Eugene Abeshaus is famous both in the former USSR and in the west. Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1939, he graduated from the V. Mukhina Institute of Arts and Industrial Design in that city. In 1976, after several years as a "refusenik" , he emigrated to Israel.
The name Abeshaus was first known in the mid-70s, when he founded and headed the art group " Aleph" , a circle of jewish artists from Leningrad, and a part of the unofficial art stream in Brezhnev's time.
Unofficial art first appeared in the mid-50s, after Stalin's death, and was non-conformist by nature. It opposed the aesthetics of the formal socialist realism which was already a pejorative term for banality amongst the creative intelligentsia for a long time.
It was not possible, in those years, for any of the non-conformist artists to exhibit their works in state galleries. In the early 60s they initiated the idea of unofficial shows in parks and public places on the outskirts of Moscow and Leningrad, as well as in private studios and apartments. Under that category fell also the 12 jewish artists from Leningrad first exhibition of paintings, sculptures, and graphic art at Abeshause's apartment in November 1975. Another one was held in Moscow in December of the same year.
These exhibitions were an immediate success. They were not only an artistic innovation but a political act of dissidence and independence as well. First, because the artists openly proclaimed their jewishness, and focused on jewish themes, which was an act severly prohibited by the authorities and rejected by Socialist Realism. Second, they used an artistic language which was not accepted by the official style.
The above activity was supported by the "Committee for The Defence of Soviet Jews" in San Francisco. Life-size photographs of the artists, were put up next to the main gate of Berkeley University, and in 1976 the Berkeley Jewish Museum held a documentary photo exhibition under the title " 12 from the Soviet Underground". The slides for that exhibition were sent from the USSR by Eugene Abeshaus himself.
In those years all activities of unofficial artistic groups were quite dangerous, since it was seen by the Soviet authorities as a severe crime. Exhibitions were banned before opening night, works of art were confiscated and their authors arrested or investigated by the KGB. One exhibition, the famous Moscow "Bulldozer Exhibition", was brutally destroyed with "advanced" equipment, in 1974. Later came the "Expulsion from Eden", where artists were exiled and stripped of their citizenship, or the "Descending into Hell", where artists were jailed in labour camps and mental hospitals, or exiled. Following the exhibitions, Eugene and some of his colleagues were fired from work. In 1976 almost all the " Aleph" group emigrated to Israel or the USA.
After 20 years of life in Israel, in a totally different environment, after many travels and exhibitions all around the world, Abeshaus became a "citizen of the world", influenced by many cultures. His later artistic language is an original fusion of western post-modern attributes, decorative elements from the many millenium of Eastern Mediterranean art, motives of world art and Russian mentality.
The exhibition presents, for the first time, several of Abeshaus's series of pictures created during the 90s. Which together, form the large cycle called by the artist "Vanity of Vanities" (Gold & Money). Almost all the canvases in that cycle are variations on themes from Ecclesiastes, depicting the futility of human efforts and the vanity of existence "under the sun".
Abeshaus turned to Ecclesiastes in the early 80s, after emigrating to Israel It was then that the idea of "blowing soap bubbles" first came to his mind, as an expression of Ecclesiastes' skepticism processed into a modern, ironic and self - reflective metaphor of the meaningless of human ambitions and life's delusions.
This metaphor becomes one of the main leitmotifs of the cycle "Vanity of Vanities". It hovers from canvas to canvas, acquiring new shades of meaning with the context of each picture. A Money note is another leitmotif - symbol, representing, in an ironic way, the gloomy reflections of Ecclesiastes about "What doth man receive for his labors?" Abeshaus plays with that symbol to connote several meanings: or an object of conceptual art, or a modified archetype of "The Worship of the Golden Calf" , or just as a decorative element.
In essence, Abeshaus always tended to use in his works a cycle of archetypal images, and creations of his own mythologemes, which reflect the spirit of the time, seasoned by irony, parody, and mockery. In the early works of his Leningrad and Israeli periods, Abeshaus used biblical images like Adam and Eve, Judith, Jonah, Jacob, Daughters of Jerusalem, as eternal models of psychological qualities inherent in human nature. The aesthetics of those works was notably literary and concrete.
In his new cycle "Vanity of Vanities" , some of the ideas that had originally attracted him, find a new expression through an assembly of universal and more abstract images, signs and symbols, while the plastic language is largely determined by the influence of post-modernism.
The space in his pictures does not precede the objects, rather, it fits and constitutes itself around them . Freely interwoven within the structure of the canvas are ornamental quotations from Ancient Greek, Cretan - Mycenean art, medieval Celtic manuscripts, texts from Ecclesiastes, as well as the skillfully rendered decorative effect of enamel embossing on gold, borrowing from ancien1 Egyptian art (this in fact represents the third, pictural rather then imaginative, leitmotif of the cycle). Geometric shapes of circles, squares, and rhombus hints towards a possible symbolic and metaphoric interpretation of the images, and at the same time organizes the collage of signs - codes from world art, as in post-modernist representations .
Another important aspect of the aesthetics of post-modernism - double coding and the use of irony and ambiguity, is evident in many pieces in that cycle, but especially in Abeshaus' "Self - portrait “.There, the artist travesties the typology of the Christian icon of the "Holy Trinity". Abeshaus appears in the roles both of God the Creator, and of his humble Son the Lamb, obediently mimicking all of Father's actions, while the Holly Spirit takes the shape of the ubiquitous soap bubbles, this time coming out of the Creator's mouth: "God plays…" The romantic image of the artist as a choice of God has long lost its halo. This time the artist unceremoniously takes the place of God Himself, creating his own cosmos, able by the strength of his will to evoke a myriad of images out of the flat surface of the canvas. It is through this self - irony that Abeshaus seems to hint at the vanity of the very act of artistic creativity, being merely the blowing of soap bubbles, a play of meanings and sub – meanings.
Another such game is the paraphrase of prehistoric cave paintings he had seen in the State of Colorado, where he had one of his exhibitions. According to his own words, Abeshaus only wanted to "play around" with those images, to add color, to make the composition more dynamic and diverse . The ancient figures and symbols come alive under the brush of the artist, covered in fluorescent "cosmic" patterns; they become subconsciously associated with alien visitors, with images etched in our conscience by the mass media - another source of contemporary art images of the second half of our century .
The artists palette also reflects the kitch - stereotypes of mass culture: sharp color contrasts, lots of gold leaf, blobs of paint with metallic luster normally associated with industrial design and fashion accessories.
The "Vanity of Vanities" theme continues in a series of pictures of animal images . Along with the biblical and mythological characters, animals have always been a favorite subject and decorative motifs of world art, providing a key to the symbolic interpretation of existence or serving to parody human traits and characteristics. In Abeshaus's canvases, parody is created by the juxtaposition of naive, childish compositions where the main figure is invariably surrounded by a background of landscape elements - grass, a tree, a flower, the sun - and purely adult passions personified by the grotesque images of animals, fighting for a place under the sun. The pictures bring to mind the Bestiary's miniatures magnified to a monumental scale. The intensity of colour mixtures, such as red and vivid green, blue and gold, placed in various combinations, is chosen for the background, and produces an extraordinary decorative effect. On one hand, the stylization of animal figures against the background of brightly coloured surfaces is in no way connected to real nature. This transforms animals into meoningfull symbols. On the other hand, grotesque images are imparted to this original post-modern Bestiary element of mockery and irony, since the real beings from the Ein - Hod's fauna have served as a prototype for these symbols.
Within this "Animal Carnival", coupled portraits of "Lady with a Fish" and "The Knight" are combined as a "praise of stupidity" and arrogance. The arrangement of figures, gestures, ornamental patterns and symbols reveals itself as an adaptation of images from ancient Egyptian, Medieval, and Renaissance art, skillfully blended into an organically new artistic order.
Naturally, opposing the world of vanity as portrayed in the cycle "Vanity of Vanities" , there stands the other cycle - the "World of Tranquility" .
According to Eugene Abeshaus, everyone is striving for the lost inner balance, and therefor, useing different ways to achieve just that. In creating his visual symbol of the "World of Tranquility" , Abeshaus chose one of the primary shapes - the globe - with the immanent regulation of proportion, rhyme, and architectonics. That "tranquility" adheres to the ambivalent qualities of this shape: it is both flat and three - dimensional, warm and cold colours, surrounded by light and darkness, suggesting a hidden chain of transformations from one state of existence to another. The perfect globe is just a stage in the endlessness chain of evolution, and the beginning of another cycle.
Eugene Abeshaus is not one of those artists who supply superficial information on the daily mode of life for future generations, as can be learned from photographs. In his works he imparts the invisibilities of our existence, our desires, preferences, tastes, disillusions, self - reflection and self - irony. All these are clearly evident in the paintings for an alert observer to detect.