Issachar Ber Ryback– a painter, a graphic, a sculptor, a scene painter, and an art critic. He was born on February 2, 1897 in Yelisavetgrad (now Kirovograd, Ukraine).
Though his father originated from a high-born Chassid family, he was a follower of Haskala and an admirer of the Russian culture, and tried to foster love of this culture in his children. Nevertheless, he sent his son to the "heder", though rather late, only at the age of 10, because due to his delayed development and unhealthiness Ryback lacked speech habits nearly till he was nine. He studied in the "heder" for slightly more than a year, dedicating most of his time to the evening drawing classes for workers attached to the local factory, which he attended in secret. At the age of 11 he entered the Yelisavetgrad courses for scene painters, and having completed the course, was working since 1909 in an artel (co-operative unit) that dealt with interior paintings of public and church buildings. The money he earned in the artel permitted him to become independent and continue his artistic education, despite his father's resistance. In 1911, Ryback was admitted to the Kiev School of Arts, Faculty of Painting, and graduated in 1916. At that period he became a member of the non-formal group created by the school Jewish painters that included, in particular, Boris Aronson, Alexander Tyshler, Solomon Nikritin, Mark Epstein, and Isaac Rabinovich, who later became the well-known artists. They all were consolidated by the idea of keen national self-identity and interest to various modernistic trends in art. Particular features of their world outlook were influenced, on the one hand, by the ideology of the so-called Kiev Group of Yiddish men of letters: David Bergelson, Nachman Mayzil, Yehezkiel Dobrushin, David Hofstein, etc., who were the theoreticians and the creators of the "modern" Jewish culture and literature. On the other hand, Ryback, similarly to the other, close-spirited young Jewish painters, established close links with Alexander Bogomazov and Alexandra Exter, who lived then in Kiev and were among the leading painters of the Russian avant-garde. In 1913-1914 Ryback attended classes in Exter's private studio. In 1915, at the Kiev Spring Exhibition, he for the first time presented his paintings, most of them being inspired by Jewish topics but in a modernistic style. In summer 1916, Ryback, together with El Lisitzky, was commissioned by the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society to travel all over Ukrainian and Byelorussian small towns (stetln) and copy the paintings in wooden synagogues and carved gravestones on the Jewish cemeteries. This trip awoke Ryback's interest in Jewish folk art and from that time on, he started regular collection and copying of the art samples. In spring 1917, Ryback participated in the Moscow Exhibition of Jewish painters and sculptors, and the critics assessed him as "one of the most brilliant and ingenious artists". The same year, Ryback participated in the launching of the Kiev Branch of the Jewish Society for the Fine Art Encouragement. In spring 1918, he became a founder of the Culture League Artistic Division. It was the organization established at that period in Ukraine for the development of new Jewish culture in Yiddish language. In 1918-1919, Ryback taught drawing and painting at the Kiev Jewish Children's Studio attached to the Artistic Division, designed a number of stamps for Jewish publishing houses and made artistic design of the Eygns, a literary almanac in Yiddish. Besides, he prepared scenery sketches and scale model for the pioneering production of the Culture League Theater Studio that have foreseen some of the Constructivist set design discoveries. In summer 1919, in the Baginen, the Kiev Yiddish-language magazine, in collaboration with Boris Aronson, Ryback published The Ways of Jewish Painting paper, which served as a peculiar manifesto of Jewish avant-garde art. The paper authors were of opinion that the art should represent the synthesis of the Jewish artistic tradition and the achievements of the European radical modernism. In conformity with the program stated, Ryback himself painted a number of works where Jewish symbols and folk art motifs were intertwined with the avant-garde techniques of image plotting. At the same period, he created a series of works dedicated to the Jewish pogroms in Ukraine – in one of such pogroms his father was murdered. In spring 1920, Ryback was one of the organizers and participants of the exhibition held by the Culture League Artistic Division in Kiev. Soon after the exhibition closing, in April, he relocated to Moscow, where he was living for about a year. Within that period he participated in the activities of the Circle of Jewish Writers and Painters, and collaborated with the Moscow Jewish Chamber Theater. In April 1921, Ryback left Russia and for a number of months, waiting for his entry visa for Berlin, resided in Kovno (now – Kaunas). There he designed a couple of books in Yiddish and worked at the Lithuanian Culture League institutions. In October he arrived in Berlin and began his active participation in the international and Jewish cultural life. In 1921-1924, Ryback was the Novembergruppe member and took part in its exhibitions; he also exhibited his works at the Berlin Sezession and Juryfreie Kunstshau exhibitions. In 1922, together with Yankel Adler and Henryck Berlevi, Ryback (as the representative of the Eastern European Jewish painters) participated in the preparation and conduct of the congress of the Union of Progressive International Artists (Dusseldorf, May 29-31, 1922). Jointly with other Jewish painters such as Nathan Altman and Joseph Chaikov, Ryback collaborated with Jewish writers in Berlin and participated in their cultural events. The same year he made artistic design of three books by Miriam Margolin – Fairy Tales for Small Children in Yiddish. In parallel, Ryback of that period was engaged in artistic criticism, publishing reviews of various exhibitions and papers on painters in German and Jewish newspapers. He also cooperated with German Jewish publishing houses and performed orders for artistic works from certain Jewish organizations, specifically ORT. In 1923, the Shvelln, a Berlin Jewish Publishing House, published Ryback's graphical album named Stetl. A year after, his Jewish Types of Ukraine lithographic album saw the light. These two graphic series were based on Ryback's impressions and recollections of his 1916 trip along the Ukrainian and Byelorussian stetln. From December 1923 until January 1924 he had his solo exhibition in Berlin, which revealed Ryback's achievements as the original interpreter of Cubism. In December 1924 he came back to Moscow as he was invited by the Jewish Studio of the Byelorussian Theater to make stage design of a theater play. Also, in early 1925 Ryback made stage design of the In bren and Purimspiel plays at the Ukrainian State Jewish theater of Kharkov. Soon after that, he undertook a prolonged trip along the Jewish kolkhozes of Ukraine and Crimea. The trip resulted in the At the Jewish Fields of Ukraine album, which was published in 1926 in Paris where Ryback finally relocated in early 1926. Immediately, he began to play an outstanding role in the artistic life of the French capital, which was evidenced by his two one-man exhibitions in the Galerie aux Quatre Chemins (1928) and in the Galerie L’Art Contemporain (1929). His painting style underwent changes in that period: Ryback passed from the Cubist stylistics to the Expressionist colorist painting a la Ėcole de Paris. He won recognition beyond the French borders as well. In 1930 his one-man show took place in the Hague, in 1931, in Rotterdam, in 1932, in Brussels and Antwerp. In 1932, a folder of etchings based on his Shadows of the Past drawings was published in Paris and its characters showed Ryback's permanent adherence to the Jewish theme. It was also witnessed by his ceramic sculptures created in his last years of life. His ceramic exposition was held in early 1935 in Musée National Céramique de Sèrves, and later the Museum purchased some of Ryback's sculptures for his collection. In February 1935, at the invitation of the Cambridge University Artistic Society, Ryback went to England to the opening of his exhibition. On his way to Cambridge he stopped in London, where a small exhibition of Ryback's works was open for the representatives of local Jewish public and culture at the house of Leah L.Gildesheim, a Jewish public figure. In April 1935, the exposition of his works was opened in Cambridge and was highly praised by the British art critics. In May 1935, Ryback returned to Paris, full of creative ideas that he did not succeed to realize. Due to dramatic worsening of his severe chronic disease he was forced to go to the hospital, where he spent the last months of his life. In fact, the dying painter's friends had enough time to hold the exhibition of his works in a Paris gallery. Ryback took part in the exhibition preparation even saying in hospital, but he was unable to appear at the opening. Soon after the exhibition closed, Ryback passed away, on December 22, 1935.
“Ryback Issakhar Ber”. – Zalmen Reyzen. Lexikon fun der yiddisher literatur, presse un filologie. Vol. 4. Vilne, Farlag fun B. Kletskin, 1929, pp. 316-320. (in Yiddish)
Raymond Cogniat. I. Ryback. Paris, Ėditions L’Amitié Française, 1934.
Karl Schwarz. Jewish Artists of the 19h and 20h Centuries. New York, 1949, pp. 203-207.
Chil Aronson. Scénes et visages de Montparnasse. Paris, 1963, pp. 244-249. (in Yiddish)
Mané-Katz – Issachar Ryback: Connections. Mané-Katz Museum, Spring 1993. Haifa, 1993.
Nadine Nieszawer, Marie Boyē, Paul Fogel. Peintres Juifs à Paris. 1905-1939. École de Paris. Paris, 2000, pp. 296-297.