A Tale of Two Artists

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'Wolf in a Village,' 2008
'Wolf in a Village,' 2008
Lisa Stein

As a boy growing up in Ukraine, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern was surrounded by well-known artists who nurtured his talent for drawing. By the age of 10, he was studying with a highly regarded painter, and he continued making art until he was 24.

Similarly, as a teenager in Budapest in the late 1940s, Peter Dallos studied painting with one of Hungary’s foremost artists and also mastered the art of metalworking. But he abandoned his artistic ambitions during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when he escaped from the country during his senior year in college. He came to Chicago to study electrical and biomedical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology and then arrived at Northwestern, where he was the John Evans Professor of Neuroscience from 1986 until his retirement in 2012. In 1998, he began making metal sculptures as an expressive outlet for his memories of the war years, a practice that later blossomed into a second career.

Despite their artistic dreams and talents, both professors encountered political and psychological barriers big enough to stall their art-making ambitions for decades. Though raised in different eras and circumstances, Petrovsky-Shtern and Dallos share some uncanny similarities—the experience of loss at a very young age, life under totalitarian socialism, extraordinary journeys to Evanston, and identification as self-taught artists. Today, both have resumed their art practices and are beginning to reap the rewards of rediscovering a lost passion, including gallery exhibitions and museum acquisition of their works.

An Apprenticeship Cut Short

Petrovsky-Shtern’s father, Miron Petrovsky, was a noted philologist in Kiev with a wide circle of friends, many of them accomplished artists. Petrovsky-Shtern remembers learning from such painters as Boris Lekar, Mikhail Turovsky, and most importantly, the realist painter David Miretsky, who agreed to take the young boy on as a private student. Miretsky encouraged him to develop his talent for etchings, which he said suited the boy’s dynamic, graphic style.

But Miretsky’s training was short-lived. In 1972, terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. Miretsky went with a small group of Jewish mourners to commemorate the tragedy by placing flowers at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev that was the site of the largest massacre of Jews during World War II.

“They went there because there was nowhere else to go,” Petrovsky-Shtern explained. “They were arrested for hooliganism, just to scare them. After that event, the person to whom I was a disciple lost his job, packed up and left. The only person I wanted to study with was no longer there.”

Miretsky left for New York, and Petrovsky-Shtern lost not only his teacher but also his model of how to be a successful Jewish artist in the Soviet Union. By 1979, most of his father’s artist friends had also left for the United States, and Petrovsky-Shtern decided to pursue an academic career. He studied Spanish and earned a Ph.D in comparative literature from the University of Moscow, and eventually became a professor at Shevchenko Kiev National University. All the while, he also studied the works of Andrei Rublev, an icon painter, and Maria Prymachenko, a Ukrainian folk artist famous for her brightly colored painting of animals, nature and village life. He drew from their works to create a large fresco that depicted Jesus Christ as a Cossack with a saber and Mary as a villager carrying a bucket.

“I was trying to invent an artistic language: how can I convey a religious message in Ukrainian folk art, which is never used to convey these messages? Then I stopped.”

Petrovsky-Shtern married, started a family, and decided in 1993 to pursue his interest in Jewish studies. He relocated his family to the United States to study and teach at Hebrew College, Tufts University, and Harvard University, among other places.

It wasn’t until he experienced a personal crisis in 2007 that he started painting again. After two publishers reneged on their promises to publish two separate books he had written, he became despondent (the books were published soon after by different companies). His wife, Oxana Hana, took him by the hand and brought him to an art supply store. “She says, ‘Here’s $200, get yourself canvases, buy some paints.’”

At first he painted animals—bold, fantastic images of a violet wolf in a landscape, then a green elephant surrounded by villagers—that seemed to come straight from his unconscious. He incorporated Hebrew letters into the scenes, which he has continued to emphasize in his works, and then began painting typically Ukrainian scenes populated by Cossacks, clowns, and circus tamers. In doing so, he combined the influences of Ukrainian folk painting and Jewish traditions to create a unique, startling, and rich visual vocabulary.

Recently Petrovsky-Shtern has turned to painting Biblical scenes, which were on view with some of his other works in the solo exhibition “Tales, Myths and Nightmares” in December at the Spertus Institute in Chicago. These paintings portray people who appear to have stepped out of the shtetl in dark, wrenching scenes. In “Exodus,” a family in a paper boat, on which is written Hebrew text telling the story of Exodus, floats on a red, roiling sea; despite the tenderness the figures show each other, disaster is clearly imminent. “Babylonian Tower” depicts an equally ill-fated structure, inscribed with Sumerian text, from which people fall to their deaths.

When asked how his artwork relates to his academic research, Petrovsky-Shtern responds, “I put on canvas what I cannot and do not want to say out loud in a classroom or put on paper. For example, some of my paintings convey the mythological idea of ‘always’—this is what always happens to the Jewish people. That is to say, there are paradigms in history that repeat themselves, such as the events of 70 CE, 1492, 1648, or 1942, that all show the highest level of anti-Jewish persecution and destruction of Jewish life. On the contrary, in my research I am working against this idea, debunking myths and showing how different are the events that the national memory claims similar.”

War Memories Reimagined

In creating his abstract steel sculptures, Peter Dallos wrestles with memory and catastrophic events that have shaped history, not only geopolitically but also personally. Dallos grew up in a secular Jewish family in Budapest; he was an only child and both his parents were accountants. During World War II, when Dallos was 10, Nazis sent his father to a forced labor camp from which he never returned. When the Nazis began mass deportations of Jews in 1944, Dallos and his mother received protection from Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the war. Even though they escaped deportation, Dallos and his mother suffered through the terror of Nazi occupation and the months-long siege of Budapest, in which the Soviet army waged a brutal campaign against the occupying German forces and their Hungarian allies.

After the war, Dallos studied with György Kádár, a celebrated artist who later documented his experience of the Holocaust. After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was defeated, Dallos found an opportunity to flee over the border to Austria. After three harrowing weeks in Vienna, he obtained a visa to enter the United States, where he pursued engineering. Eventually he studied neurobiology, achieving success and international recognition for his research exploring the hair cells of the inner ear. He continued his interest in art as a collector, particularly of works by Chicago Imagists in the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1998, sensing that Dallos needed artistic expression to complement 35 years of scientific research and teaching, his wife Joan enrolled him in a metalworking class. After protesting that he lacked time for such pursuits, he attended—and fell in love with sculpting. Dallos first worked in a semi-abstract style that referred to his childhood experiences metaphorically. For example, a work of welded steel titled “Forced March,” part of Dallos’s “War” series that was recently acquired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., consists of two slabs separated by what appears to be a chasm, one narrow edge of which is lined with small brass rods meant to suggest human figures. With its abraded surfaces and deep shadows, the work conveys a mountainous, unforgiving landscape crossed by captives on a death march.

Dallos’s ongoing “Struggle” series depicts organic and mechanical forms engaged in a fight for survival. In “Struggle No. 5,” a sinister-looking plant form—perhaps suggesting a vengeful, abused environment — conquers a machine made of gears, sprockets and chains, which may be interpreted as Western civilization’s technological dominance. Alternatively, the alien-appearing plant can be seen as a stand-in for detractors and would-be destroyers of our civilization. The ambiguity between ecological and political struggle as expressed in the work appeals to the artist.

“In one sense Western civilization is extremely strong—it cannot be touched,” Dallos observes. “But in other cases it is very vulnerable. I let the viewer decide the interpretation of any given piece.”

Dallos says he approaches his artistic practice in the same way he conducted scientific research. “The good scientist and the good artist have inspiration and ideas and then the rest is extremely hard work to produce something of value, integrity and beauty.”

Dallos’s sculptures have appeared in exhibitions at several galleries in Chicago and Asheville, N.C. In 2012 he had a one-person show at Gallery Swarm in Chicago, and the New Art Center in New York will present a solo exhibition of his work in 2013. “I immensely enjoy being in the studio and putting these pieces together to the point where I think they are powerful, fully sculptural, and also tell a story. But the process is not finished until they are exhibited, viewed and critiqued—just as in science.”