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Head of Mephistopheles

Author: Mark Antokolsky (1843–1902)
Dimensions:51.50 × 26 cm

on left shoulder: ANTOKOLSKY

Between two worlds. The first generation of Litvak artists came up against strong hostility from two sides: because of their desire to paint, they were condemned by their relatives and the dogmas of their own religious community; and because of their different culture, appearance and their poor command of Russian, Polish and French, they were ignored by the world beyond the shtetl. Lazar Krestin, who grew up in a deeply religious family and became a student at the Vilnius School of Drawing, recalled: ‘Dressed as a yeshivah bachur in a long kaftan and a wide-brimmed hat, I must have looked strange to the other students’ (Michael Kaniel, A Guide to Jewish Art, 1989, p. 125). However, this did not stop young people from pursuing careers as artists.

The sculptor Mark Antokolsky, the ‘prodigal son’ of the Jewish community, and the first famous Litvak artist, managed to overcome the opposition of both worlds, and started to spread humanist ideas. He had the idea to depict Mephistopheles in 1874 while working on a sculpture of Christ. Antokolsky wanted to portray a figure with as strong a character as Christ, but with opposing features, so he chose the devil from Goethe’s Faust. He worked for a long time on a figure of Mephistopheles sitting on a rock, and created several studies for the head in plaster (1874), bronze (1876, 1879 and 1883), and marble (1876). Antokolsky wrote: ‘I created my Mephistopheles based on real life and not on Goethe. He is the enemy of mankind, and all that is alive and good’ (МаркАнтокольский. Его жизнь, творения, письма и статьи, 1905, p. 500).

Text author Vilma Gradinskaitė

Source: Law firm Valiunas Ellex art album STORIES OF LITVAK ART (2023). Compiler and author Vilma Gradinskaitė
Expositions: “Heaven and Beyond. Works of religious art from the collection of Rolandas Valiūnas and the law firm Valiunas Ellex“, 31 May–24 September 2016, Church Heritage Museum, Vilnius (curators Dalia Vasiliūnienė, Skaidrė Urbonienė); "Litvak Artists in Paris", 25 May 202329 September, Vytautas Kasiulis Museum of Art, Vilnius (curator Vilma Gradinskaitė).