoport’s life was never easy. His childhood had been marked by the Stalinist purges, during which his father was shot and his mother sent to a Siberian labor camp for ten years. By 1976, his own anti-establishment activities made him a target for the KGB. Eventually, Rapoport, his wife Irina, and their son settled in San Francisco, hoping to find a more receptive audience for his paintings and his ideas.

Unfortunately, the San Francisco art world was not very interested in Rapoport’s tortured Biblical prophets, his deeply-impastoed reworkings of Byzantine icons, or even his expressionistic reflections on the local street life. As his dealer, Michael Dunev, wrote in the forward to Alek Rapoport: an Artist’s Journey (published in 1998 by Michael Dunev Gallery),

California, with its attachment to a “home grown” culture, was slow to accept his work. Those powerful expressionistic paintings, with their warped and elongated figures, were more in line with El Greco, Goya and Andrei Rublev’s icons than the light-drenched canvases of [Richard] Diebenkorn, [Wayne] Thiebaud or [Sam] Francis. Despite his enthusiasm for California’s Mediterranean light and its diverse ethnic mix, Alek Rapoport remained outside the mainstream of the Bay Area contemporary art scene. A loner, Alek remained a dissident in San Francisco, as he had been in Russia.

Shortly before Rapoport was able to join us, he fell ill, dying suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 66. Grateful that we understood and supported his work, Irina donated Angel and Prophet to us in 1999.

Today, the painting hangs in Elderdice Hall, where its depiction of the struggle between an unwilling prophet and a determined angel seems fitting in a place where people often speak of both receiving and resisting the call of God. As I look at the tortured face of the prophet, who has been forced to his knees under the angel’s relentless insistence that he accept the unwelcome scroll filled with “words of lament and mourning and woe” [NIV, Ezekiel 2:10], it seems to be a self-portrait of the artist. In photographs, Rapoport stares steadily at the camera, his grey beard and furrowed brow mirroring that of the upside-down Ezekiel. As for many artists, there seems to be no boundary between Rapoport’s art and his life, no choice but to labor in the studio day after day, struggling to transmute his experience and understanding into paint on canvas.

It is sometimes said that God does not force us to do the divine will, that we are always free to choose. I'm not so sure that Rapoport – or Ezekiel, for that matter – would agree.

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