The Story of Devotion in Pictures: Family Theme in Michael Rogatchi’s Art

 By Inna Rogatchi (C). 

First published: The Times of Israel, 27.07.2020. On the TOI site, the article can be read here

Devotion on Canvas: Long Way for Real Feelings 

The topic of a family theme in art is more intricate than it seems. Before photography, the immediate and primary function of it was clear: to leave those who could afford a family portrait for posterity. People posing were at unease, artists behind their easel most of the time were just earning their living. However masterly in detail Italian and especially Spanish portraits before the XVIII century are, they are largely impassioned, not to say indifferent.  

Before Rembrandt, portrait as a genre had produced a beautiful, memorable, in many cases stunning in their harmony images of people as it was the case with all great masters of the Renaissance, but the inner light and depth of ordinary people’s lived- through faces had been brought to us by that great master who did revolutionised art in general and who meant everything to practically all and every serious artist thereafter. To see the beauty in not beautiful, to be such a philosopher while being a great master of art craft, to bring such depth into the artistic perception and set it up as an artistic criteria, to be that human one had to be a giant. As Rembrandt certainly was and still will be forever. 

The XVIII century and the first half of the XIX centuries brought in engaging French portrait that did show a vivid interaction between a model and an artist , – and we are talking about family portrait here – with artists being an ultimate master in those relationships most of the time. After the appearance of photography, artists have become engaged more in self-analysis even while painting other people, as was the case with many German and French artists for almost another century, 80 years at least, until the end of 1930s. 

Perhaps, it was something inevitable, some special way in psychology of art that helped an artist to open up about him – or herself while painting the other people, in this case, their family members. Tens of portraits by Monet,  Manet, Renoir and many other their colleagues and friends made of their wives, girlfriends and children is proof of it. 

Until the end of the XIX century, classic family portraits were not that much about a family as such , but rather it manifested  about its separate members. 

From Impressionists onward, family portrait has become more about art approach, experiment, style, light, coloristic, all the nuances of applied art that was bursting into an living experiment at the period. 

Myriads of portraits of their family members mastered by the French Impressionists are more about themselves, with rare exceptions of Modigliani who did paint his wife with love and palpable human inter-connectivity, the portraits  of his family members by Giacometti who did not belong to Impressionists, and who did bring that family connection into his works. He did these portraits of his father, mother, brother precisely for keeping that family connection alive. It was like writing a poem about his home, for Giacometti. And it seems to be a surprisingly rare thing in the history of art.  

Probably, the most powerful from those rare works of devotion on canvas is Mother and Son, great work from the early Blue period of Picasso, the outstanding work of art of all times, indeed. 

Speaking on Jewish art, Chagall did immortalise his wife and the love of his life Bella and their daughter Ida in his great works, of course, but his artistic impulse in the case of Bella was to paint the essence of romantic love which is another theme. In the case of Ida, his approach was similar to the French Impressionists who were painting their family members as models quite so very often.

But there is also art that creates, maintains and develops the theme of a family, even today, in contemporary art and in its figurative domain. Because of a number of reasons –  fashion, priorities, changes of mainstreams and trends  – it turned out to not be an easy thing to do. Seemingly, it always was the case. But when succeeded, this kind of art serves in many ways.

I am lucky to know such a contemporary artist who still values the theme of a family very highly and who keeps  and develops the theme as dear for himself throughout his career.  It is Michael Rogatchi  –www.

Being privileged to observe the work of my husband artist from a close distance, I can see how the family theme has developed during his career. It turned out to be a case-study of the family theme development in the work of a contemporary master.

The Shield of Jewish Family

Among the oeuvre of Michael, there is a substantial amount  of works, mostly oil paintings, dedicated to his own and our extended family. 

It started from Lullaby, the portrait of his mother Maija-Mara Rogatchi-Reiss, created in 1994. Two Little Goats is an eternal Yiddish lullaby, and Michael did bring the goats on the canvas decades after his mother who was an aspiring and able singer used to sing it to him.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Lullaby. Homage to Maija-Mara Reiss-Rogatchi, the Artist’s Mother. Oil on canvas. 90 x 65. 1994. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

Her face of a strong-willed Jewish woman who was caring and protective for her son and who was extremely helpful for tens of people around them who knew that they can always come for help to this special woman and always get it. This woman’s ivory-like face also shows the never left reflections in her bottomless eyes. And there had been so many things that she kept reflecting upon during many years of her not that long life, keeping it all to herself, without bothering anyone around, never frightening or saddening her only son, but always protecting him from harsh realities and cold winds around them while teaching him to be strong and courageous.  

How to protect a baby born inside Gulag, the son of Stalin’s political prisoner and his devoted wife who went after him, lived nearby and was allowed to see him once a month? How to protect a baby born in the absolutely harsh place of Soviet Gulag known as Valley of Death? How to protect this boy in the unspeakably hard exile in Kazakhstan, with that extreme climate of plus 45C in summer and minus 45C in winter, in the reality when a human life cost almost nothing but human dignity was highest possible? How to present to his boy a regular meal of a rye bread with a bit of vegetable oil and an onion as a normal and even good dinner? This woman did manage all this in a marvellous way. She did it by the way of her great lullabies which were still heard in the head of her son decades later, but also by the way of warm family evenings of non-stop music from gramophone, classical and operas, reading the best literature aloud extensively, immersing her boy in etiquette and best manners, not forgetting about teaching him to help to the others, everyone who does need help, elderly, young, sick, poor. To be human. To be brave. To fight for things fair. 

Michael’s father was arrested by the NKVD in 1949 being very young, for his alleged belonging to the bourgeois ‘organisation’ ( there was none, arrested were several co-students from the first year in university) and initially sentenced to death which was later commuted into 10 years of Gulag. Thanks to Stalin’s death in 1953, he was eventually released from the camp, but instead of being free, he and his family , as millions of others Gulag’s prisoners in Soviet Union, were sent to exile to Kazakhstan where they lived surrounded by thousands of people with the same destiny. Henry Rogatchi, talented, good looking, joyful and very kind man, who contracted tuberculosis in the camp, died relatively soon, being just 39. His only son was brought by women mostly, his mother, grandmother and aunt. 

Not surprisingly, Michael’s other important works  on the family are dedicated to his grandmother, Sofia Litowsky-Reiss. That brave woman who used to be a member of Jabotinsky’s organisation in Ukraine and who being a mother of four children of her own has adopted two more orphans in the years of devastated famine in Ukraine,  also has lost her husband to the Stalin’s regime.  Shimon Reiss, brave and smart military engineer from Budapest who was ‘a white’ officer in the Austrian Imperial Army, fell in love with Michael’s grandmother  and settled with his family in Ukraine after WWI.  One morning in 1937, accomplished and widely respected engineer Reiss went to his work, never to return. He was eliminated by the NKVD on the spot, in the first wave of their purges that started from ‘cleansing’ of foreign nationals and ‘bourgeois enemies’ of their bloody Bolsheviks coup. There is just one very small photo of him left in the large family.

His wife Sofia who raised so many children of their own and adopted ones, was a person whose motivation in life was to help the others. Thus she voluntarily went to Kazakhstan to help her daughter to raise Michael. And his grandma was his fortress and his heaven. “When grandma took us under her wings, literally, my cousin Galja and myself, and sang us all Yiddish songs in her melodic and warm voice, the outside world ceased to exist. It could be a terrible freeze and snowstorm outside, but we knew nothing about it. We lived in the world of Yiddishkeit, and it was the most wondrous one in the universe” – Michael recalls. 

Michael’s first tribute to his brave grandmother is My Grandmother’s Songs work from his celebrated Jewish Melody series ( 2013).

Michael Rogatchi (C). My Grandmother’s Songs. Indian ink, oil pastel on hand-made Italian cotton dark-blue paper. 50 x 35 cm. 2013.

He has elaborated it further on as an oil painting for his Zion Waltz series ( 2016). In this work, the lines of Michael grandmother’s  caring face appears from the sky in gentle appearance on canvas.

Michael Rogatchi (C). My Grandmother’s Songs. Oil on canvas. 120 x 100 cm. Zion Waltz series. 2016.

Sofia’s biggest dream in life was to bring her family to Israel. Her entire family, she always emphasised it. Michael was quick to go, naturally. He packed his little suitcase very quickly, put it under his bed, and reported to his grandmother that he is ready to go. He was 12 at the time. It was the first time when in the 1960th the USSR did open the window for its Jews for Israel for a short time. 

Sofia Litowsky-Reiss was not able to fulfil her dream, however, because many members of her family were not allowed to leave the USSR. And she was unable to leave some of her children behind. She was the matriarch of the family and felt all responsibility for all its members. Michael’s packed suitcase however was kept by the boy intact for many months there under his bed. For the long time, he was hoping to reach Israel with his family, despite any hurdles. 

During the long dark cold evenings in Kazakhstan, his family got together quite often. Family dinners and gathering on the Shabbes, it was the time of the week that kept us together and filled us with joy. And our grandparents did keep our Jewish holidays, especially Pesach. 

On these days, in Michael’s family, his uncle Reuven Kotljar would play piano with a great talent, and Michael’s mother would sing with her strong and beautiful  voice, to the entire family’s rejoice. Reuven grew up in an orphanage. His and his twin brother’s parents were killed as ‘enemies of Soviet state’ by the NKVD when the boys were babies. By known tradition of Soviet humanists, children were separated and had no clue on each other’s existence. Reuven also never knew that he was Jewish until he became an adult and left the orphanage. Incredibly, meeting no single Jew in his early life, he spoke with the heaviest Yiddish accent possible. And he was a super-talented pianist, self-taught one. Reuven and his brother did find each other being married adults each. It was another Jewish miracle. 

Michael’s portrait of his uncle Reuven was not conceived as a direct portrait. Michael created the general portrait of a warm, kind and thoughtful Jewish man who saw a lot in his life. Only afterwards did he realise that he gave his Jewish man the face of his brilliant uncle Reuven. This portrait has a special quality: the eyes of this man follows you wherever your movement would be. It is the one of most critically acclaimed Michael’s works on Jewish heritage.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Light of Our Memory. Portrait of Jewish Man. Oil on canvas. 86 x 66 cm. 1998. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

The Way of Unity and Belonging 

Music was much more than music in the life of the Soviet Jewry. It was probably the only universal way for millions of Soviet Jews to feel and express their belonging to each other and to our  people. 

My father Isaac Buyanover, talented engineer, inventor and chess-player, has had congenital heart disease, as he was born in the midst of severe famine in Ukraine. He had to be careful at all time in his movements and everything he did. But he completely abandoned any precaution when hearing the first sounds of Freilach, Hava Nagila and any other Yiddish dance music. My father danced his heart out at family’s and friends’  gatherings. His giant love of Cohen to his people bursted out in his dances. Everybody loved him dancing, because everybody saw that love outpoured, unmistakably. 

Michael’s work Freilach ( 1995) is dedicated to my father and is about him. It is also about the essence of  Jewish belonging. I wish my dad who died so prematurely, would see the work. He would be endlessly grateful for such heart-felt understanding.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Freilach. Tribute to Isaac Buyanover. Oil on canvas. 77 x 94 cm. 1995. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

The work dedicated to the memory of my maternal grandparents, Abram  Elovich and Adel Chigrinsky is called Mirages ( 1995). 

My grandfather, high-ranking engineer,  paid his toll to Stalin’s regime, as well. He was arrested without any guilt at all, in the anti-Semitic purges in early 1950s, and was released a couple of years after Stalin’s death. As he returned home alive, the family regarded it as a great luck. My grandmother belonged to a well-known Jewish family that was closely related to Menachem Ussishkin,  and was a daughter of a legendary man, Meer Chigrinsky who saved a huge Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav/Dnepropetrovsk from that devastating famine in the 1930s, and the niece of another legend, great doctor, Falk Chigrinsky who saved very many sick of tuberculosis children’s lives during the Siege of Leningrad, to die from heart attack on May 9th, 1945.  More about it can be read here.

As practically all Jews in Soviet Ukraine, the family suffered many losses, many of them in the most tragic way and circumstances. My grandmother was unable to overcome it for the rest of her life, and the painting emphasises it.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Mirages. Tribute to Adel Chigrinsky and Abram Elovich. Oil on canvas. 66 x60 cm. 1995. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

As all Jewish European families, our both families, or our one extended family paid a terrible toll in the Shoah. Michael’s strong love to our grandparents and parents who both did suffer a lot being hunted, deprived, and mourning the lost members of the family every single day, materialised in his well-known My Train work ( 1993) from his In the Mirror of the Shoah collection. Being the work reflecting Holocaust in general, it is also profoundly auto-biographical account. Amazingly, every member of our extended family does recognise itself among the faces presented there.

Michael Rogatchi (C). My Train. In the Mirror of the Shoah. Oil on canvas. 70 x 60 cm. 1993.

I know that my Michael’s mother and aunt, and his grandmother who lost her daughter with her entire family in the Shoah, my grandfather and mother, who also lost her aunt with her entire family, and several other members of our family are there, additionally to that boy who will always look on the history of his extended family and the history of his entire people from that track which will not disappear in our hearts and minds ever. 

Embrace of Love and Sound of Caring

Michael always maintains that despite harsh objective circumstances of his life, his childhood was blessed and great one. Analysing the lives and attitude of our parents, we understand that it is because of their talent of heart and their stern will to give their children the best possible care, not to mention love which was immeasurable, our childhood was the most loving, protective, rich and fruitful one. That childhood created by our parents and grandparents naturally and effortlessly towards us, but with great overcoming towards the impossible circumstances of their lives, in the aftermath of Holocaust and WWII, under the Stalin’s siege and surreal Soviet realities, has made us opened to the other people’s needs, rooted in our people’s heritage and belonging to its history. It is the most essential source of one’s life. So there is no surprise, actually, that Michael has devoted so many works in his oeuvre to the theme of a family, both  his own one and in general, too. 

That Jewish family’s origination and caring love is depicted in several of his lyrical works.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Ljuli-Ljuli. Yiddish Lullaby. Indian ink, oil pastel on Italian hand-made dark-blue cotton paper. 35 x 50 cm. 2013.

Ljuli-Ljuli, after the name of yet another beautiful Yiddish lullaby exists in two versions, initially as original drawing from Michael’s Jewish Melody series ( 2013) , and later on in its developed version as an oil painting from his Zion Waltz series ( 2016).

People who were looking for an oil version at special vernissage in 2017, stopped next to the work for a very long time. Then one of the guests, formerly top politician of an international fame, said in an unusual, cracked voice: “Michael, we have just seen a real classic. This work will live a long life, and it will warm people’s hearts all over the world. Ever”. My joy was that it was the reaction of a non-Jewish person.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Ljuli-Ljuli. Yiddish Lullaby. 120 x 100 cm. 2016.

Most of  Jewish children have their hearts formed by their Jewish mother, and that’s why Yiddishe Mama song and the term are so universal in our midst.  Self-demanding  artist is always trying to avoid cliches, and so it took years for Michael to create that image of that love which we all know as Yiddishe Mama. He did it in 2018, and as I understand it, he did put into that work the essence of all Yiddishe Mamas in our extended family, from one generation to another.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Yiddish Mama. Oil on canvas. 66 x 60 cm. 2018. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

Some of his works on family theme are speaking about the very birth of one more Jewish family, including his own, as the two drawings related to our chuppah, Before Chuppah ( 2009) and Chuppah Memories ( 2017).

Michael Rogatchi (C). Before Chuppah. Sepia on pearl paper. 20 x 30 cm. 2009. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

To me, it is like Michael’s own niggun, just the one on canvas. He has many nigguns of his own, with some of them materialising as artworks. Every good niggun is good because it gets universal, with many people associating with it. I think and hope that it is the case with Michael’s nigguns on canvas, too.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Chuppah Memories. Pencil on cotton paper. 20 x 30 cm. 2017. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

He is known to international art critics as the master of rendering music in visual art in original and fine way.  Some of his works on music are actually his works on his  family theme, as Family Concert ( 2015) that was created for Divertimento series on classical music, but is staying apart of it precisely because its main theme is the family theme, actually.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Family Concert. Indian Ink, oil pastel on Italian hand-made yellow cotton paper. 50 x 35 cm. 2015. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

The number of the artworks of Michael dedicated to his extended family is 13 which is a gematria for word ahava in Hebrew, love. 

Silver Thread and Heart Cord

With Michael devoting so much of his effort to creating the consistent collection of the works depicting family theme throughout all his career, it is not coincidental that he also created several important works which are related not just to his own family, but are symbolic in to the theme  generally.   

Michael’s important work on the phenomenon of motherhood is The Next Year in Jerusalem ( 1995). The symbolism of this work is so universal in its message that it had been selected by the artist’s curators to be the part of many of his projects: his famous and unique Forefathers project of contemporary Biblical art, to his In the Mirror of Shoah series, as well as his Daily Miracles collection on Jewish heritage and  his Zion Waltz series on the Jewish universe. In a word, this work speaks on so many themes and ‘clicks’ to so many allusions, addresses so many sides of dramas of past and present , both Jewish and non-Jewish ones, that it is regarded as the one of the most widely reaching works of Michael, with a universal message of powerful humanism. Which is all true, and we are especially glad and grateful that this image of Jewish woman protecting and caring for her Jewish child is perceived as a symbol of motherhood in general.

Michael Rogatchi (C). The Next Year in Jerusalem. Oil on canvas. 66 x 60 cm. 1995.

Michael’s another well-known work, Yiddish Son ( 2011) is highly symbolic work speaking on Jewish childhood and boyhood. The work has a special history and provenance. It has been commissioned to Michael by the leadership of the Vilnius Jewish Public Library with the purpose to be the only oil painting in the premises. Being Litvak  on his maternal grandmother’s side, Michael took the commission close to his heart and has created one of the most lyrical of his works on Jewish heritage. The universally acclaimed work has been dedicated to Elie Wiesel ( who was an aspiring violinist and came to Auschwitz with his violin) after Elie’s passing away in 2016.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Yiddish Son. Dedicated to Memory of Elie Wiesel. Oil on canvas. 80 x 70 cm. 2011. Vilnius Jewish Public Library. Lithuania.

It is not coincidental for Michael’s vision as an artist that he analyses and portrays the biggest calamities and highest joy for our people through the prism of a family, symbolic one. 

It has happened in the one of the most powerful re-addressing Holocaust in contemporarily art, Michael’s Faces of Holocaust triptych ( 1991-1992). It is telling, to me, that it was absolutely important for Michael to address the Shoah since the very beginning of his artistic career. Faces of Holocaust is the one of the early Michael’s works. The symbolism of the incurable tragedy of  the Shoah conveyed here via the thorn images of three generations of a Jewish family. That boy, the artist himself, is a bearer of the pain of the generations of his parents and grandparents and acute remembrance of our people’s tragedy for good.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Faces of Holocaust. Triptych. Oil, Indian ink, burnt paper on a cardboard. 74 x 202 cm. 1991-1992. The Jewish Community of Dnepr, Ukraine.

And of course, it is important for Jewish artist Michael Rogatchi to show that the domain of joy and gladness lives and thrives in the domain of the family, as well. Not only lives but accelerates via its different generations, strengthens and spreads on. This is the message of another symbolic work on family theme by Michael, Kletzmerim ( Klezmer Players), 2016. There are three generations of the same family of Jewish musicians in this shining and engaging work, as Michael believes strongly in the strength of family in everything that a human being, and in this case, a Jewish person, endures.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Klezmerim ( The Kletzmer Players). Oil on canvas. 120 x 100 cm. 2016.

Family as Nucleus of Love 

In Michael’s understanding, “there is no family without love, and there is no Jewish family without devotion’. This is what we both are deeply grateful about to the Creator in the case of our both lovely, loving, living-does-not-matter-what families which created for us the universe of warmth, gentleness, loving care, caring endurance, joy and laughs, talent and depth, music and literature, arts and culture, books and more books, science and more science, and the strong feeling of belonging to our people, its heritage and its history. The silver thread and the heart cord. 

The one of Michael’s works on family theme is called Heart Talk ( 2015). It symbolises that beautiful unity when a man and a woman become the one and set up a family which is our first and  last home of all things good.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Heart Dance. Indian Ink, oil pastel on red hand-made Italian cotton paper. 50 x 35 cm. 2018. The Rogatchi Art Collection.

The number of these works of Michael on the symbolism in family theme is 5 which is a very good, strong and beautiful number corresponding to Joseph in Jewish tradition. Together with previous 13 works dedicated by Michael to his family, it produces 18, the magic and hopeful gemara in our tradition, standing for Chai, alive and living.

It is not without a reason that the new film about Michael, his life and career, to be released in 2021, is named Dream, Memory, Love ( Rogatchi Productions, 2021). 

Without a dream, there is no creativity. 

Without memory, there is no decency. 

Without love, there is no true artist. Especially Jewish one. 

More themes in Michael Rogatchi’s art can be seen at the artist’s site.

 (C) Inna Rogatchi