Tuesday, 3 June 2014

In Search of Forgotten Artist Vladimir Izenberg

The name Vladimir Izenberg does not say a lot in and of itself. It's not one that calls up images or eras, great schools or great events.
Izenberg was an artist. He was born in Petersburg in 1895 and he died in Leningrad in 1969. There is no entry about him in Russian Wikipedia and he is not listed in John Milner's prodigious "Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970," a spectacular volume that in a flush of inexplicable generosity was given to me years ago by The Moscow Times editor-in-chief Marc Champion, and for which I remain eternally grateful. Many an obscure question has been answered for me by this book, but not those I have about Vladimir Izenberg.
One may say that I own an Izenberg work. It's not an original, but it is an item of some rarity and beauty that justifies my distinct pleasure in possessing it. It is a 1926 edition of Yevgeny Zamyatin's play "The Flea," published by Mysl (or Thought) publishers in Leningrad. The lively cover illustration, a collage-type piece executed in three colors, was done by Izenberg and is dated 1925.
"The Flea" was based in part on Russian folklore and on Nikolai Leskov's famous 19th century short-story "Lefty." It tells the tale of an ingenious Russian craftsman who fashioned a microscopic mechanical flea after his English counterparts failed in this task of great national importance and pride.
The play was a success in 1925 at the so-called Second Moscow Art Theater. It closed in 1929 and was effectively buried in the huge pile of banned and semi-banned plays from the first decade of the Soviet Union. This is of some importance to Izenberg's illustration, for the book with his drawing on the cover was the last stand-alone publication of the play. "The Flea" was included in a four-volume collected works edition printed in 1929, and then not published again until 1989
Izenberg apparently saw the notion of national pride as a key element of the play, for his illustration shows a happy, healthy tsarist Russian general doing something of a folk dance as his sabre balances miraculously in the air. Of course, if we think more about this image it is clear that it was completely out of step with the times. Even a year later, when the nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of the revolution, it would have been an impossible topic for a book cover. Not only would the smile on the general's face be gone, the general would have been gone himself, surely replaced by the miraculous Russian peasant.
The little that we know about Izenberg could probably be contained in the same box holding Zamyatin's tiny mechanical flea. He was the son of Konstantin Izenberg (1859-1911), who was also a sculptor and a book and magazine illustrator. The son had no formal training as an artist, but curiously, he began contributing illustrations to Petersburg magazines simultaneously to his father's death. One can't help but wonder if the younger Izenberg had studied at the feet of his father and simply took over his father's commissions when the elder died.
The final sentence in a seven-sentence entry on Vladimir Izenberg in Eduard Konovalov's "Dictionary of Russian Artists" is a loaded phrase. It claims: "Worked as a theater designer in Odessa, Sevastopol and Kuibyshev."
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