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Al’tman, Natan Isaevich

(1889–1970), artist. From 1914 to 1924, Natan Al’tman was the chief rival of Marc Chagall in the Russian Jewish art renaissance. Born in Vinnitsa (Vinnytsya, Ukr.), he attended art school in Odessa from 1903 to 1907 and moved to Paris in 1910, where he studied the works of old masters as well as cubism. His first famous work, Evreiskie pokhorony (Jewish Funeral), appeared in 1911.

Al’tman moved to Saint Petersburg in 1912, participated in the Mir Iskusstva Exposition (1913), and painted portraits; among the latter was his masterpiece, Anna Akhmatova (1914), with its barrage of faceted and transparent planes. During the summer of 1913, he copied reliefs from old Jewish tombstones, especially pictures of animals such as deer (a traditional symbol of beauty) and lions (of Judah). Combining these with Hebrew calligraphy, Al’tman developed a distinctive painting style based on Jewish folk art.

Al’tman’s drawings, which were published in Jüdische Graphik in 1923, exhibit qualities of cubism and play upon contrasts of black and white. In 1916, he completed his finest piece of sculpture, Avtoportret (known in English as Head of a Young Jew), a stridently modern self-portrait. That same year, he helped found the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of the Arts.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Al’tman became a leading member of the Department of Fine Arts in Petrograd. He organized and designed parades and monuments, which brought him acclaim, especially his production of the First Anniversary Celebration of the Revolution and his depiction of the storming of the Winter Palace (1918), a work employing abstract geometric shapes on huge panels. In 1920, he produced a volume of sketches of Lenin in the Kremlin as well as a bust of the revolutionary leader.

In 1921, Al’tman moved to Moscow and designed the first constructivist set for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mysterium Bouffe, directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. Hired by the Habimahtheater company, which preferred his sets to those of Chagall, he created the stage design for S. An-ski’s The Dybbuk (1922). Al’tman suspended silver-colored Hebrew calligraphy on flats over the scene; key figures were in black and white, with the poor in gray, their faces streaked with flecks to evoke a shadowy, distant world. The sets are still used by Habimah in Tel Aviv.

Hired by GOSET (Moscow State Yiddish Theater, under the direction of Aleksandr Granovskii), Al’tman produced his most advanced set design for Uriel Acosta, a pure, abstract constructivist staging consisting of various platforms, ramps, steps, posts, and a single overhanging arch meant to create an architectonic whole. With no furniture or other props, the actor dominates the scene while moving amid immobile forms.

Al’tman participated in the Kultur-lige art show (1922), with Chagall and David Shterenberg. From 1922 to 1924, he worked in Berlin and was part of the important First Russian Exhibition, showcasing new Soviet art. He also produced graphic work for Yiddish and Russian texts published in Berlin. Returning to Moscow in 1924, he executed costume designs and posters for Granovskii’s Yiddish-language film Yidishe glikn (Jewish Luck; 1926), based on the works of Sholem Aleichem.

Natan Al’tman’s set design for Le Trouhadec by Jules Romain, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

For GOSET, Al’tman produced the stage designs for The Ten Commandments and The Marriage of Trouhadec. In 1928, he accompanied this theater group on its European tour and stayed abroad until 1935, when he returned to the Soviet Union and agreed to conform to the aesthetic dictates of the period. For the balance of his life, Al’tman remained active in theater design, graphics, painting, and sculpture, for which he was honored by the regime. His art, however, then hewed to the principles of socialist realism.

Suggested Reading

Mark Etkind, Nathan Altman (Dresden, 1984); Avram Kampf, “In Quest of Jewish Style in the Era of the Russian Revolution,” Journal of Jewish Art 5 (1978): 48–75; George Waldemar and Ilya Ehrenburg, Nathan Altman (Paris, 1933).