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Chagall in Dialogue with the Russian Avant-Garde

These essays originally appeared in Chagall et l'avant-garde Russe, edited by Angela Lampe, and published by the Centre Pompidou. The complete French catalogue is available for purchase at shopAGO.

Transated by: Wyley Powell

When Wassily Kandinsky turned 60 years old on December 4, 1926, he received the following letter from Marc Chagall:

“Dear Vassily Vassilievich, it is with joy and pleasure (emotions I rarely experience outside the homeland) that I send you my greetings, for you are one of a handful of Russians who have gained their artistic freedom and are taking advantage of it even from afar. At the present time, you are the only Russian artist who is thoroughly respected and loved. Live your life and pursue your work: you belong to that category of people for whom the age of sixty is really just three times twenty.

Cordial greetings to your wife.

Devotedly yours, M. Chagall”1

This seemingly banal congratulatory letter, part of the Kandinsky Archives that were bequeathed to the Centre Pompidou by the artist’s widow in 1981, is interesting on two accounts. In the first place, it reveals a personal bond between two artists who, in spite of a similar journey – they began their careers in Western Europe, returned to Russia, held positions in art education following the October Revolution, isolated themselves from the new movements and trends, and eventually emigrated – were never particularly close.

Their works nevertheless adorned the same gallery walls. In 1918, Herwarth Walden mounted a joint Chagall-Kandinsky exhibition, in the absence of the artists, at his Berlin gallery Der Sturm, supplementing it with sculptures by William Wauer.2 The following year, both artists were co-participants – along with Malevich, Exter, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and others – in the First National Exhibition of Paintings by Local and Moscow Artists at the Borokhov Club in Vitebsk. In spite of these encounters, however, the two Russians kept their distance from each other. The explanation for Chagall’s sending this warm birthday letter may lie in the fact that he was a member of the Bauhaus Circle of Friends, a support committee established in 1924 in the wake of budget cuts imposed by the City of Weimar.3

There is also another reason why this letter is surprising. Within these few lines, Chagall twice links the master of Bauhaus, who was on the verge of becoming a German citizen, to his national roots in Russia. Such insistence would appear to rule out a perfunctory stock expression of congratulations for the occasion. What mattered for Chagall was the fact that the great Kandinsky was his compatriot, and the result was an ambiguous letter containing compliments that can be read as a bitter acknowledgement of his own situation as an émigré. The only way in which Chagall could construct and define himself was in terms of his origins, writing in 1936 with great clarity: “Although the world views me as an ‘international’ [artist] and the French consider me to be one of their own, I think of myself as a Russian artist and take pleasure in doing so.”4

A number of studies have examined the links that Chagall maintained with the arts and literature, and his reflections on the country of his birth. The first such study was Jean-Claude Marcadé’s initial analysis, published in 1984.5 This same author also focused more specifically on the relationship between Chagall and the Russian avant-garde.6 These comparisons did not, however, have any effect on how the exhibitions were conceived and, much like the major travelling exhibition of the mid-1990s titled Marc Chagall: The Russian Years, 1907–1922, they were limited exclusively to Chagall’s work.

It is true that a few of his paintings have occasionally been included in such collective events as the Maeght Foundation’s La Russie et les avant-gardes7 (Russia and the Avant-Gardes) in 2003, or the 2005 project in Brussels entitled Russian Avant-Garde: 1900–1935.”8 Nevertheless, this modest presence did not result in a revealing dialogue among the various protagonists. In general, the exhibitions devoted to Chagall have emphasized the singularity of his genius, which followed no rules other than those of its own poetic necessity.

However, it would be difficult to deny the fact that Chagall did fit into the context of contemporary creation – at least until his final departure from Russia in 1922. The child of Vitebsk was not an artist living in his isolation from his peers. His paintings kept company with the neo-primitive works of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, who were proclaiming an authentic new Russian art as early as 1907. In Paris, his neighbours at the La Ruche studio were Ossip Zadkine, Alexander Archipenko and Jacques Lipchitz – Russian artists who, like Chagall, were seeking to assimilate the latest French trends. As director of the Vitebsk People’s Art College from 1919 to 1920, Chagall also came face to face with Ivan Puni, El Lissitzky and the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, all proponents of a new non-objective type of art that was the polar opposite of Chagall’s figurative painting. With the advent of the Constructivist movement, which called for utilitarian art for the community, Chagall turned to stage art. These diverse areas of art were rich in contacts and encounters that left their mark on him in varying degrees – sometimes in a positive sense and sometimes with his back turned away from the current trends.

During an interview in 1973 with Russian historian Alexander Kamenski, Chagall himself stated: “It would be strange to have the works I painted in Russia exhibited next to those of European painters. Instead, they should find their place in museums dedicated to early 20th-century Russian art.”9 Thanks to the rich collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, we can now exhibit Chagall side by side with his compatriots and, for the first time, present this fertile dialogue that the painter had wished for. This groundbreaking project originated in the outstanding Chagall collection, which was acquired through the generosity of the artist and his heirs and came directly from his studio.

Among the first significant gifts made to the Musée National d’Art Moderne when it opened in 1947 was the magnificent Double Portrait with Wine Glass (1917–1918), which would later be enhanced by the famous Chagall by Chagall pieces. These works remained in the artist’s possession until his death in 1985 and became part of the collections three years later through a gift to the French State. Alongside nearly 500 drawings and gouaches are forty-five major paintings which include such major works as The Dead Man (1908), which Chagall’s biographer Franz Meyer characterizes as the “first summit” of his work; Studio (1910), which reveals the influence of Matisse and was probably one of the first paintings that Chagall completed after arriving in Paris in May 1911; and, most notably, The Wedding (1911–1912), a remarkable fusion between the poetic universe of the shtetl and the formal inventions that grew out of Cubism. Nor should we forget the second version of The Cattle Dealer (1922–1923), which Chagall painted to replace the 1912 version that he left behind in Berlin following his departure for Russia in 1914.

His theme – the world of the peasantry – reveals an affinity with the neo-primitive paintings of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, which drew on popular “imagery” to create a new so-called “leftist” vernacular art. In 1995, the French public had an opportunity to discover the scope of the collections of these two artists housed at the Musée National d’Art Moderne.10 Following its first acquisitions of the 1930s and the post-war period, the museum built its collections primarily through a major donation from the Soviet Union in 1988 following the death of Larionov’s widow, Alexandra Tomilina-Larionov.

Today it includes nearly 340 works in various media by Goncharova and approximately 80 works by Larionov. A few of these, such as Goncharova’s Still Life with Lobster, Woodcutters and Harvest series, and Larionov’s Soldier’s Head, all of which were featured in the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) exhibitions, came from Kandinsky’s personal collection and entered the museum through Nina Kandinsky’s exceptional bequest in 1981. Together with Malevich’s solemn Study of a Peasant, presented in 1912 in the second Blaue Reiter exhibition at the Hans Goltz Kunsthandlung in Munich, this collection provides an illustration of the close bonds and community of spirit that existed just prior to the Great War between the Russian avant-garde and Munich Expressionism.

Kandinsky’s Improvisation III, one of his major early paintings, was exhibited next to works by David Burliuk, Larionov and Goncharova at the Izdebski Salon in Odessa in 1910–1911. Their common sources of inspiration were the popular arts, notably the famous lubki – wood engravings sold in Russian markets – or small icons such as those which Kandinsky was fond of collecting and keeping in his studio. His archive included a good ten or more of these objects and folk prints.

Chagall maintained fairly close contact with this neo-primitive universe that came into being during his training years in St. Petersburg, as can be seen in his chromatic expressiveness, his terse stylistic effects and his reverse perspectives. However, he distanced himself from it as soon as the movement evolved in the direction of abstract art. Initially, a certain parallel was established as Cubism was being assimilated both by the Russian émigré artists in Paris and by the Cubo-Futurist painters in Russia. Besides Chagall, the first Paris School is quite well represented in the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, notably by the works of sculptor Jacques Lipchitz – thanks to a generous donation from the Jacques and Yulla Lipchitz Foundation in 197611 – and by the representative sculpture ensembles of Ossip Zadkine and Alexander Archipenko. This juxtaposition of two methods employed by Russian artists to appropriate the Cubist idiom for themselves came to an end with Larionov’s invention of Rayonism in 1912. From that point on, Russian avant-garde art would merge with abstraction.

When Chagall returned to Russia in 1914, he arrived in a country where The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10, the original manifestation of Suprematism, was mounted in Petrograd the following year. Kseniya Boguslavskaya, the widow of Ivan Puni (known in France as Jean Pougny), made a gift to the French State in 1966 of 53 of her husband’s works. Such generosity made it possible for the Musée National d’Art Moderne to present a group of works that appeared in the legendary exhibition organized by Puni and Boguslavskaya: the pictorial relief The White Ball, the illogical painting The Hairdresser and three abstract reliefs reflecting Tatlin’s research.

This ensemble was crowned by Malevich’s masterpiece (Black) Cross, which, as shown by the only existing photograph taken at the 0.10 exhibition, hung on the wall to the right of the first Black Square on a White Background, which was positioned like an icon in the upper right corner of the room. This historic painting became part of the collections in 1980 thanks to a gift from the Scaler Foundation and the Georges Pompidou Art and Culture Foundation.12

It is unlikely that Chagall attended the Petrograd exhibition. Following his arrival in Vitebsk, he married Bella Rosenfeld and began painting what he would call “documents” – some fifty or so canvases of people around him, of his conjugal life, family, neighbours and hometown, using an almost naturalist style.13 Moreover, these works represent a surprising parallel with a certain number of figurative pieces painted by Kandinsky, also after his return to Russia. It wasn’t until 1917, the year of the Revolution, that Chagall would be caught up in a new creative impulse, an impulse that can be seen in a series of major paintings – Double Portrait with Wine Glass, Cemetery Gates and the magnificent drawings Forward, Forward and Chaga. After becoming a free citizen, the Jewish artist entered politics and became the arts commissar for the Vitebsk region in August 1918.

In Moscow, Kandinsky was appointed to various revolutionary committees involved in art education and museum administration. During these heady times, though his pictorial production decreased, he created the masterpiece In the Grey, which he would later come to see as the end of the “dramatic period” that had begun in Munich.14

For his part, Chagall received authorization to establish the Vitebsk People’s Art College (it would change names a number of times15), which he opened on January 28, 1919. He fully subscribed to the idea that the avant-garde was a driving force in the new society and sought to bring all of the artistic trends together irrespective of their aesthetic qualities. Puni was asked to be in charge of graphic propaganda while his wife was responsible for the applied arts. But the couple left the school six months after it opened.

El Lissitzky, a close friend of Chagall’s for many years, arrived that summer and would direct the department of architecture and graphic art. It was he who extended an invitation to the charismatic Malevich, and as soon as Malevich arrived in November 1919 he stole the limelight from Chagall, transforming his school into the headquarters for Suprematism and UNOVIS (a movement of the champions and founders of what is new in art). Chagall’s figurative painting no longer seemed aligned with the demands of this new revolutionary era. Disillusioned, he left his hometown for Moscow.

There is a surprising painting in the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, atypical of Chagall, which seems to be a commentary on this troubled period in Vitebsk – Cubist Landscape. By inserting his signature several times and in various languages, as well as a small figurative scene – a man (Chagall himself?) strolling with a green umbrella in front of the white building of the Vitebsk People’s Art College – he imbued this composition, characterized by fragmentation and marshmallow-toned surfaces, with an aspect of parody. There is even the suggestion of a settling of scores with the advocates of non-objectivity who, in December 1919, transformed the building of the Vitebsk Committee for the Struggle against Unemployment, known as the White Barracks, into an enormous Suprematist painting.

Chagall, with his impish and mischievous wit, played with abstract motifs from Cubism or Suprematism in his figurative narrations. He juggled with these codes in the way an acrobat would have done – and indeed the acrobat happened to be one of the themes he so enjoyed painting. This playful way of appropriating new trends for his own purposes became evident in his projects for the new National Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow. Between 1920 and 1922, Chagall designed a whole series of stage sets and costumes; many of these came into the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne through the 1988 donation.

It is probably because of his involvement with the theatre that connections can be established between Chagall and the collective ideals of the emerging new Constructivism even though his pictorial work was different, both esthetically and formally. The museum’s collections bring together a group of interesting works, in a variety of media, revolving around this movement. The multidisciplinary exhibition Paris-Moscow 1900–1930, with its groundbreaking presentation of 2,500 works and documents in 1979, was particularly beneficial in establishing this collection. Thanks to this exhibition, we have reconstructions of such emblematic works as the famous Model of the Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin and the Workers’ Club produced by Alexander Rodchenko for the 1925 Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.

This exceptional event, which would be presented in Moscow in 1981 at the Pushkin Museum, was the result of a close collaboration with the Soviet partners. It also created a favourable climate for gift solicitation and laid the groundwork for subsequent acquisitions and bequests, thanks to the contacts established during the long years of preparation. In particular, this exhibition reinforced the ties with Alexandra Tomilina-Larionov and Nina Kandinsky, who would later agree to make a number of extraordinary bequests and donations.16 The Malevich collection also comes to mind, enriched in spectacular fashion in 1978 through an anonymous gift that included two late paintings and, of particular interest, 800 plaster elements, which enabled the reconstruction of five “Architectons.” The family of Alexander Rodchenko also donated a number of photographs to the Museum in 1981.

This collection of Russian avant-garde works has never been exhibited in its entirety – perhaps because of a genuine fear that it would not be possible to present it as a meaningful whole. Indeed there are gaps in the collection; for example, missing are works by Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova and the Burliuk Brothers, paintings by Alexandra Exter, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Tatlin and Ivan Klioune, as well as architectural models and films. The challenge we faced in this exhibition was to put forth a cross-cultural perspective of this collection while juxtaposing it with the works of Chagall at various significant times to show both the similarities and differences between him and his compatriots. With this groundbreaking dialogue, we hope to not only present Chagall’s works in a new light but also to reveal the high quality of this collection in all of its richness and variety.

  1. Handwritten letter from Marc Chagall to Wassily Kandinsky, November 15, 1926, Boulogne, Wassily Kandinsky Collection, Russian Correspondence, R 30, Kandinsky Library.
    « Дорогой Василий Васильевич, Радостно, удовольствие (столь редкое вне первой родины) приветствовать мне Вас. Вас, редкого русского овладевшего свободой в искусстве и пользующагося ею даже вдали. Вы единственный русский художник которого сегодня уважаешь и любишь до конца. Живите и рaботайте : Вы из тех кому не 60 лет а три раза по 20. Сердечный привет жене. Ваш преданный М. Шагалл »
    My thanks to Olga Makhroff and Marina Lewisch for the translation.
  2. The exhibition Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, William Wauer included 38 paintings by Chagall, 28 by Kandinsky and 7 sculptures by Wauer.
  3. Other members of this circle included Albert Einstein, Oskar Kokoschka and Arnold Schoenberg. We should also point out that the fourth portfolio of the Bauhaus Italienische und russische Künstler editions (1922) included a Chagall engraving titled Self-Portrait with Woman.
  4. Letter from Marc Chagall to Pavel Ettinger, October 1936, published in English in Benjamin Harshav’s Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 451.
  5. Jean-Claude Marcadé, “Le contexte russe de l’oeuvre de Chagall,” in Chagall, 1984, pp. 18–25.
  6. Jean-Claude Marcadé, “Chagall et l’avant-garde russe,” in Chagall, 1995a, pp. 47–51, and also “Quelques aspects des liens de Chagall avec le monde russien,” Chagall connu et inconnu, Paris, RMN, 2003, pp. 57–61. For his relationship with Malevich, see Alexandra Schatskich’s “Chagall und Malevich in Witebsk,” in Chagall, 1991b, pp. 62–65.
  7. See La Russie et les Avant-gardes, Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, 2003.
  8. See Evguénia Pétrova and Jean-Claude Marcadé (ed.), La Russie à l’avant-garde: 1900–1935, Brussels, Palais des beaux-arts, Europalia International / Éditions Fonds Mercator, 2005. Chagall is represented by a single work, The Red Jew, painted in 1915, in a section entitled “L’art figuratif.”
  9. Alexander Kamenski, 1988, p. 365.
  10. See Boissel, 1995.
  11. See Brigitte Léal (ed.), Jacques Lipchitz dans les collections du Centre Pompidou–Musée national d’art moderne et du Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy, Paris, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2004.
  12. See Martin, 1980.
  13. Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, Paris, Flammarion, 1995, p. 107.
  14. See Christian Derouet’s analysis, pp. 118–119.
  15. See Shatskikh, 2001, p. 27.
  16. See Germain Viatte, “Sur la constitution du fonds Larionov-Goncharova,” in Boissel, 1995, op. cit., p. 8.

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