A Painter's Witness to History: Recent Work by Yonia Fain
May 5 - August 8, 2008
Rochelle and Irwin A. Lowenfeld Conference and Exhibition Hall, Joan and Donald E. Axinn Library, 10th floor
Yonia Fain, Uprising, 2008
Yonia Fain has experienced first-hand many of the major events of the 20th century, from the Russian Revolution, through the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, to the upheaval of World War II in Europe, and the aftermath of the war as he immigrated first to Mexico and finally to the United States. Through his prolific body of paintings and drawings that comprise his life’s work, along with award-winning poetry composed in Yiddish, he stands as a personal witness to history.
Born in Russia in 1914, he and his family escaped the Bolshevik Revolution by moving to Vilna, which was part of Poland in 1924. There he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and planned to continue his studies in Paris. He received his BA and MFA degrees from the University of Poland. When Vilna was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939, he and his wife Helen fled to Warsaw. They managed to escape the Nazis, but Fain was captured by Soviet troops and imprisoned. He and his wife were released into Russia, where they obtained Japanese transit visas. They fled the country traveling through Siberia and on to Japan. In 1941 prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sent his family to Shanghai, China where they spent the remainder of the war years in a ghetto for Polish Jewish refugees. During those years, Fain earned his living painting portraits of individuals in the Chinese army.
After the war ended, Yonia Fain was at a crossroads as he contemplated where to live. He did not wish to return to a Europe that no longer was home, and through the efforts of a friend, samples of his work were sent to the renowned Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. Rivera was so impressed with Fain’s work that he sponsored a visa for the Fain family to Mexico in 1946. There Fain worked with Diego Rivera, learning the artistry of mural painting. He had several exhibitions during his years in Mexico, with Rivera championing his work, and writing essays for his exhibition catalogs. During his stay Yonia Fain also taught at the University of Mexico from 1947 until 1953, when, at the urging of the artist Rufino Tamayo, his family moved to New York City.
In addition to painting and exhibiting his work in the New York galleries of the day, Fain was recommended by Rufino Tamayo for an art instructor position at the Brooklyn Museum, where he taught for over a decade. He then taught at New York University from 1964 until 1970 when he joined the faculty of Hofstra University teaching art history and the philosophy of art. He retired from Hofstra in 1983.
Fain has been the subject of numerous one-man shows and his artworks have been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Butler Institute of American Art, the Albright-Knox Gallery, and the Chrysler Art Museum, as well as the Carnegie International. A recent 2007 exhibit of his work took place at the London Jewish Cultural Centre.
In addition to his work in the visual arts, Fain is an award–winning Yiddish poet, who has won international acclaim, with his books that include A Gallow Under the Stars, Beloved Strangers, New York Addresses, and The Fifth Season.
At the age of 94, Yonia Fain continues to create artwork that has been shaped by his experiences, providing a witness to history. He believes there is a purpose to his survival and that through his art, chronicling the events he witnessed, he honors the many people who did not survive, and those who were there to inspire, teach, and assist him on his life’s journey.
A reception for the artist was held on Monday, May 5, 2008 at 1:00pm.