I first realized that my father was sexist in the 1990’s, after reading Camille Paglia. Having graduated college an American college, I was already well-aware of sexism in the arts, I just didn’t connect it to my family. After all, family was family and sexism was sexism. Camille Paglia, however, she brought it all home.
She made the point that passion makes great art and objectification of the female body is a creative norm. I enthusiastically agreed with that, though it makes little sense in connection to my family. We treat everyone with the respect they deserve.
My dad, Viktor Rapoport, was born in Kharkov, USSR, in 1937, the youngest of two children. His older brother was minimally successful under the Soviet regime writer who worked under the pseudonym Alexander Golemba. He published numerous translations — barring other writing options, translations were bread and butter of Soviet authors — and a biography of Antonio Gramsci. His life’s accomplishment, poetry inspired by the early twentieth century Silver Age, circulated only in samizdat during his lifetime — and not for the lack of demand.
My dad was far less successful in writing. He completed several plays, one of which ran several seasons in Kharkov Youth Theater as well as other musical theaters in the USSR from Kiev to Khabarovsk. Directors were interested in his other works, but got stalled in the opaque Soviet bureaucracy of culture. Then in the early 80’s he went on a construction assignment.
Like many other creative figures of the time, my dad was an engineer by profession. Engineering was what bright Soviet youths did in the post-Stalin days when they lacked connections to be admitted to prestigious schools. Plus, military faculties of select technical colleges offered military engineering track as an alternative to conscription.
My dad was supervising construction of a new high rise when he took home a small wooden block intended for the parquet floor. He carved a cartoonish face out of it using a simple pocket knife, and put a leather shoe lace through it for my mom to wear. Then he made a few more pendants and in no time moved into making wooden frames for clocks.
One frame had the likeness of lion-like Albert Einstein with e=mc2 carved next to it. Another — a reclining grandee with the Russian saying “any labor kills time”. My dad’s flare for the dramatic and the humorous were refined in his playwriting days.
Next he carved a handheld mirror with the face of a self-satisfied she-devil on the back, and that opened the door to strange new fantasies. He found his calling in making ornate wooden mirror frames populated by whimsical characters. Among them are jokers, monkeys, parrots, fuming pipes, and well-endowed naked ladies — hence the sexism I discovered in my 20’s.
The ladies weren’t as sexualized as they were presented as archetypal participants in a baroque masquerade — ship maidenheads blown by the wind, coils of tobacco smoke forming women’s torsos. My dad is an admirer of baroque art and design. He is always open to many influences. Over the years, he amassed a vast library of books on baroque sculpture, folk arts — he was especially interested in the Japanese netsuke — and kitsch.
His radically animated wooden fantasies appealed to the people stacked into ubiquitous Soviet apartment blocks of the type he, being a civil engineer, was tasked with building. In the waning decades of the Soviet empire, its inhabitants, raised in the shadow of Stalinism and war, were longing for beauty and meaning and my dad’s work hit that sweet spot.
His vision was alien to the demands of socialist realism. There was nothing Marxist about his art, and if some artists managed to squeak by the demands of censorship by doing some kind of slice of life, my father went full-on with hilarious opulence. He couldn’t pass the khudsovet to display his work publicly.
In his circle, everyone loved it. What Russian underground asked for is aesthetic language wholly divorced from the official discourse. Alexander Golemba’s collected poetry, published decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, was titled “I Am a Man of the Minnesang Era,” meaning the Germanic courtly love poetry of the High Middle Ages.
The poet Joseph Brodsky, the future Nobel Prize laureate exiled to the United States, talked about existing вне, literally “outside” the official dogma. The idea was not to confront Soviet ideology head on, but to create a culture that exists on its own merit. Well-educated and dissident-minded, people in these circles read Solzhenitsyn and listened to foreign radio, but theirs wasn’t a political project.
In Everything Was Forever until It Was No More, anthropologist Alexei Yurchak described the vast underground scene in the city then called Leningrad dedicated to living вне. Large Russian-speaking Soviet cities, including Kharkov, had subcultures of the same ethos. My dad’s work — everyday objects with ancient flare, foreign influences and the feel for extraordinary — fit nicely into that search for an aesthetic alternative to the all-encompassing socialist dogma. My parents’ generation had an approach to life that was heterodox and resilient.
Unfortunately for my father, whimsical furniture pieces can’t be circulated in samizdat. He became, as the saying went, “widely known in narrow circles,” but that was it.
Right before the breakup of the USSR, we emigrated to the United States, and new life brought new inspiration. He carved an homage to totem poles — a whale’s fin with two women whose legs twisted into a spiral on both sides. I suppose it’s sexist. Also cultural appropriation. We were oblivious to the former, and the latter was not as big of a deal in the 90’s. That frame is my favorite of all of his work.
In the U.S., my dad designed a few pieces of furniture — a sideboard shaped as an armored aircraft carrier among them — but he was too old to start out in a foreign land. Then he was diagnosed with familiar tremor, a progressive hereditary condition that causes benign shakes. Interestingly, it usually starts in the mid-40’s, but my dad wasn’t diagnosed until much later when it was already severe. Most likely his hands started shaking around the time he picked up woodcarving, and he persisted with it despite it.
I have now developed familial tremor myself, and although it’s still mild, it’s definitely annoying and takes minor adjustments. Once my dad’s condition progressed, he was unable to keep up his artistic pursuits. He worked with a replicator, and a few times hired craftsmen to complete his designs, but that was it.
Most artists slow down eventually. But my father was still full of enthusiasm and new ideas weeks before his death. He was looking at his old plays just to see if they can be revised and made more contemporary. His greatest gift to humanity are mirrors framed by wild flights of imagination.
He passed away on November 9, 2023 at 86.DONATE
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