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A Passionate Life
By Laurie Lisle
Summit BooksCopyright © 2001 Laurie Lisle
All rights reserved.
Some of us come on earth seeing, Some of us come on earth seeing color.
— LOUISE NEVELSON
BORN IN TSARIST RUSSIA a few months before the beginning of the twentieth century, Louise Nevelson throughout her life liked to costume herself in elegant velvets, laces, furs, and hats like a Russian aristocrat, or in secondhand ethnic outfits and babushkas with a single jarring ornament, like a crushed-beer-can pendant, around her neck. But whether she was posing as a queen or as a peasant, she displayed surprisingly little curiosity about her homeland, and until she had become famous as a sculptor, she refused to acknowledge that her accident of birth and journey to America had in any way influenced either her temperament or her imagination. "I often hear the remark 'Oh! if I could be a child again,' but somehow, for myself, I am always so busy living in the present that I never look back to relive my childhood but more to search the 'why and wherefore' of things of the present," she declared at the age of thirty-five. Transplanted to the New World when she was five-and-a-half, she chose to regard herself as an original self-creation.
Actually, Louise knew very little of her Russian roots. The family history did not survive the selective amnesia often found among that generation of immigrants, and few written documents and photographs survived the family's persecution in Russia and the flight to America. As an added complication, the names of Russian villages differed, depending upon whether one was speaking Russian or Yiddish, and dates changed if the religious calendar was used instead of the secular one. When her mother and father died, she and her siblings could not provide birth dates, birthplaces, or even the names of their grandparents for the obituaries. The month and day of her own birth eluded Louise for years, and sometimes she deliberately varied the year as well. As she matured as an artist, she came to prefer her flights of imagination to the "so-called reality" around her. What was important to her was not what happened, but how she experienced it. And the tapestry of what she revealed or erased from her memory, and what she preferred to imagine or ignore, ultimately found expression in her art, which was animated by the force of the half-forgotten memories.
Nineteenth-century Russia, with its tiny, extravagant nobility, its small number of middle-class shopkeepers, artisans, and professionals, and its huge mass of illiterate, impoverished peasants, was an unlucky place to be born a Jew. Although Jewish villages on the northern shore of the Black Sea were recorded in the first century A.D., and the city of Kiev, founded in the seventh century, included Jews among its first settlers, Russia's Christians used to persecute the Jews as the murderers of Christ. In the tenth century, Grand Prince Vladimir proclaimed Kiev a Christian city in an attempt to eliminate its Jews and pagans, and later there were attempts to wipe out Judaism altogether by forced mass conversions, conscription of Jewish children, and censorship of Hebrew and Yiddish books. Jews were expelled from prosperous areas like Kiev to the Pale of Jewish Settlement, which by the 1880s had become home to almost five million Jews, more than half the world's entire Jewish population.
During the more tolerant reign of Alexander II which followed, forty million serfs were liberated, Kiev and other cities were reopened to wealthy Jews, and Jewish traders were permitted to travel outside the Pale. Universities began to admit more Jews and to prepare them for the new professional and government positions now open to them, and Russian Jewry experienced a cultural flowering that produced the landscape painter Isaak Levitan and the sculptor Mark Antokôlsky. It was during this time that Louise's great-uncle, Issaye Berliawsky, who lived southeast of Kiev in Dnepropetrovsk, was working as an artisan, painting Christian icons as well as murals in theaters, churches, and other public buildings. Louise later recalled that this uncle won a contest to paint the first star-studded blue ceiling in a Russian church or synagogue. Family legend had it that he was honored by the tsar; in any case, as an artisan, he would have been allowed to live outside the Pale if his passport was approved every year by the police.
A few decades later, a neo-Orthodox movement brought this climate of tolerance to an end, and by the time an educated generation of Jews came of age, opportunities had vanished. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, and widespread peasant riots broke out across the Ukraine. Jewish shops and homes were looted in the worst outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in more than two centuries.
Some Jews eventually found ways around the regulations, and those in certain occupations — including professionals, factory workers, agricultural laborers, and servants — were allowed to live outside the Pale. The artist Marc Chagall, who was born Moyshe Shagal in the Pale twelve years before Louise, wanted to study art in St. Petersburg; after being refused papers as a sign painter, he was taken in as a "footman" by a Jewish lawyer. And because of a high birth rate, and, for a time, resilience and resignation in the face of suffering, the Jewish population continued to grow.
Louise's father, known as Isaac Berliawsky after his arrival in America, was born in 1871 in Pereyaslav, a day's journey southeast of Kiev, the youngest son of fourteen children, seven of whom died in childhood, in either pogroms or epidemics. His family was literate, well-connected, and relatively comfortable but not a member of either the intelligentsia or the merchant class, both of which educated their sons in Western European capitals. His mother, Ida Volinsky, was said to be the daughter of a merchant. His father was a dealer in wood; although Louise later liked to believe that her father's family had timberlands in Russia, Jews were forbidden to own land at that time. They were allowed to be woodcutters, however, and so a way was devised around the restrictive laws to enable them to buy trees and sell wood.
One of Isaac's uncles, whose name and position were long ago forgotten by his descendants, presumably had valuable political connections, since he held the highest rank then possible for a Jew. He was called a "governor," Louise remembered, but this may be legend: sometimes the name of the layman in charge of a synagogue was roughly translated as "governor" in English. Others in the family say he could have been a member of the tsar's body guard. At any rate, a large photograph of him in Cossack uniform with a silver star on the chest and a sword was later given a place of honor in Isaac's bedroom in America. Apparently this uncle had no children, and when each of his nephews came of conscription age, he legally adopted him, thus enabling the boy to avoid service in the Russian army. It is indicative of the hopeless plight of Russia's Jews that despite the uncle's influence, many of his nieces and nephews chose to emigrate rather than to try to improve their prospects in their native land.
Emigration had been a topic of conversation among Russian Jews for more than a generation. A few had managed to settle in Palestine, surrendering their Russian citizenship and becoming stateless persons. Then, after the massacres of 1881, thousands fled in one of the largest mass migrations of modern history. A United States congressional commission touring Russia at the time reported that most Russian Jews hoped to begin new lives in America, "toward which their gaze is directed as earnestly as that of their ancestors toward the Promised Land." In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison expressed alarm to the tsarist government that a million "Hebrews" being forced from their homeland would create difficulties for the United States. Nevertheless, by the time Louise Nevelson left the Ukraine in 1905, a million and a half Russian Jews had already preceded her to America.
The six Berliawsky siblings who emigrated — four sons and two daughters — began to depart in 1881. Most left for Canada and entered the United States in Maine. Nathan, three years older than Isaac, arrived at the age of sixteen and settled in Lisbon Falls, Maine, while his twin brother, Hyman, moved to Waterville. Another brother, who married a gentile, lost touch with the family entirely, and his name has been forgotten. A sister, Minna, married to a Russian-trained doctor, ended up in Fall River, Massachusetts. The youngest sister, Sadie, who reached Ellis Island at the age of eighteen, went to live with Minna.
Louise's mother, Zeisel, also called Minna, was born around 1877 into a more humble family on her father's farm near a village called Shusneky on the bank of the Dnieper River. Like other shtetls, Shusneky was a jumbled group of unpainted wooden houses on twisting dirt lanes, gathered around a marketplace where peasants sold fish, black bread, sour pickles, parsnips, onions, and other produce for a few kopeks. Minna's maiden name is uncertain: Louise stated that the family name was Levin on her marriage license in 1920, but afterward she referred to it as Smolerank, although it is probable that Smoleranki was the adopted name of her mother's in-laws. Minna's mother was thought by her neighbors to have spiritual powers; and according to family stories, peasants used to give her a few coins to ensure the health and sex of an unborn child or calf.
Probably partially at least because of the Jews' precarious existence in a hostile country, life within the shtetls was intensely alive and intensely religious. In her nostalgic memoirs, Bella Chagall, wife of the artist, has described an emotionally rich, self-absorbed, intimate family life, highlighted by holiday meals, evenings of stories and fiddle music, winter sleigh rides to the steaming bathhouse, and summer days picking wildflowers in the forest. The dignity, warmth, and humor of Jewish life, despite the fact that people were packed "as closely as herring in a barrel," has been memorialized by the legendary Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. Minna, the middle daughter and next-to-youngest child in a family of three daughters and three sons, was cherished by an extended family so large, family legend has it, that at one time it made up an entire village.
Louise's version of her parents' courtship was a highly romantic and fatalistic one: One day her father, a tall and extremely thin young man with pale blue eyes, a brown moustache, and fair skin, was riding a white horse through Shusneky, which was near some of his father's trees, when he glimpsed a tall, dark-eyed, dark-haired young girl in the marketplace. She "took her face from Heaven," according to Sholom Aleichem, who met her shortly afterward. Although Isaac had never before wanted to marry, he instantly fell in love with her, according to Louise's story, and pursued her with an intensity that frightened the young woman. She did not want to leave home and marry, so she planned to escape across the Dnieper as soon as it froze and stay with her older sister, who lived on the opposite bank. Fatefully, the river did not freeze that winter for the first time in a century, and by the time the snow melted in the spring, Minna's resistance had also thawed. She and Isaac were married around 1897, when Minna was about twenty and Isaac twenty-six.
After the wedding, they moved to Isaac's birthplace, Pereyaslav, fifty miles southeast of Kiev, a place with a population of 18,600 people (including a large Jewish minority), wide cobblestone streets, wooden sidewalks, houses with green, blue, and red shutters, and brick shops with tin roofs and iron doors. Their first child, a son, was delivered by a midwife in early November 1898, on the second night of Hanukkah, and was named Nachman. The second child, a daughter, was born less than a year later, in the early autumn of 1899. At the time of her birth she was given the Hebrew name of Leah and called by the diminutive Leike; she would come to be called Louise in America.
Louise was born with her mother's dark brown hair and eyes. Later she would insist she did not resemble one parent more than the other; in fact, she was indelibly stamped by both. When Sholom Aleichem came to call — his sister lived next door — he declared that the baby was "built for greatness," potent words Minna never let her daughter forget. Russian bureaucrats did not record Jewish births, but Louise's mother, who lived by the Jewish calendar, remembered that the infant was born during the seven-day Succoth harvest festival, on the nineteenth day of the month of Tishri. However, when Louise entered school in Maine and was asked by her teacher for her birth date, neither she nor her parents could give one. The date changed every year, since Succoth fell on a different day each fall. To compound the confusion, the Julian calendar, used in Russia, was thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar, used in America. At first the family decided on December 23 as Louise's birthday; by third grade it had become September 22, and in fourth grade it was October 2. When she was in high school, Louise finally settled on October 16. Years later, after she had become interested in astrology, she asked a rabbi for a conclusive determination of when Succoth had occurred in 1899; she was told September 23, and from then on celebrated her birthday on that date. But it seems likely that her lifelong irreverence for factual reality was strengthened by her youthful inability to resolve her fluctuating birth date.
As the youngest son, Isaac Berliawsky was expected to remain in Russia to care for his parents. Not until after his father died of cancer was he free to follow his brothers to North America. Having moved his wife and children to Minna's parents' cottage in Shusneky to await their passage to America, he left in the late spring of 1902, accompanied by his elderly mother, who would live for a number of years with an older daughter in Massachusetts. Nachman was three-and-a-half, Leah not yet three, and Minna was pregnant again. Seven months after Isaac's departure, she gave birth to a blue-eyed daughter, who was named Chaya and nicknamed Chanti.
Isaac's three-year absence was a profound psychological trauma for his children. For the rest of his life, Nachman had an intense closeness with and protectiveness toward his mother, and he did not marry until after her death, a few months before his fiftieth birthday. Leah, too young to understand her father's disappearance, experienced a violent sense of desertion, which was intensified when her mother turned her attention toward the new infant. For half a year after Isaac's departure, Leah refused to speak, and her mother feared that she had suddenly become deaf and dumb. This was the first of many periods of numbing depression and withdrawal that would afflict her throughout her life. While she remained mute, her powers of observation were strengthened, since she had to grasp things by watching rather than by asking. Her memories from that time were later expressed as heightened visual ones, like the vibrant hues of the vegetable colors with which her grandmother dyed wool. Other recollections would not emerge until she had blossomed as a sculptor in the 1950s, like her creation of Forgotten Village, a sculpture that seemed to evoke a half-remembered Russian shtetl.
When Isaac eventually sent money and steamship tickets in 1905, Minna knew that once she left Russia, she would never see her mother and father again. Unlike Isaac's, her siblings had chosen to stay in Russia; two brothers reportedly became engineers in Kiev. Furthermore, she faced a dangerous ocean journey, like the one that Isaac later called the worst experience of his life because of his violent seasickness. As a young mother of twenty-eight, Minna had no appetite for adventure; unwillingly swept up in the Jews' exodus from Russia, she never recovered from the anguishing experience of being uprooted.
The strength of tradition alone would have made Minna follow her husband, but violence against Jews was also accelerating, and she must have feared for her children's lives if they remained in Russia. For two days at Easter time in 1903, there were riots in Kishinev. Scores of Jews were killed, hundreds injured, and their homes and shops destroyed. Two years later, in 1905, anti-Semitic violence broke out in more than six hundred villages and towns during one week as the first Russian revolution got underway. Most frightening of all, the massacres were again sanctioned by army officers and courts and promoted by local authorities, creating a still greater sense of hopelessness among Jews, even those who had previously resisted emigration — the wealthy who held positions of influence, the socialists who promoted indigenous revolution, and the religious who feared the dissipation of the Diaspora.
Louise was always reluctant to recall a few frightening incidents she vaguely remembered. Yet sixty years later she created Homage to Six Million I, a massive black curved wall of immense dignity and grief, a sculptural Kaddish, in memory of a subsequent slaughter of Jews. She dedicated a second Homage at the Israel Museum, a collection of shining white pavilions on the crest of the Judean Hills in Jerusalem. In words she wrote for the ceremonies, she expressed the hope that her wall would be "a living presence of a people who have triumphed. They rose far and above the greatest that was inflicted upon them. I hear all over this earth a livingness and a presence of these peoples. ... There is a song I hear and that song rings in my ears and that song is here. ... We will be with them side by side forever and forever. ... They have given us a livingness." Habitually reticent on the subject of her own Jewishness, she declared: "The depth of what I feel must remain private. I cannot speak of it out loud."
Excerpted from Louise Nevelson by Laurie Lisle. Copyright © 2001 Laurie Lisle. Excerpted by permission of Summit Books.
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Table of Contents
ONE Louise Berliawsky,
TWO Young Mrs. Nevelson,
THREE The Depression Years,
FOUR A Promising Sculptor,
FIVE Lady Lou,
SIX Queen of the Black Black,
EIGHT Empress of Modern Art,
Notes to Print Edition and Searchable Terms,
Index to Print Edition and Searchable Terms,