Altman, Nathan

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ALTMAN, NATHAN (1889/90–1970), Russian painter, graphic artist, sculptor, stage designer. Altman was born in Vinnitsa. As a child, he studied in a ḥeder and then at a Russian elementary school in Vinnitsa. In 1902–7, he attended classes in painting and sculpture at the Odessa Art School. During these years, he got close to Jewish intellectuals and writers, among them Ḥayyim Naḥman *Bialik. He first showed his work at the exhibit of the Association of Southern Russia Artists in Odessa. In 1910–11, Altman lived in Paris, where he attended M. Vasilyeva's art studio at the Russian Academy. During this period, he met many Jewish artists then living in Paris, among them Marc *Chagall and David *Shterenberg. In 1911, Altman exhibited at the Salon des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Later in 1911, he returned to Vinnitsa, and then moved to Petersburg in 1912 where he became known as a leading Russian artist and bohemian figure. In his works of this period, Altman combined elements of cubism with the decorative features and linearity of modern art (as in the portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914; Gosudarstvenny Russki Muzei, St. Petersburg). In 1913–14, Altman participated in exhibits of various art associations in Moscow and Petrograd, ranging from moderately modernist ones (like "World of Art") to overtly radical ones (like "The Jack of Diamonds") and avant-garde groups (like "The Youth Union" or "0.10"). Starting from his earliest works and throughout his life, Altman placed great emphasis on Jewish subjects when selecting themes for his works. Prior to World War i, he had become the first among Jewish artists in Russia to pursue a goal of forging a "contemporary Jewish art." Seeking the foundations of this new art, Altman copied tombstone reliefs at Jewish cemeteries in the Ukraine. In 1914, he executed a graphic series, "The Jewish Graphics," incorporating the relief motifs, its first printed edition dedicated to Bialik. In his "Jewish works" of this period, Altman strove to combine the archaic plastics of the Ancient Middle East with the latest achievements of European Modernism (as in the sculpture A Portrait of a Young Jew (Self-Portrait, 1916, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)). Altman was a founder and a member of the executive committee of the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, established in 1915 in Petrograd. He was commissioned to design the emblem of the Society and participated in its exhibits (1916, 1917, Petrograd; 1918, Moscow). In 1916, Altman designed a Hebrew-language textbook. After the Bolsheviks came to power, he was appointed both director of the Petrograd Department of Fine Arts at the People's Commissariat of Education and director of the Museum of Artistic Culture (1918). He was one of leaders of Communist-Futurist (ComFut) Association. In 1919, Altman moved to Moscow and started working for Jewish theaters. In 1920, he executed stage and costume designs for the Habimah Theater production of The Dibbuk. At the same time, he became the principal stage designer for the Moscow Jewish Theater (goset), where he designed sets for a number of productions. Being active in Kultur-Lige, Altman was its Moscow branch chairman and participated in its exhibit together with Chagall and Shterenberg (1922), At this exhibit, he showed non-figurative futurist works as examples of his new "Jewish art." In the early 1920s, he collaborated with Jewish publishers and designed books in Yiddish. He participated in all major exhibitions in Moscow and Petrograd as well as in international exhibitions in Berlin (Van Diemen Gallery, 1923), Paris, and Venice. His first one-man show took place in Moscow in 1926. From 1928, Altman lived in Paris. In 1929, he participated in Ausstellung juedischer Kuenstler in Zurich. In the early 1930s, he exhibited in Paris and the U.S.S.R. In 1932–33, Altman executed series of graphic works treating biblical themes. His main genres of this period were still lifes and landscapes that established him as a virtuoso master of color and composition. In 1936, Altman returned to Leningrad. In the 1940s, he designed books by *Sholem Aleichem and stage designs for several productions at Jewish theaters in Moscow and Kiev. In the 1940s–1960s, Altman was active mostly in book and stage design while continuing painting and sculpturing. Not long before he died he had a one-man show in Leningrad.


A. Efros, A Portrait of Nathan Altman (1922); B. Arvatov, Nathan Altman (1924); B. Aronson, Modern Jewish Graphic Work (1924), 80–84; Nathan Altman. The Retrospective Show of Works. Exh. Cat. Leningrad (1968); Nathan Altman. Exh. Cat. Moscow (1978) – all in Russian; M. Etkind, Nathan Altman (1984).

[Hillel Kazovsky (2nd ed.)]