The term"Encaustic" means "painting with heat" and refers to
Ancient Art of painting with pigment suspended in wax.
Encaustic medium was lost througth the Middle Ages.
The most famous pictures of the ancincent art that have been captured till
are the Faiyum's portaits which were saved only due to using this unic
method by the ancient artist.
The Israeli Encoustic school appeared as a result of the researches of the
ancient art of Egypt, Greece and Rome, which were condacted during the last
the last 40 years by the Encaustic painter Boris Axelrod (AXL).
In Sankt-Peterburg AXL was known as a "monumental artist" through
the large mosaics he executed.His main works are:
"The Wall Oof Peace",sgraffito (300 sq.m.), Sankt-Peterburg.
"The Wall of Fire", mosaic from jasper pebbles (19 sq.m.), Krasnoyarsk.
"The Wall of Water", mosaic from jasper pebbles (20 sq.m.), Tuapse.
"Heaven on the Earth", floor mosaic from smalt (254sq.m),
in which all stars and histories which have been happening in the heavens,
were to belaid down in the Taurichesky Garden in center of Sankt-Peterburg.
AXL has been living and working in Israel (Tiberias) since 1982.
He is Kuskovski Israel Knesset's prize-winner,
proffesor of Latvian Lutheran Academia, Member of FoMRHI London Guildhall
University ,Old Axl Academia of Fine Art manager.
The recipies of the ancient paints which were reconstructed due to his
experiments allow to recreate with absolut exactness all the tints of the
ancient Encoustic painting.
AXL and his students create wonderful pictures wich combine modern views
and ancient traditions.
David Rapp mets Axl and his portraits and still lifes
By David Rapp
The people spilling out of a car
that stopped two months ago next to the shop at Tefen's Open Museum
were an unusual lot: a man who looked like a monk, in brown clothes,
with his hair pulled back and a well-trimmed black beard; a girl who
looked like a boy, sporting short hair and answering to the name of
Gerasim; and a little girl accompanied by her parents.
Heading the group was Axl, an old man with a thick white
beard. Each one of them carried several pictures. The owner of the
shop, Nurit Rothschild, had planned to hang works by Axl and some of
his students for a few days before the official opening of their
exhibition. But for the past week, she had been unable to reach
them, and was afraid that they had completely forgotten about the
planned show. An hour before the exhibition was scheduled to open -
just as she was trying to figure out how to compensate the invited
guests who were about to arrive for a show that didn't look like it
would take place - the car pulled up with the artists and the
Axl, who was born in Leningrad in 1928, is a
brilliant painter, and there are few people still alive who are
experts in the technique he uses - encaustic, paintings with hot
wax. Gerasim, who is 50 years younger than Axl, is also very adept
at the technique.
Axl does not often expose himself to the
public. Two years ago, he had a show in Riga, Latvia, and Rothschild
was the first in years to succeed in presenting an exhibition of his
astounding works in Israel. The show at Tefen closed a few weeks
Axl immigrated to Israel in 1982 and spent his first
three years here at the immigrant absorption center in Tiberias.
From there he moved to a two-and-a-half-room apartment in a tenement
building where he lives to this day. "Like a recluse, Axl lived in
his cave," says Axl, speaking in the third person, when he recalls
how sad his life was during his first few years in his apartment.
In the Soviet Union, where he completed his studies in art
at the Muchina institute in Leningrad, he was a well-known artist.
He received commissions for monumental works. Among other pieces, he
constructed mosaic works for the monitoring center of the Soviet
space center, as well as a large garden with a mosaic floor
featuring a map of the constellations. This partial creation, "The
Garden of Eden from Earth," was not completed before he left for
Israel and remains exhibited, unfinished, to this day in Leningrad.
Rumors of a strange artist who works using an ancient
technique of drawing with hot wax, the epitome of which can be found
in the portraits that were created thousands of years ago in the
Egyptian oasis of Fayum - has been going around the Galilee for
years. Hana Nisnevitch, a tourist guide who came to Israel from
Moscow in 1995 and lives in Tiberias, heard of Axl, but had a hard
time tracking him down. A few years ago, she was traveling in a
sherut - a group taxi - from Tel Aviv when she met a visitor from
the United States who had come to Israel to visit Axl. This is how
Nisnevitch made contact with Axl; since then she has served as his
link with the rest of the world.
In a meeting at his house
this week, Axl started the conversation with the sentence (in
perfect Hebrew) "My vocabulary in Hebrew is limited," which turned
out, indeed, to be true. First he passed out a printed sheet "with
all my basic information," including his background, but then he
talked for the next seven hours about episodes in his amazing life.
Axl's life, and the colorful
figures with whom he surrounds himself, would have made Bulgakov
blush. In Axl's apartment, for example, lives a young woman who has
decided to be a young man - calling herself Gerasim - and at the
same time to change her age. Gerasim doesn't talk much.
dressed as a monk, came to Israel from Sukhomi, in the Caucasus,
after working there for more than 20 years as a ceramist. In Israel,
he lived for a while in a monastery and today he lives in an
apartment a floor below Axl and sleeps on a simple mattress under
the portrait of the singer Vladimir Visotsky. D. isn't much of a
talker, either. During the day, he made two hot meals for anyone who
happened to be there and every so often brought a cup of green tea
with strawberries and bits of apple inside. Another student, Olga
Matusov, makes highly realistic, commissioned encaustic portraits of
Axl is a master of the kind one reads about in
books. He nurtures students, who vary in age, for a long time. For
most of his life, he has investigated the technique of encaustic, in
an attempt to recompose the formula used in the making of the
portraits of Fayum. In Roman times, some 600 portraits were painted
on wooden boards with this technique. The portraits were attached to
the caskets in which mummies were preserved, and depicted the upper
half of the body of the deceased in a lively, naturalistic fashion.
The face was depicted as the person looked when alive, with eyes
open and facing forward. The technique of encaustic is based on a
mixture of beeswax, resin and pigments, which produces a hard raw
material and is applied when hot. The precise formula used in
ancient times is not known.
The art that developed in Fayum
was based on Hellenistic traditions. In later centuries, local art
traditions began to have an impact too.
have been found in Pompei, and in the Christian world, they were
produced in Constantinople around the sixth century. Over the years,
several artists attempted to reconstruct the technique. In the 20th
century, the best known of these was American Jasper Johns, who
added colored hot wax to his works. The dead of Fayum are probably
rolling in their mummy cases at the very idea.
spending 40 years trying to revive the ancient technique, Axl
contends that he has succeeded in recomposing the formula. "The
first time I saw a Fayum drawing was in 1945," he says. "It totally
amazed me and changed my life. I couldn't understand how something
so old had been preserved so beautifully. A researcher into
encaustic died in 1960 from mercury poisoning while trying to
decipher the formula for mixing the wax and the color. I continued
from the point where he left off, without using poisonous metals."
While contemporary artists have occasionally incorporated
hot wax techniques in their work, Axl is virtually unique in his
focus on reviving the methods of the past and concentrating
exclusively on encaustic to paint still lifes and portraits. To date
he has also created three exact copies of portraits from Fayum.
From the window of his studio, which is off the kitchen, one
can see the Kinneret. The colored wax lies on the table in half
shells. At a high temperature, Axl mixes beeswax imported from
Greece, resin from the Damar tree, which comes from Egypt, and
natural pigments. The resulting liquid material he pours into the
shells, where it coagulates into the raw material for his work.
To paint on thin wooden boards, the wax must be heated. Axl
explains how the technique was practiced in ancient times: "While
the painting was being done, the raw material would heat in a metal
container on hissing embers of walnut wood. Two slaves would feed
the fire the whole time to keep the wax liquid, and the artist would
use an iron rod with an ivory handle in order to layer the hot color
onto the wood." An electric soldering iron serves as a more
efficient substitute today. "I would prefer to follow the ancient
method precisely, but it's hard to find slaves today."
Axl's apartment is full of
old books, yellowing prints of works of art, and the creations of
the artist and his students. The apartment has an air of want about
it. On the work table lies a small glass vase with flowers that Axl
has picked from a field near the building where he lives. A picture
that Gerasim made of the vase of flowers was on display at the
exhibit in Tefen. An amazing creation that Gerasim worked on for
several months depicts Axl's kitchen, full of baking pans and
equipment. On the kitchen wall are painted small Christmas trees,
marking each year since Jesus' birth. Each tree has a year written
under it; 1941, the year the Soviet Union entered World War II, is
represented by a charred tree.
When Axl was 10, he moved
with his mother, who was a doctor, from Leningrad to Mormansk, far
in the north of the country. An artist by the name of Mariya
Petrovna who lived with them treated Axl as if he were her grandson
and taught him to draw. "At the age of 11, I knew how to copy in
oils any picture I saw in a book," says Axl.
On a shelf in
Axl's apartment lies a small, tattered book with a dedication inside
from Petrovna from 1938. The book, titled "Frescoes, Monumental Art
and Encaustic," ignited Axl's imagination back then.
sent to a summer camp in the Crimea with children from all over the
country. He was there when the war broke out, and in the ensuing
chaos he experienced some of the most harrowing moments of his life.
At a big train station, he watched a German plane that swooped down
low and fired into an oil storage tank. The explosion killed
hundreds of people standing nearby. Axl approached the only survivor
of the incident. The severely injured boy asked for a "papirosi," a
rolled cigarette. "Since then, I've smoked," says Axl with a gloomy
smile. "And since then, Axl doesn't like it when people shoot in his
Axl exudes personal charm and wit. He unravels
the story of his life slowly, speaks about himself in the third
person, chooses his words carefully and considers with curiosity how
they translate into Hebrew. He expresses himself with irony,
sometimes with double entendres. Some of the more bizarre things he
says can be considered fables or metaphors.
Axl was sent
with a group of children to a village in Siberia as part of a
program to distance the civilian population from the front line.
Axl's mother crossed the battle zone and reached her only son in
Siberia within a few months, in order to take him back home to the
Axl continued to study drawing with Petrovna. "While
everyone dove for cover when the sirens sounded, Petrovna would put
on her evening gown, don her most precious jewels and sit at the
dining table as if nothing had happened," recalls Axl. "She refused
to let the war ruin her life. This is the sort of very special
atmosphere I grew up in. And I happened to be lucky that the war
ended a year before I would have been recruited."
At the age
of 18, Axl took off to Leningrad to pursue his studies and
specialized in mosaics. The head of the department at Muchina at the
time came back from Italy and had the precise plan for the mosaic in
the church of Ravenna. At a time when possessing Catholic icons in a
private home was considered a crime punishable by a prison term, the
school received a commission to make a copy of the mosaics of the
wall of Ravenna for the Soviet Administration Building in Moscow.
"A paradox," says Axl. "Russia. Paradox." The building,
dating back to before World War II, was built on the foundations of
Christ the Savior Cathedral that had previously stood at the site.
Its planned shape was that of a huge figure of Lenin. Axl and his
friends were recruited to make the mosaic, but in the end the plan
was shelved. The foundations of the megalomaniac building were
destroyed, and instead a large swimming pool was built; it was still
in operation at the time that Nisnevitch left Moscow in 1995. Today,
a reconstruction of the church that stood there until 1931 stands at
A white dove
Axl obtained another
degree in Leningrad and began getting commissions for large works
for the Soviet regime. He planned a wall that remains to this day on
a building in Leningrad, as well as City of the Future, a vacation
resort for Soviet youth groups in the Caucasus. In the early 1970s,
he was asked to go to the Gigant collective in central Russia to
prepare portraits of outstanding farmers who had exceeded their
production quotas for the year. He returned to Leningrad to carry
out the work. After 10 years of experimenting in his studio, he
decided to execute the portraits using the hot wax technique.
A few weeks later he returned to the collective, with the
portraits in hand. The works were put on display at the social
center for all the comrades to see. Then the head of the collective
declared that "the portraits of the comrades looked like Christian
icons." Axl grabbed his works and was forced to sleep in the nearby
town. "A white dove came close to the window and flew into the
room," he recalls. "I fed her some bread crumbs. She flew around in
circles and suddenly opened her mouth and told me not to worry. That
everything would get sorted out. While she was flying about, the
telephone rang. On the other end was the ideology secretary of the
Party in the area, who had heard about the incident and had decided
to help me."
The portraits of the farmers, perhaps the first
to be made using this technique for many of years, were eventually
exhibited in the local district social club, where they perhaps
remain to this day. But Axl's relationship with the establishment
In a picture from that period, Axl is wearing
long, wild hair. "One day, I was invited to a meeting at the office
of a senior political figure," he recalls. "There was a work I had
prepared on the table. The man kept staring from the portrait to me
and back again and eventually said: `Mr. Axl, if a wild horseman
from the Middle Ages were to come to a distinguished meeting of the
Party, how would the scene look, to your mind?' `The horseman would
remove his metal visor,' I answered him, `and would say:
Distinguished comrades, I see that in the hundreds of years that
have passed, you have achieved a number of things. But allow me to
tell you that you have also forgotten quite a lot. My works look
like icons to you. If you truly admire them, you can build a castle
around them, but you must make sure that it is at least as beautiful
as the church that stood here before.'"
The response to his
remark was not long in coming. In 1981, Axl was invited to a special
session of the artists' association. There, before all the members,
the head of the association read a letter. "Comrade Axl," it said,
"has developed in his studio a salon for the production of religious
works and propaganda. He has links with a mystic group centered in
France and his works are psychologically corrupting to youth." The
letter was signed by the head of the KGB.
Axl is amused when
he remembers the questions the head of the association posed to him
that day. "Is it true that you are involved in yoga? What did your
parents do? Where were you before 1917?" were among the questions he
was asked. "I stand on my head from time to time," Axl responded.
"My father was a professor in Moscow and my mother was a
pediatrician and I have a hard time remembering where I was before
1917 because I was born in 1928."
"Not a single person
smiled," recalls Axl. He was kicked out of the organization and
could not longer receive commissions from the government. A while
later, he was invited to the offices of the KGB. "The clerk at the
entrance asked me the purpose of my visit. I told him bitterly that
I had opened a salon for religious works in my studio and that I was
corrupting youth. He didn't even raise his head, only wrote down
what I said with indifference."
At the KGB, he was received
by highly motivated clerks. "They told me of their great admiration
for my state works and told me that they had been monitoring my
development for years," said Axl. "Eventually it was made clear to
me that with the delicate situation which had been created, the KGB
would not `react negatively' were I to feel a desire to emigrate to
"Across from my window in Leningrad was a
tall tower where a black bird would crow every morning. The tower
burned down, and the bird didn't come back. During the same period,
they painted the roof of the house I lived in red, and above all, I
was sick of hearing the national anthem," says Axl. "Suddenly I felt
a desire to emigrate. The Near East seemed nearer than the Far East,
and I decided to submit request to leave for Israel. The request
received a positive answer."
In Israel, Axl focused on works using encaustic. "The Soviet
Union was a big county and there I did monumental works. Israel is a
small country, and one has to make works with appropriate
The attractions of the ancient technique are
manifold. "I believe in creations that last longer than the lifetime
of a human being, for dozens of generations. When I work in a
technique that has existed from the distant past to the present, I
feel that I am living between times. The creations from Fayum
continue a tradition of a portrait of a man that hung in his home
all his life and was intended to preserve his soul after he died.
The creations of Fayum have succeeded in this. For thousands of
years, we have looked at them and seen the spirit of many people,
old and young, men and woman, some of them Greeks, some of the
Egyptians, some of them Jews. The lively varied population that
lived in Fayum."
One of Axl's portraits is of the organ
player Misha Mayski, who died in a car accident in Germany. Mayski
and his brother left the Soviet Union in the 1970s and immigrated to
Israel. On the wall is a picture of Mayski next to the organ he
played. "In Israel, there are also strange paradoxes, says Axl.
"They didn't want to let Mayski play the organ in a concert. They
said it was something that was associated with church." Once a year,
Axl goes to Tel Aviv with his portrait of Mayski to participate in a
memorial ceremony for his friend.
Axl avoids talking about
the secrets of his technique. He rises and demonstrates the
technical steps of carefully and patiently preparing the layers of
color on the wooden board. "The relationship among the materials
determine the texture that one can achieve, but the biggest secret
of all is patience. As my dear and wise friend Bach wrote in the
introduction to an exercise book that he composed: "Those who have
the patience to properly study what is written here, will be well
rewarded." I hope to reconstruct what is written in books - of
creations so realistic that birds tried to eat the grapes depicted
in them. Maybe I'll reach that myself, and if I don't, perhaps
Nisnevitch and her friend Oleg Rebalko have
created a foundation with Axl through which they hope to help him to
gain recognition in the art world in Israel and abroad. "I want
these paintings to be in museums in Israel," says Axl. "In Paris and
in Moscow there are a lot of paintings from Fayum. I am working on a
similar collection for here. Axl calls his house The Old Axl Academy
and students come to him daily to try their hand at putting colors
to wood. "I don't teach them a thing," says Axl. "I just present
them the technique and try to give them the golden key. Each one
must search alone for the lock. I studied mostly in the big
libraries in Leningrad. Around me were 12,484 years of civilization, and in a
certain sense, that's my age - 12,484. It's an age that doesn't
change over time."
He is quiet for a moment. "That's said
only half in jest, you know," he adds. Then he looks at his watch
and announces that he has to "go to the doctor." A 10-minute trip
brought us to the large villa decorated with a number of Axl's and
Gerasim's most sophisticated works. High above the old buildings of
Tiberias, in a sparkling neighborhood of villas, lives Axl's doctor.
In the dining room hangs a bright copy of the sixth century icon
found at Santa Catharina in Sinai. On the second floor, is a copy of
the icon of Maria of Vladimir from the 12th century, which today is
in Moscow. In the entrance to the house is a careful picture by
Gerasim of the peacock of Russian legends.
Back to his
neighborhood and Axl's apartment, the tea has already been set on
the table. Once a year, Maxim Vengerov, who lives in the United
States and is considered to be one of the best violinists in the
world, drops by the neighborhood for a visit. On the wall is a
violin that Axl refurbished; Gerasim plays it from time to time.
"Vengarov says that Gerasim has great talent," says Axl.
Among the rooms wanders Gerasim's black cat, Mumur. From
time to time, it rests on the table and looks with orange eyes at
the Kinneret. "It's important to look at the Kinneret every 15
minutes or so," says Axl. "One sees a new painting each