Artwork of Shtetl Houses by Avrom Yanovsky (Canada, 1911-1979)
Avrom Yanovsky was born in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, in 1911, and came to Canada at the age of two with his widowed mother, her parents and his infant brother. They settled in Winnipeg, where Avrom attended the I.L Peretz Shule. His 1925 graduating class included the late Nechama Gemeril, who later became his wife. The school provided an excellent grounding in the Yiddish classics and revolutionary politics, which stayed with Avrom throughout his life. His mother, a seamstress, and an active Bundist in the old country, became a Labour Zionist and emigrated to Palestine with Avrom’s brother in 1931.
From the excellent program notes by the curator of a 2005 exhibit, Anna Hudson, “All [cartoons] are animated by a cast of easily recognizable characters: the moneybag, the banker, the capitalist, and the politician—with his police or military side-kick. [Avrom] saved the leading role for the worker: an idealized representation of Labour, who endured the endless greed and buffoonery of capital and political power. We can laugh at the tragedy of economic inequity because Avrom speaks to us personally to remind us of our humanity, our common ground, and our collective strength What is so surprising about his political cartoons is how relevant the messages remain. We continue to be tightly bound by oil cartels who determine price and availability …. “
In the various works one can recognize the faces of some very well-known politicians and newsworthy figures of their day – John Diefenbaker, Ernest Bevin, Pierre Trudeau, Moshe Dayan, Richard Nixon, Adolph Hitler, etc Their recognition, of course, adds to the appreciation of Avrom’s works because they relate to specific events, yet they are still generically relevant to those less aware of the specific historical issues of the times when they were created.
One can relive history from a uniquely progressive perspective. Avrom’s art was profound, often direct and biting without being morose. Viewing his works, one instantly discerns the humanity and compassion—or contempt—that Avrom had for the subjects or topics of his cartoons. His inimitable sense of humour often peers through. His works include original ink drawings, newspaper clippings, and even Avrom’s faint blue corrections and notes to editors.
The cartoon used to advertise the 2005 exhibit was a “framed painting” captioned “UNCLE SAM and ANTICANADIAN.” The two figures in the frame are clasping hands around an upright sword (really an ICBM—Intercontinental Ballistic Missile). Uncle Sam is one side, and, on the other side, a buxom lass in an army helmet and wearing ICBM earrings. The face beneath the army helmet is that of then-Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, identifiable by his trademark bow tie. It was Pearson’s Liberal government which agreed to join the U.S. in creating NORAD (North American Radar Air Defence), the Cold War missile-launching organization on Canadian soil which still exists today.
In a cautionary cartoon, a glued newspaper clipping reports on a Quebec faction of the Social Credit Party recruiting young men between the ages of 12 to 25 (as did Hitler’s Nazis). The cartoon depicts the ghost of death (represented by a skeleton in a robe inscribed to represent “6,000,000 SLAUGHTERED JEWS”); the ghost hovers over the bed of a sleeping civilian (whose headboard is captioned “ ‘It can’t happen here’ attitude”) and shouts out, “REMEMBER, AMERICAN AND CANADIAN JEWS—WE WOKE UP TOO LATE!”
Another cartoon depicts an Israeli (representing Israel), hanging from a scaffold emblazoned “IRAQ”, which is firmly planted in an oil barrel captioned “OIL ROYALTIES,” as a worker yells “YOU CAN STOP THIS!” to representations of Britain (the Tower of London) and the U.S. (Washington’s Capitol building), both of whom are covering their eyes.
There is also a cartoon of the postwar British Labour government’s Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin (who viewed Jews as enemies and “blockaded” the entry of European Jews into then-British Mandate-controlled Palestine); he smiles broadly at the reader, and the teeth in his mouth spell “ANTI-SEMITE.”
Avrom’s work appeared in a myriad of English and Yiddish left-wing publications through the international World News Services—in the U.S. in T h eW o r k e r, T h eM a s s e s, Y u n g v a r g (Youngsters—a Yiddish children’s magazine), and in Canada, in The Canadian Tribune, V o k h n b l a t ( C a n a d i a n Jewish Weekly—Yiddish forerunner of Outlook ), New Front i e r s ,a cultural magazine, and, of course, Outlook !
Avrom, a Jew, a Communist, an artist, a worker, devoted to his family, and a “m e n t s h ,” is beloved by generations of former children of Toronto’s Morris Winchevsky School and Camp Naivelt. They fondly recall the “chalk talks” which he gave at meetings and conventions. Recalling the news from the morning paper, he speedily sketched, an often humorous play on words, or biting indictment or portrayal of a reactionary public personality or socio-political issue at hand. At children’s events he asked youngsters to “come up and make a mark or scribble” on the pad, and with only a moment of contemplation, turned it into another brilliant cartoon on a relevant subject.
He was head of many progressive artists’ organizations and collectives, designing and building scenery for progressive theatrical productions.If his sketchbook was not nearby he drew on anything handy. His drawings, cartoons, and hundreds of his quick sketches fill the apartment of his second wife, Anna (chair of the Toronto O u t l o o k collective), who holds the copyright to all his works.
(This text excerpted from Article by David Abramowitz, Outlook Magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2006.)