Interview with Leonid Lerner


– When did you start painting?

I was destined to become a painter from childhood. My grandfather, Meir Axelrod, handed me some brushes and some large sheets of gray paper when I was barely four. I did not resist. Soon I was proclaimed a prodigy, exhibitions were organized, my works were published in Soviet magazines, I received prizes, appeared in movies.

On days off I painted in my grandfather’s studio on Maslovka – a huge building with corridors stuffed with sculptures and stretchers. There were hundreds of painters working or drinking in hundreds of studios at the same time. The smell of the paint absorbed in the walls, my granddad standing at the easel and humming a Jewish song, the freight elevator that slowly lifted me to the studio – into a different world, far from the hated school – these things determined my destiny.

– Whom do you remember among the painters who worked there?

I was most impressed with three of them: Tyshler, Labas, and Belopolsky. Tyshler’s studio was chock full of astounding pictures, crammed with small wooden figures which we were allowed to take down from the shelves. He did not show his works, but he was always scraping, painting. He was very interesting to watch.  Labas, in contrast to him, showed a vast number of paintings and graphics and talked about himself non-stop. Both these painters invented the subjects of their works, and the subjects are what has remained in my memory. Unlike them, Belopolsky spent twenty years painting, from photographs, a twenty-meter-wide picture called “Strugglers for Peace.” Its scale was overwhelming. The artist was unable to finish it, because whenever it approached completion, invariably one of the “strugglers for peace” would be declared a “warmonger.” Then he had to replace him with some other agent of progress.

– Have you ever had doubts about your choice of profession?

Of course, like all teenagers, I sometimes rebelled. Once I said to my grandfather, “I don’t want to be a painter, I want to be — a boxer!” He answered, “What a fool!” I was deeply insulted. So I joined a group of boxers, but I immediately got beaten up, and that cooled me off. I must note that Axelrod and his friends all belonged to the generation that started working in the 20’s, the best time for art. At some point, they joined “Four Arts” and “OST,” which were well-known groups of artists. And this milieu, even though it thinned out in the years of war and repression, was still very attractive at the end of the 60’s: the painters argued, showed each other their works, went out together to paint.

– But the time was not so favorable…

Yes, they had almost no exhibitions, but they were no longer being imprisoned. And they tried to oppose the official socialist realism. Though course, the painter is always influenced by the times. 

– Your grandfather died in 1970…

Grandfather was always trying to “open me up,” giving me complete freedom of self-expression, and of course after that it was difficult for me to study in the Soviet art school, which chained us to dry academic drawing of plaster figures. But here too I was lucky: I got into the class of Alik Melamed, who is now a famous practitioner of “sots-art.” He took us to the first “basement” exhibitions, introduced us to underground art.

After graduating from the school, I started taking private lessons from Evgeny Dodonov – a painter and pedagogue who spent half of his life in prison because he was Trotzky’s son’s classmate. Dodonov taught formal clarity of conception. At that time I was painting soft, harmonious landscapes. Dodonov pushed me toward a more active approach to life drawing.

Here I must also mention my other private teachers. Before the college entrance exams my mother hired three of the most brilliant dissidents to tutor me.  For literature I had Ilya Gabai, for history Anatoly Yakobson, for Russian Natalya Gorbanevskaya. This did not help me to get into college on the first try, but it did form my attitude toward Soviet power.

– How did you come to the theater?

At the age of 18 I barely escaped becoming a soldier. Fortunately, an acquaintance–the playwright Joseph Prut–found a place for me in the Soviet Army Theater, which carried with it an exemption from military service. They took me on as a furniture property man, and I had to drag furniture around the huge stage. My partner was Vladimir Gostychin, who is now a well-known actor; he was trying to get into a theater group and sometimes acted in bit parts.This strange theater was under the Ministry of Defence, which meant that it was headed not by a director, but by an army boss – Colonel Ponko. His deputy was Lieutenant Colonel Filippov. The theater was equipped with a special entrance for tanks: during the performances real tanks and motorcycles mounted the stage.  In the production of “The Wide Sea,” I and the stagehands dragged around the stage a cutter mounted on wheels.  We dragged it like barge-haulers, hidden by canvas waves. The actors who played the sailors stood on the deck and gave orders like “Full speed ahead,” and we down there shouted out uncensored replies, which could not be heard because there was an orchestra between the stage and the spectators. Once I was told to produce the sound of wind: in the wings stood a ribbed barrel with a handle, covered by a tarpaulin, and when I rotated the barrel its ribs rubbed the tarpaulin to make whistling and howling sounds. At that performance I made my first bloomer.  Gostychin asked me to go onstage during blackout and drag armchair for the Gestapo chief into the wings. But he did not tell me during which blackout I was to do it. As soon as the lights went off, I ran onto the stage and at once got a fierce blow to the teeth: our partisans were dealing with the Gestapo and swinging their fists actively.  I ran into the wings, clutching my head. At the next blackout they changed the scenery. The cutter came onstage, to the accompaniment of the music, with the armchair bobbing tranquilly on the waves…

I must confess I did not like the theater then and did not attend any theatrical performance except “Taganka.” But once I found myself inside, breathing the dust of the stage-sets, I caught the “theater virus” and it is still alive in me. I started to want to be an artist-producer–to build worlds inhabited by characters you have dressed, to play with light and space that is real and not just drawn  on the canvas.


–  And then you went to study in the MHAT school-studio?

Yes, and after that I went to work for a year as a scene designer on the Kazakhstan steppe, in the town of Kokchetav, in a new theater housed in the huge, cold “Palace of Culture.” For the first season all the actors, directors and designers were lodged in the only hotel of the town. There was a shortage of actors, and in many performances we had to participate in the crowd scenes. There was also a shortage of spectators, so the theater went on the road. In the Kokchetav region there were prisoners working in the uranium mines, and therefore our visiting performances were in the labor camps. We played in the dining halls or, if the stench there was unbearable, right on the drill-ground. The prisoners would watch from a squatting position and, engrossed by the performance, would draw very close to the stage. Every 20 minutes the convoy interrupted the performance and pushed the prisoners several meters back. But not only prisoners watched our performances. In the town they rounded up conscripts, soldiers and schoolchildren to see us. For the children I made the stage design for the production of “Ivan-and-Marya”. The action there is in the forest, in the kingdom of the “stinking idol.” The forest was made of theater spotlights. I lengthened their stands and fastened rope “hands” to them and put masks on the lamps of the spotlights. When the trees started waving their hands and the masks lit up, the children rushed in horror from the auditorium. Then I understood that the effect in the theater is sometimes much stronger than in the cinema.

– Was there more freedom in the provinces?

Yes, from the point of view of the choice of the repertory it was easier there. After a year of practice I traveled to Kazakhstan for ten years to stage “once-only” productions. The local culture bosses did not read plays and allowed to stage whatever we liked… The actors and the stage directors were mostly young, they had joined the troupe via the actors’ labor exchanges which took place every summer in Moscow. They wanted to play the best of repertories.  I designed productions of Shakespeare and Moliere, Dostoyevsky and Ostrovsky, Brecht and Sartre. Later, when I worked in Russia – first in Kostroma, then in Moscow – we could only dream of such plays. I always wanted to create a unified theater construction, image-object.  I worked with twenty directors at ten theaters, but really liked only five or six productions out of half a hundred I worked on. True, I only watched the dress rehearsals: at the time of the premiere there was a tradition of drinking together with the workers who had made the scenery. We only went out to bow.  Once I bowed and almost fell down into the rows. Vassa Zheleznova saved me from falling by grabbing my coattails. By the way, this production, far from the best, was awarded the State Prize.

– Why did you leave the theater?

A painter in the theater is very dependent: the director can move the scenery, the actor can spoil the costume, the manager can fail to buy the necessary materials. Once in Moscow I was building a cage on the stage, where between the bars there were inserted, like puzzles, stools with a postcard sunset drawn on them. The actors were supposed to take them out and sit down on them. Then the skeleton of the cage would appear, and the spectator would start to understand that we were living not in a paradise world, but in a prison country. At the dress-rehearsal the director demanded that we saw the cage into 2 parts, put them separately on the stage and throw away the stools…  During the production of the fairy-tale “Once There Was a Mushroom” one actress made a huge scandal: “I won’t wear that costume–I don’t look well in green.” I tried explaining to her that she was playing a death cap mushroom, but it didn’t help. The life of a production is very short, and afterward the scenery is burnt or thrown away. I had a feeling of pointlessness about the work.   But now, when I recall it, it seems that I was doing something interesting.

– Which of your theatrical works do you consider successful?

In the middle of the 80’s I designed a production of Brecht’s ‎”Mother Courage.” I wanted to show the form of the mechanism of war that unravels the world and swallows it up. The scenery was placed on a turntable. On it, near the edge, I put a second turntable, with Mother Courage’s wagon. I divided the big turntable in half by fastening a long piece of canvas to two poles – like a gigantic Torah scroll. The poles were rotated by the actors who were standing on them. On one side of the canvas was a painting of a boundless war landscape, on the other side – the texts of the songs. The orchestra was seated under the canvas, playing these songs. At the beginning, when the whole structure (the two circles and the canvas) was set in motion, the actors who were moving the landscape got dizzy and fainted. Then they got used to it, but still continued to curse me as hard as they could. By the way, in the course of the performance they had to change their uniform vests all the time: the vests were reversible, green and orange, which symbolized two armies at war.

– They allowed you all these experiments?

Yes, I worked together with my friends, the stage directors, and they invited me to work on the productions, being aware of my predilections. Besides, I was “from the capital” and could allow myself all sorts of tricks in the province.

Once, at the beginning of the perestroika, we staged Bulgakov’s “Heart of the Dog” in Dneprodzerzinsk, Breznev’s hometown. I created a real mess on the stage, with all the objects in an unnatural order, as after an explosion. In the middle of this mess Professor Preobrazhensky was pacing up and down in a white coat and talking about devastation. The production was banned as anti-Soviet. The director was taken to a hospital with a heart attack. I began telephoning Moscow in panic – contacting theater critics, writers, painters I knew. At last somebody called the theater (I think, from the All-Union Theater Society), and the performance was at once cleared for performance. True, it was soon banned again…

– Did you have other art projects besides theater?

For half the year I went from one theater to another, and for the other half I painted pictures. It must be noted that while working in theater I played with space, texture, light, in a wide variety of ways. Possibly because of that, I did not feel like starting to deal with the voluminous projects, installations and performances that my friends were so fond of. I dived head first into painting, and, of course, hit loneliness.

– What does that mean?

When you are alone with the canvas, in an agonizing search for the right color – and suddenly in a certain moment you feel it comes out – you experience extraordinary happiness. Then you see that your findings are of interest to no one, and you yourself feel that the euphoria was unfounded. But without it life seems empty and foolish.

–  But you were then a quite successful painter…

Yes, the perestroika had started. I had a lot of exhibitions. Joined the Union of Artists and the Union of Theater Workers.

It turned out that sharply ironical works could be exhibited.  Soviet art became fashionable in the West. We found ourselves in empty studios: the paintings were bought by the hundreds and taken out of Russia. At the height of this feast of life I got attracted to religious and Zionist ideas. Started painting Jewish themes. Left the theater. On January 1, 1991 I became a new immigrant.

How did life in Israel unfold?

We settled near Jerusalem, at the edge of the Judean desert. I can see from my balcony a view that makes El Greco’s View of Toledo in a Storm seem like a very modest landscape.

But after the first period of euphoria I began to feel the tension of life here, the conflict between the closeness of the sky and the difficulties of everyday life, the loss of the social life in a circle of painters, the slipping of the habitual cultural background from under the feet.

It suddenly became clear that work on religious themes brings you into the zone of kitsch. That I must look for a new myself. That one must express the tragic character of our existence. Paint loneliness and silence.  Small towns in the desert, the walls surrounding us on three sides. The Sea as the forth wall. Our destiny.

I started striving for minimalist simplicity, and at the same time for greater expressiveness. For precise rhythms.  For  clarity and depth in the sound of the color.

– You do only painting in Israel?

Basically, yes. There were several monumental collective works. One of them influenced my painting greatly. In 2000 Jerusalem was regularly fired upon from a neighboring Arab village. In order to protect the residents a concrete fence was constructed along the streets that were fired upon. The city authorities invited ten immigrant painters to paint this fence. The idea was to “resurrect” on the concrete the landscape hidden by the wall, to make the wall seem as if made of glass. For awhile we became famous, the fence was shown to tourists, publicized in the newspapers and on TV. I felt then that that image — a man, an artist, leaning against the wall — was very significant, and I painted many works on this theme.

– And what about the theater?

I sometimes design performances, but I consider the decoration of the synagogue in Maale Adumim to be my main theater project.

– Why is it a theater project?

The synagogue is formed by theatrical means. Several years ago the municipality gave us the building, which had previously housed a kindergarten. It was a glass box, and the people praying there looked like fish in an aquarium.   I offered to cover the windows with stained glass.  There wasn’t enough money for real stained glass, to I used colored film and aluminum wire.

– Where did the themes for the windows come from?

I spend a lot of time studying traditional Jewish art.  I have traveled for that purpose to the Ukraine, Poland, Belorus, Moldava, to see what is left.  In the windows I wanted to show our affiliation with eastern European Jewry.  The synagogue was founded by the “Machanayim” group of Soviet intellectuals who had returned to their religion while still in Russia.  The theme of the window on the eastern wall is tents, a symbol of the Machanayim community which took shape in Moscow and has continued its activity in Israel.  The tents are situated in front of Kremlin walls, with the river Sambatyon in the background, beyond which, according to tradition, are the lost tribes of Israel.  Across the river bridges are built, leading to Jerusalem.  Above Jerusalem rises the rebuilt Temple.

On the south wall are little houses in which we live.  Above the tile roofs Jacob’s ladder reaches upward.

In the composition of the ceiling I included windows with the twelve signs of the Zodiac–a symbol of the cyclical movement of time.  On the  ceiling lamp I depicted a mystical animal, the Leviathan, and on the Torah ark animals symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel.  I wanted to achieve that naïve conventionalism which was characteristic of Jewish art two hundred years ago, and at the same time to show that the synagogue is a new one.

– Plans for the future?

At the moment I am at a crossroads, like Ilya Muromets in the painting by     Vasnetsov.  On the one hand I don’t want to go far from traditional painting, but there is a feeling of déjà vu, that all that has already been done a hundred times, and on the other hand one ought to relate to contemporary art.  I have ideas on contemporary topics, but I would like to know how I am going to realize them by means of visual art.