Course Details

Course offered Autumn 2020

HONORS 240 B: Russian Art and Architecture

HONORS 240 B: Russian Art and Architecture (A&H)

SLN 16137 (View UW registration info »)

Galya Diment (Slavic Languages and Literatures)
Office: A219 Padelford Hall, Box 354335
Phone: 206-543-6848

Credits: 5
Limit: 15 students

Honors Credit Type

Listed with Russian and Jewish Studies

Honors students will be expected to engage more throughly (3-4 pages) on exam essay prompts.

The course will be devoted to the Russian Jewish painters at the turn of the 20th century who came from the so-called “Pale of Settlement,” the areas where Jews were allowed to dwell which were largely in Ukraine and Belarus and outside of big cities. The most famous of these painters now is of course Marc Chagall (1887-1985) who hailed from the town of Vitebsk. Among other significant Jewish painters from the “Pale” was Chagall’s teacher, Yehuda Pen (1854-1937) as well as more of Pen’s students: El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Osip Zadkine (1888-1967), David Jakerson (1897-1947), and a still rare then female painter Elena Kabishcher (1903-1990). Other painters we will study in this course include Leon Bakst (1866-1934), Issahar Ber Ryback (1897-1935), Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), and Nathan Altman (1889-1970).

Art critics often use a largely literary label of “Magic Realism” to define the nature of Marc Chagall’s paintings. I am much more comfortable with different categories usually applied just to literary works — “Yiddish Modernism” and “Yiddish Renaissance.” Not just Chagall but most of the painters we will discuss and analyze in this course practiced it and participated in it. Many of them traced their style to Jewish folk art and traditional Jewish iconography. Their most significant literary inspiration was undoubtedly Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), a widely popular “Pale” Yiddish writer several of whose stories we will read. As artists, not writers, however, they faced an additional challenge. Almost all came from very religious Jewish families where artistic endeavors were frowned upon because of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4) which read: “You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” 

In addition to analyzing the evolution of Russian Jewish art and individual achievements and cultural contributions of each particular artist, we will also study larger historical, literary, and cultural issues pertaining to the Russian Pale of Settlement. These will include: “official” anti-semitism and quotas practiced by the tsarist government which limited the artists’ educational and employment opportunities prior to 1917 and what happened after the Revolution; bilingualism and bi-culturality (Yiddish and Russian); secularity versus religiousity; and Yiddish culture in literature versus Yiddish culture in art.

Required books: 

Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairy Man and Motl the Cantor’s Son (Penguin Classics)
Kenneth B. Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution
Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia


There will be one take-home midterm and one take-home final. Honors students should expect their exams to be 3-4 pages longer than those in other undergraduate sections.