Cathryn J. Prince
The chronicles of Russia’s groundbreaking modern art movement began far beyond the borders of its capital.
“In a little town in today’s Belarus, far away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the history of art was written,” said Angela Lampe, curator of modern art for the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris.
The little town was Vitebsk, the location of Marc Chagall’s passion project, The People’s Art School.
It’s a little-known chapter that is finally getting its due in “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922” at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan, Lampe said.
Aside from Chagall, the newly opened exhibit focuses on El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, two leading exponents of the Russian avant-garde, whom Chagall invited to teach at the school. Together the trio developed a “Leftist Art” in step with the revolutionary emphasis on collectivism, education, and innovation.
It all began in 1918 when Chagall was named Commissar of Arts for the Vitebsk region. A year later, on January 28, 1919, the People’s Art School was inaugurated.
Open to everyone, free of charge, and with no age restrictions, the school perfectly embodied the Bolshevik ideals of the Russian Revolution. It also embodied Chagall’s dream to help young residents of Vitebsk — especially Jews of modest means — gain access to art education.
Chagall, who only received full Russian citizenship in 1917 after passage of a law abolishing all discrimination on the basis of religion or nationality, relished his role as commissioner.
“In this exhibit you see another Chagall. You see the political engagement, the political commitment to the Russian Revolution by Chagall. He was quite aware that a new society needs new art,” Lampe said.
Lampe curated the exhibit in collaboration with Claudia Nahson, the Morris and Eva Feld Curator for the Jewish Museum.
Chagall’s dedication to the ideals of the Russian Revolution comes through in paintings such as his 1918 “Onward, Onward” and the banners and signs he and David Yakerson created to commemorate the first anniversary of the October Revolution.
Indeed, when speaking about the school in 1918, Chagall said, “We offer and impose our ideas, our forms — the forms and ideas of the new revolutionary art; we have the courage to think that the future is with us.”
But the story of Vitebsk and its radical new art school goes beyond the idea of bringing art to the masses. It’s also about the encounter of Chagall with Lissitzky and Malevich, Lampe said.
“To see two approaches in art come together in this very short period is very special. There is the poetic art of Chagall and the impersonal art of Lissitzky and Malevich,” she said.
Trained as an architect, Lissitzky taught printing, graphic design and architecture at the school. Malevich, considered a leader of the abstract movement, founded Suprematism, which uses simple geometric forms painted in a limited range of colors.
Malevich also founded Unovis with a group of like-minded students and teachers. The movement’s name is an acronym for “Affirmers of the New Art.” Its members sewed black squares onto their jacket sleeves or lapels and got to work designing posters, magazines, banners, ration cards, stage sets, and tramcars. Colored squares and circles popped up all over the small city — a reflection of its slogan, “The streets are our palettes.”
That the works of Lissitzky and Malevich are being exhibited is particularly exciting for Nahson.
“Malevich’s work has never been shown here before. It is a remarkable chance to show his work, which is at the heart of this time period,” Nahson said.
The exhibit, which is divided into five sections, runs through January 16, 2019. It features 120 works and documents loaned by museums in Vitebsk, Minsk, and major American and European collections.
The section called “Post-Revolutionary Fervor in Vitebsk,” shows how the Russian Revolution affected the artists. Here hangs Chagall’s 1917 “Double Portrait with Wine Glass,” in which his smiling bride Bella carries her grinning groom upon her shoulders. Under a glass case visitors can see Lissitzky’s 1919 “Had Gadya Suite.” The lithographs, in bold reds and blues, greens and blacks transform the story into a metaphor for the Bolshevik Revolution.
Here too is Yakerson’s “Red Guards.” Painted in 1918, the watercolor shows faceless soldiers marching with robotic precision. His 1918 “Panel with the Figure of a Worker” seems to foreshadow the colossal statues that would come to dominate Soviet Russia.
The works of teachers and students are showcased in the section “The People’s Art School.” Initially 120 youths attended, mostly Jewish boys from working-class families. However, class photos show girls as well.
One student was Lazar Khidekel who was just 14 years old when Marc Chagall invited him to enroll in the school. This section features three of his works, painted when he was 16. A follower of Malevich, the young Jewish artist rendered the city into angles and planes.
However, it is in the section “The New Art’: Lissitzky and Malevich” that visitors get a deeper understanding of Lissitzky and Malevich’s impact on the school.
On the walls hang rarely seen paintings by Malevich, who was already leaving painting behind and focusing on theoretical writings. Also on display are several of Lissitzky’s “Proun” paintings and drawings. An acronym for “Project for the Affirmation of the New,” this large body of work combined elements of architecture with painting.
“When this small city, with a very significant Jewish population, opened an art school for everyone it ushered in a passionate and feverish time,” Nahson said.
But like all fevers, it eventually ended.
Chagall, who had dreamed of developing a revolutionary art independent of style or dogma, left Vitebsk in 1920 for Moscow to work for the Jewish theater.
In 1922 Malevich left the school for what is now St. Petersburg with several of his students. While continuing to develop his ideas on Suprematism, he also started designing porcelain tableware. Lissitzky moved to Berlin where he further developed his “Prouns.”
By the end of the civil war in 1922 the Soviet authorities started cracking down on the ideological and social order. Any artistic movement deemed contradictory to the Bolshevik party’s interests was banned.
And so in May 1922 the first class to graduate from the Vitebsk school of art was also the last.
Still, for a brief time, “Everything came together in Vitebsk,” said Lampe. “Art had become a part of the society. It was a unique fusion between time and space.”