Simon Karczmar, who in the second half of his life returned to his real vocation – creating art – chose (or maybe simply felt an inner urge) to create naïve art. This is especially surprising knowing that in his early years he studied at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts and even at l‘Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Karczmar resumed his artistic career in 1959 at the age of 56, after developing an allergy to fur which prevented him from working any longer in the fur industry. His wife bought him some brushes and paint and he devoted his time to painting his childhood world in the shtetl of Juvenishki where he used to spend his summer holidays with his grandparents.

Karczmar read the nostalgic stories by Sholem Aleichem about Jewish life in small Lithuanian towns – shtetls – and inhabitants of the lost world came back to life in his drawings. The artist painted various figurative compositions, scenes from daily (water carrier’s work or a market day) and life-changing (weddings, funerals and religious festivities) events in rural life as if he had returned to his childhood and put aside his later life and studies. These scenes win the viewers over with their playfulness, spiritual meaningfulness, warm colours and open approach to the portrayed objects. Often the composition in a painting is framed with or includes a number of small shtetl houses visible in the background. The houses seemingly mark the sacral boundary defining the life of those who live in them: their joys and tragedies, festivities and yeshiva studies.

Simon Karczmar – a primitivist according to himself – has a perfect sense of the laws of composition: even though he ignores perspective, he is still capable of keeping the right proportions of objects or harmony between the figures that he portrays in his works of a chosen size. The life in a shtetl portrayed by the artist can become a perfect source of historical studies into Jewish customs, which reveals to us the life that existed in Juvenishki more than a 100 years ago. A similar open approach to the surrounding world is characteristic of the artist’s works portraying life in his new home – the artists’ colony in Safed, Israel, where he moved to in 1962. Only here a market place is not surrounded by small shtetl houses but by buildings of several storeys made of sandstone and the market stands are rife with ripe fruit.

Art researchers clearly differentiate between naïve and primitive art: naïve art is created by self-taught folk artists who have their own way to interpret the surrounding environment, and the primitivists are professional artists who consciously use primitive art forms to create art (in areas of avant-garde art). At the beginning of the 20th century the definition of primitive art lost its previous negative meaning and, on the contrary, became one of the prevailing engines of modern art. Still, Karczmar does not fit into either of the definitions: having opted for naïve art he fully reincarnates into the role of a folk artist and to a certain extent the images of a shtetl painted by himself become sacral art for him (and for many viewers who have connections with the lost world of shtetls). Art and memorial institutions in the USA, Mexico, Canada and Israel became really interested in the artwork by Karczmar and the artist held over 100 exhibitions at the Ramat Gan City Museum in Israel, Theodor Herzl Institute, Central Art Gallery and Murray and Greenfield gallery in New York, Klutznick Exhibition Hall in Washington, etc.

The professionalism of Karczmar as an artist is revealed in the series of his colour woodcuttings which boasts figures having clearly defined form, three colours are used and elements of composition are colligated. And even when looking at the figures of boys studying in the shtetl, including the usage of pastel colours to depict scenes from Juvenishki, the lambent yellow penetrating through the windows of a room, we can definitely feel the touch of a professional artist which gives life to the scenes of life in a shtetl recreated from his memory.

Ieva Šadzevičienė, art critic

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Each country has its own unique painters of everyday poetry, who, being self-taught artists-primitivists, are extremely sensitive, authentically reflecting the environment around them, the joys and worries of everyday life.

Americans are proud of the authenticity of Anna Mary Roberston Moses’ creative legacy, Sakartvelo – Niko Pirosmani’s urban ballads, Lithuania has Petronėlė Gerlikienė and Monika Bičiūnienė’s small and not so small primitive masterpieces.

Lithuania has more than just examples of Lithuanian primitive art; we may also be proud of the subtle chronicles painted by Simon Karczmar, who comes from Dieveniškės Shtetl. In them, the hardships and joys of the residents of the small town of Southeastern Lithuania – Dieveniškės, Dieveniškės shtetl – experienced a long time ago are explicitely depicted by the sensitively observant and a bit naive naive observer’s eyes and hand. The hardships and joys that we will no longer see and will no longer feel in today’s being. The culture of the shtetls has disappeared, the Litvaks have been lost in the whirlpool of history, and those who managed to survive are now far from their ancestral shtetls, from their homes…

Simon Karczmar (1903-1982) was born in Warsaw, but often spent his great childhood days in Dieveniškės, with his grandparents, his father’s parents. He studied art at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, then he also improved his skills in Paris. After actively participating in the French resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War, he disengaged in fine arts, only to return to painting and graphics after completing his professional career.

The life of Dieveniškės in the early twentieth century, what was it like? In the paintings of Simon Karczmar, we are greeted by an atmosphere full of joyful and sometimes melancholic klezmer orchestras, market square traders, Jewish wedding guests, brides and grooms, rabbis, yeshiva students, water carriers and craftsmen. The small town is sometimes enveloped in the night, covered in snow, but mostly the stunning sunlit streets with bustle of people who no longer exist. Their shapes, the memory of them meet us in simple and very sincere paintings which are like a rift in the clouds letting us glimpse into the lost everyday life of that time.

You are overhelmed by naivety, ignoring the laws of perspective, the varying proportions of figurines, and melancholy lyricism. You both smile and groan in your imagination hearing the bustle of the townspeople, the chariot wheels, klezmer melodies or cantor songs.

It is so precious Simon Karczmar has left us his painted chronicles, full of love, longing and important experiences that would not have been returned. It is so precious that Lithuania has been gifted with the artist, who has enriched our culture with the images of the revived Dieveniškės Shtetl.

Vaidilutė Brazauskaitė-Lupeikienė, art critic

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