22.12.1889, Vinnytsia – 12.12.1970, Leningrad
Painter, graphic artist, stage designer and sculptor
Left without parents, Altman lived with his grandmother in Vinnytsia. He studied at Odessa Art College. As a Jew, he was deprived of the chance to continue his education in the capital, so left for Paris, where in one year he became established as a painter. Returning to Russia in 1912, as part of the Kultur-Lige – a movement for the development of culture in the Yiddish language – he actively participated both as an artist and organiser in the rebirth of a national Jewish culture. He did a series of drawings entitled ‘Jewish Graphics’ (1914), which blend Cubism and Jewish folk art – from the decoration of manuscripts, fabric and ritual candlesticks, to carvings on memorial headstones. However, his interest in ethnic art proved short-lived: for Altman it was more a tribute to the romantic spirit of the times, rather than an organic part of his being, as it was, say, for Chagall. In 1914 he created one of his best-known works, his Portrait of Anna Akhmatova.
Altman took part in the exhibitions World of Art, Union of Youth (member of the society since 1916), Jack of Diamonds (1916) and 0.10. In 1916 he did the designs for the Miracle of St Anthony at the Comedians’ Halt cabaret, was labelled President of the Globe by the poet Velimir Khlebnikov, and was involved in the work of the Jewish Society for the Furthering of the Arts.
After the revolution he became actively involved in creating a new revolutionary culture, designing drawings for agitprop porcelain, making sculpture portraits of Lunacharsky and Lenin, and also teaching.
In painting he was influenced by Suprematism. In 1918 he designed a mass performance by the director Nikolai Evreinov, to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution. In 1921 he moved to Moscow and became director of the Art Culture Museum. In 1922 with David Shterenberg and Marc Chagall he took part in the Exhibition of Three organised by the Kultur-Lige.
In 1921 he designed the production of Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe at the Moscow Circus, and in 1922, Uriel Acosta; and also S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, at Habima State Jewish Theatre. The play, directed by Yevgeny Vakhtangov, was a triumph and ran for 40 years. After the theatre’s European tour in 1926–1930 it was declared one of the outstanding theatrical events of the 20th century. In 1925 Altman was art director for the film Jewish Luck. In 1928, having gone on tour to Europe with the State Jewish Theatre, he remained in Paris.
On returning to the USSR in 1935, he settled in Leningrad. Together with the director Grigori Kozintsev, he did the designs for Verdi’s opera Otello and, in 1954, for Hamlet at the Leningrad Drama Theatre. In 1955 he was art director for the film Don Quixote. His first exhibition of his own work was in Leningrad in 1969, then in Moscow.
He was made Honoured Artist of the Russian Federation in 1968. f.b.