Chagall The Revolutionary
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Chagall The Revolutionary

Exhibit on his short-lived People’s Art School in Vitebsk suggests a rethinking of his work.

Diane Cole, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week, is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and writes for The Wall Street Journal, NPR online and other publications.

Chagall’s “Over Vitebsk” ©Artist Rights Society (ARS)
Chagall’s “Over Vitebsk” ©Artist Rights Society (ARS)

The Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) made famous the steeples and rooftops of his native Vitebsk, along with the ebullient lovers, fiddlers and peddlers who dreamily floated over them. But for a brief period following the Russian Revolution, he also tried to make his city a hub for revolutionary art, with his newly founded People’s Art School at its center. How that dream played out — inspiring new modes of artistic expression, yet also fueling ideological disputes — is the subject of the new exhibit “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922,” which opens Sept. 14 at The Jewish Museum. 

It’s a compelling story of art, politics and revolutionary fervor, told through stunning canvases by Chagall, alongside striking works by less-familiar Russian artists such as El Lissitzky (1890-1941) and Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), among others. A number of the nearly 160 works on display are on loan from museums in Vitebsk and Minsk and have seldom, if ever, been seen in the United States before. “People will be most familiar with Chagall, but when you see his work in relation to the other artists you start to rethink and see his work in-depth,” Jewish Museum curator Claudia J. Nahson told The Jewish Week. She collaborated on the New York presentation of the exhibit with its organizer, Angela Lampe, curator of Modern Art, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, where the show initially appeared earlier this year. 

David Yakerson’s sketch for “Panel with the Figure of a Worker.” Vitebsk Regional Museum of Local History

There is also an important Jewish aspect to the story. In the wake of the 1917 Revolution, new laws abolished discrimination based on religion or nationality, thus giving Jews full Russian citizenship for the first time. Chagall had returned to Russia from Paris just prior to the outbreak of World War I, and, now an official citizen, he was soon appointed commissar of arts of his native city of Vitebsk (today part of Belarus), an area that was then home to a large Jewish population. In his new role, Chagall worked with another Jewish artist, David Yakerson (1896-1947), to design colorful banners and signs, seen all over the city (with several of the surviving sketches on display here), to celebrate the first anniversary of the October Revolution. Chagall also developed the idea of creating the People’s Art School, which officially opened on Jan. 28, 1919. Chagall quickly enlisted well-known artists as teachers and attracted approximately 120 students, mostly Jewish and mostly poor, for the tuition-free course of study.

The UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art) collective became the People’s Art School’s dominant contingent. Courtesy Lazar Khidekel Family Archives and Art Collection

Chagall’s work already reflected his own distinctive mix of figurative as well as modernist elements and was imbued with his particular lyricism. That eclectic sensibility can be seen in the paintings on display here, including his euphoric “Double Portrait with Wine Glass,” painted shortly after his marriage to Bella. In keeping with his own mélange of styles, the artists he invited to teach at the school represented the full gamut of artistic styles, from the realistic to the abstract. Among the instructors was Chagall’s own teacher from Vitebsk, Yuri (Yehuda) Pen (1854-1937), known for his scenes of traditional Jewish village life. Pen is represented here by a reflective self-portrait set against the painting-covered walls of his studio, and a brightly colored portrait of a jaunty-looking Marc Chagall.

Kazmir Malevich’s “Suprematism of the Spirit.” Stedelijk Museum Collection

Lissitzky, another student of Pen, had been working as an illustrator of Jewish books when he accepted Chagall’s request to join the staff.  He had recently completed his inventive series of lithographs illustrating in the Passover song “Had Gadya” (Tale of a Little Goat), on view here alongside the increasingly abstract geometric compositions he created in Vitebsk. He used the acronym Proun (the Russian translates as “project for the affirmation of the new”) for his Cubist-inflected works. One painting on display here memorializes the German communist Rosa Luxemburg, who was assassinated in 1919, in an abstract composition in red (for revolution) and black (for death). 

This shift reflected Lissitzky’s attraction to the ideas of the Polish-born Kazimir Malevich, who had already developed his own abstract art movement, Suprematism, which sought to distill pure feeling by completely eliminating any representational or figurative elements. His works on display here feature stark, geometric forms seemingly hanging in empty space. One of the strongest examples is his painting “Suprematism of the Spirit,” which depicts what Malevich called “a crucified square,” a white square imposed on an Orthodox cross. 

At Lissitzky’s invitation, the charismatic and outspoken Malevich joined the Vitebsk school staff in November 1919. Within months Malevich had not only recruited most of the students to his classes but had also won them and the other teachers over to his aesthetic views. Together they formed a collective called UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art), which soon became the school’s dominant contingent. 

El Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.” Library of Congress

As Malevich’s influence grew, Chagall’s classes attracted ever fewer students. Chagall had envisioned a revolutionary art open to all artistic styles, but at the school there increasingly seemed to be only room for abstraction and the outgrowths of Suprematism. In his painting “Cubist Landscape,” Chagall slyly comments on the arguments between the different factions that had developed within the school, said Nahson. An array of colorful geometrical shapes nearly crowds out the tiny representational image at the center; it depicts the Vitebsk school building, with a single figure of a man walking by, his umbrella open as if to shield himself from a storm. 

In June 1920, Chagall left the school he had founded and began working for the State Jewish Chamber Theater in Moscow. The Vitebsk school struggled on for another two years, even as governmental authorities began to assert their own views about how to incorporate communist values into art. Finally, with no more funding for the school forthcoming, it closed in 1922. Malevich, Lissitzky, and the other teachers left Vitebsk to pursue their individual careers elsewhere. 

Chagall’s “Cubist Landscape” (1919), where geometric shapes nearly crowd out the representational image of the Vitebsk art school building at the center. ©Artist Rights Society (ARS)

“There’s a dramatic dimension to the story because it takes place over a very short period,” said Pompidou curator Lampe. “The artists shared the same goal in wanting to create a revolutionary art, but they didn’t have the same idea of how to achieve it.” Yet, she said, the encounter resulted in art that remains “very attractive and seductive.”

“Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922,” which opens this week, runs through Jan. 6, 2019 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd Street, thejewishmuseum.org.

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