Hofstra University Museum of Art

Artist Spotlight: Yonia Fain

Yonia Fain (1913 - 2013)
International Artist,
Award-Winning Yiddish Poet/Author
Past President of the Yiddish Pen Society
Past Co-President of
the Congress for Jewish Culture

Yonia Fain

Yonia Fain was an internationally acclaimed artist, poet, author and educator who passed away at the age of 100 in December 2013. Yonia Fain served as a faculty member at Hofstra University in the department of Fine Arts, Design and Art History from 1971 until his retirement in 1985. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, he was named faculty emeritus by Hofstra University.

Born in the Ukraine in 1913, as a young child his family fled Bolshevik Russia and moved to Vilnius, Poland. Yonia received his education at the University of Vilnius and received both his B.A. and M.F.A. degrees from the University. At the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Yonia and his first wife were living in Warsaw and they escaped on foot making it to Vladivostok, where Yonia was conscripted into the Russian army as an artist. He refused to create propaganda art and was thus in danger. Obtaining falsified documents and transit visas signed by the now famous Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, the Fains escaped through Siberia to Japan.

Ultimately, the Fains spent the remainder of World War II in the Shanghai Ghetto, where Yonia made a living painting portraits of Japanese soldiers and their families. He continued to write poetry throughout this period, and also had a number of exhibitions of his work. As the war ended, Yonia determined to move to Mexico and to connect with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Rivera was impressed by Yonia’s work, and became his champion even curating exhibitions of Fain’s work and writing catalog essays as well. During those years 1947-1953, Yonia taught at the University of Mexico and was commissioned to do a number of major murals such as the 1949 wall mural and ceiling dome painting for the Memorial Chapel, Panteon Israelita, Cementerio Ashkenazi, in Mexico City. He also represented Mexico in the 1952 Carnegie International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting in Pittsburgh. In 1953, at the urging of his friend artist Rufino Tamayo, Fain moved to New York and began to connect with city galleries, having numerous exhibitions during the years. He also began teaching at the Brooklyn Museum, eventually moving on to teach at New York University and then Hofstra University. He also continued to be a prolific poet of Yiddish poetry , serving as the President of the Yiddish Pen Society, winning many awards, and authoring five books including Nyu-Yorker adresn: Dertseylungen in 1995, and Der Finftersman: lider (The Fifth Season Poems) in 2007.

Yonia Fain had a mission in all of his works, and that was to express through the power of imagery, both visual and written, the messages of survival and hope. His works focus upon the Holocaust, the despair, atrocities and brutality that still could not, and would not diminish hope and humanity. The Hofstra University Museum of Art has received magnificent gifts of art created by the artist between 1959 and his death. We honor his memory and contributions to our humanity and our society. His legacy will endure and his message will remain powerful, as he asks us always to Remember, remember, remember….

Detailed timeline of Yonia Fain's biography

Please click here to view selected works by Yonia Fain. 

In 2012, the Hofstra University Museum of Art mounted the exhibition Yonia Fain: Remembrance, an original retrospective exhibition that focused on the period of Fain's work dating from 1959 to 2012.

Visit the website for this past exhibition which includes photographs from the opening reception and a video interview with Fain.