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Artist Hendel Lieberman
"I paint with contrasts," explained Hendel Lieberman a world famous artist, "because that is how the world looks to me." When asked why he paints, he replied, "I can't help it; it's my talent. I was confined to a hospital bed for three weeks, but I did not stop drawing." Even as a child, Lieberman was driven to paint. All of his notebooks, prayer books, desks and walls were filled with drawings. At age five, he begged his father for paint and brushes, which he received.
Perhaps the only personal characteristic as important to Lieberman as his art is the fact of his being a religious Jew and Chabad follower – a Chabad Chossid. Just as being an artist is a multidimensional factor emanating from the very core of his existence, being a Chossid is, similarly, not just one additional personal quality, but rather a molding influence which characterizes and directs his entire life-force.
Lieberman grew up in Russia at a time where the living environment taught was motivated by chassidic philosophy and way of life. Chassidism was not an abstract intellectual concept but a rather powerful force motivating the lives of the entire community: rich, poor, simple, and well educated. One didn't need a book to learn about Chassidism, it could be learned from the way Jonah the smith, fashioned an iron; from the open, warm love for one's fellow Jew shown by the entire community, for from the way Rabbi Moshe, the town Rabbi, gave of his time to learn a lesson of Talmudic homilies with the simple folk.
Lieberman's art is a combination of these two forces. The overwhelming majority of his work are scenes from Chassidic life of that era. "The present doesn't interest me," Lieberman remarked, "except as it is an extension of the past. What is good and healthy today comes from that era. The other aspects of today's life style have no appeal to me."
Painting the past is not difficult for Lieberman. The faces and scenes from fifty and sixty years ago are distinct vibrant realities to him. Pointing to a picture, he exclaimed, "This is Jonah, the smith. There is Israel from the town of Nevell. Their faces are as clear to me as if they were standing right in front of me."
Among Lieberman's favorite and most popular works are communal scenes from his native town of Pleshnitz. One drawing, Tashlich, depicts the entire congregation observing this Rosh Hashana ceremony. All the minute details of the ceremony - the emptying of the pockets, shaking the corners of the fringes, the serious desire for Tshuva (repentance – the return to G-d) are presented. The picture has the serenity and the quietness of a still life, but-the faces reveal intense feeling and transmit a sense of activity and arousal. The creative use of color contributes rhythm and continuity and joins the many diversified scenes presented into one unified picture.
Lieberman's memory and he has tried to express their feelings and emotions in his painting. "When I painted the cat," Lieberman remarked, "I tried to think of its psychology, what was going on in its head. How much more so when I painted the people." Everything, including the kettle and the stove, is realistic, yet the overall picture is somewhat dreamlike. One feels transported into a world which is simultaneously real and make-believe.
In general, Lieberman's use of color parallels that of the French impressionists: pastel blues, and greens. However, his figures, faces and objects have a realistic touch. "The French artists don't show you what life really is, just what they think about it. My paintings are real, genuine. There," he remarked, "is a portrait of my friend Getzel. It looks like Getzel." With a slight smile, he remarked, "my style is unique. Everyone can recognize any of my paintings as being a 'Lieberman'."
Lieberman received his artistic training at the Moscow Art Institute. The manner in which he acquired his training and recognition confirmed his belief in Divine personal Providence. He was thirty five years old, married and with a family, working on odd jobs in Moscow, and painting strictly as a personal joy and necessity. He was taken seriously ill and confined to a hospital. There, his work came under the notice of one of Russia's most talented sculptures, Innocento Zhukov, a student of Rodin.
Zhukov entered one of Lieberman's paintings in a nationwide government-sponsored exhibit. The painting was awarded first prize and Lieberman was given a six year scholarship to the Moscow Art Institute. He completed the course with high honors.
Before being awarded his art degree, he was required to devote a year's effort to a special art project. Lieberman chose to go to Eastern Russia and Siberia. Many of his paintings depict the life of the Jews of Birobidzhan during that period.
After that year of intensive study and work, Lieberman returned to Moscow. His paintings were exhibited in the National Gallery of Moscow, the famed Tretyakov, and the regional Museum of Kabaharosyk, a major city in Eastern Siberia.
When the Second World War broke out, he was conscripted into the army, wounded in action, and hospitalized twice. After the war he emigrated from Russia, found his way to Paris, Amsterdam, and London, and finally settled in the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn in 1951.
Throughout the varied course of his life, Lieberman has never felt any conflict between his art and his religious beliefs, neither on a personal or a public level. "Why shouldn't a religious Jew paint?"
Lieberman exclaimed, "He sees things, hears things, understands things. Shouldn't he tell the world about them? The Lubavitcher Rebbe has given me many blessings for my work."
Despite the Russian government's attempts to destroy the
spirit and religious vitality of Russian Jewry, they never interfered
with Lieberman's work. "If you kept quiet and didn't bother them,"
Lieberman recalled,"there was a chance they wouldn't bother you.
I was lucky."
Now in his seventies, Lieberman is still active. He paints daily and has produced some of his best work in the last few years. In addition, he travels around the world exhibiting his art. He has had major exhibitions in Australia, Michigan, Israel, Miami, and Seattle. Major museums in New York, London, and Paris have made his paintings part of their permanent collections.
Lieberman sees his work as part of the general effort to awaken involvement in Judaism among the non-committed. "When they see my paintings, he remarked, "they can feel what it means to be a Jew." After his exhibit in Seattle, the local rabbi told him that his paintings had done more in ten days to arouse Jewish interest, than ten years of the rabbi's own work.
Lieberman has tried to communicate with today's estranged Jews not only though his art but also through his personal efforts. He often invites guests to his home for the Sabbath, holds discussion groups with students, and devotes time to people who ask for his advice and counsel.
Lieberman cannot separate his art from his Judaism. His Chassidic life style presents him with scenes, people, feelings, and insights which have to be painted. His paintings convey these genuine Jewish experiences. When asked if he had a dream, a scene which he especially wanted to paint, he took out two sketches. "See, this is Pleshinitz, what is most important from it. I want people to be able to appreciate such a painting." The sketches depict all the various religious events of the town: a wedding, a circumcision, horn blowing, a Pesach holiday meal, etc.; Rabbi Lieberman has coordinated them into one total picture. "This is what it meant to be a Jew then, to share in these events. I want the people to know, to understand, and even to experience that kind of Judaism."
A few weeks following this interview Rabbi Hendel Lieberman
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