Ginzburg brings color, depth and inspiration to Keuka College

Gwen Chamberlain
Artist Yankel Ginzburg, seated in front of some of his original work at Keuka College, explains how his life experiences influence his work.

As Yankel Ginzburg walked toward the home of Keuka College President Dr. Joseph Burke last Friday evening, he paused to study blossoms on a flowering tree in front of Lucina, the Burke’s home.

It was an almost predictable gesture, since Ginzburg had just completed  discussing how much of his art — colorful, sharply-focused images of  flowers — relates to his life and his friends.

Ginzburg is a famed artist whose works are treasured by scores of the rich and famous. Some of his prints and original work hang in the Robert S. and Rebecca B. Aben Collection at Keuka’s Lightner Library.

Those who attended the Carl and Fannie Fribolin Lecture during last weekend’s 20th Annual President’s Forum at Keuka College heard his inspirational story of a man whose life began in the Soviet Union; who as a young boy, saw his parents dragged off in the middle of the night and who later attended the trial that sent his father to prison leaving his mother with three children to fend for themselves.

After his father used his skills as a manager at a mattress factory to implement efficiencies to improve productivity in the logging operations of the prison, his sentence was reduced to two years. He returned to his family, and eventually led them and several other Jewish families to the freedom of Austria and eventually to Israel, where the young boy previously known as Yuri Zhukov completed a complicated conversion to Judaism.

Ginzburg’s artistic talent was discovered when he was a 14-year-old boy who submitted his poetry to a newspaper for publication. The newspaper returned his poems, telling him they might be re-considered if he illustrates them.

His drawings caught the attention of an art critic who introduced him to the Institute of Fine Arts, where he studied for seven years.

His life story is reflected in the symbol of optimism that often appears quite clearly in his work — a ladder.

Discussing the meaning of his symbol before his appearance at the Norton Chapel, he said, “More people die for symbols than for anything else in the world. More people die for the swastika, for the cross, the star of David, the moon and the stars, the sickle and hammer — it’s just unbelievable what a symbol can do for us. However, sometimes a symbol doesn’t have to be universal.”

His symbol of optimism is a ladder. “That ladder was an opportunity to climb out of the life I had — a life of poverty and degradation.”

The poverty and degradation he talks about wasn’t just in his own lifetime. The legacy of his life includes what became of his father’s family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. His father was the son of a rabbi who had been sent east from his home of Poland in 1938. When his father discovered the fate of his own family, he turned away from his Jewish roots to raise his family in the eastern block under the strict, disciplined influence of communism.

So, after fleeing the Soviet Union and finally finding his place in the world of art, he used  an image of a ladder to symbolize the path he was taking. “I created it for myself. I painted myself out of it and used the ladder as a symbol of my escape.”

When he finally accomplished his conversion to Judaism, he was given the name of Jacob, which fit perfectly with his ladder symbolism.

He says theologian love the story of Jacob because it brings us closer to God. “We are one of him, he is one with us and we have some traffic going through us,” he explains.

 “Faith did play a very important role in my paintings in my early career,” he says, explaining the ‘tremendous confusion’ of his childhood which includes not only the Jewish heritage he re-claimed, but his mother’s Russian Orthodox upbringing and the discipline of communism. But he believes he benefited from the strictness of the communist regime.

“The paintings were influenced by it. There is some theological infusion, but as I matured, you can see in the painting that I learned I had to leave some of those things behind and search for new truths. Those new truths were not difficult to find. They were right in front of me. I was looking at my wife. I was looking at my flowers. I was looking at my closest friends and there was so much beauty in them, I didn’t need to look anyplace else.”

He says paintings of his friends eventually became paintings of flowers that resembled the person he was painting. And so began the evolution of the strikingly clear, colorful, studies of flowers, birds, fish and nature that has become his body of work. 

Several prints of his work, along with five original pieces are on display in the Robert S. and Rebecca B. Aben Gallery found in the Lightner Library at Keuka College.

Not long after the exhibit opened, Ginzburg was presented with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree at Keuka College.

In his introduction to the Fribolin audience, Joseph Burke, Ph. D., president of Keuka College, compared Ginzburg to Dr. Zhivago for the vast life experiences he could document.

But that just scratches the surface of Ginzburg’s life. Since moving to the United States in the 1960s, Ginzburg has become a major philanthropist, helping to raise millions of dollars for causes in Russia, Cambodia and around the globe.

He has become an authority on Middle East politics, and has consulted with world leaders such as Golda Meir, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. 

During a recent trip to the Middle East, he traveled to Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Traveling from Israel to Palestinian territory, he said, “My heart was not very comfortable.” When he asked the Palestinians what they think about Israelis, he said their response — different from previous visits — was “We love them. We hate their government.”

His view for peace in the region is “very dim.”

He explains, “It became dim not for what I saw in Palestine, but for what I saw at the place where Jesus was crucified. I saw three sects of Christians hitting each other.”

He asks, “If we, the Judeo-Christians, who are much better educated, are hitting each other, how do we expect the Muslims not to fight with us?” he asks.

But he answers his own question. “Education is the answer. Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you’re educated well. Education and love is the answer… So, optimistic I am, but realistically, this is not going to happen in our lifetime.”

The Aben Art Collection of Yankel Ginzburg lithographs and paintings is permanently on display in the Gallery of the Lightner Library at Keuka College. During semester, the library is open Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 11 p.m.