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Return to Russia: Chagall and Vitebsk (1914–1920)

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

Following a highly productive stay in Paris from 1911 to 1914, Chagall returned to Russia when World War I broke out, remaining there for eight years until 1922. During this period, his home city of Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, played a key role in his life and work. It was there, in July 1915, that he married Bella Rosenfeld, who came from a middle-class Vitebsk family, and it was there also that his daughter Ida was born three years later. This was a happy period – even an exhilarating one – and in 1914–15, Vitebsk became a favourite subject for Chagall, as evidenced by the series of watercolours in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, the works on paper Shop in Vitebsk (St. Petersburg Museum, National Russian Museum) and Barber Shop (Tretyakov Gallery), the eight Above Vitebsk works (St. Petersburg, private collection), View from Window (Tretyakov Gallery), House in Liozno, The Clock (The Time), and the famous Above the Town (Tretyakov Gallery) and Newspaper Seller.

Sixty-two works created in Vitebsk were exhibited in April 1916 at the Artistic Bureau of Nadezhda Dobychina in St. Petersburg, followed by 45 works in November at the Jack of Diamonds in Moscow under the title Works from the Series Executed in Russia (Vitebsk 1914–1915).1 Malevich presented 59 works at this exhibition under the title Suprematism of Painting. This was very likely the first “contact” between Chagall and Malevich.

Following the October Revolution, Chagall and Bella settled in Vitebsk. The city and its surroundings, together with its inhabitants and the artist’s family, formed the subjects of paintings that are now famous: The Cemetery (1917), The Cemetery Gates (1917), Double Portrait with Wine Glass (1917–1918) and The Promenade (National Russian Museum).

On September 12, 1918, Chagall was appointed to serve as the Commissar of Plastic Arts for Vitebsk, a position aimed at developing the city’s artistic life. His mandate was to “organize art schools, museums, exhibitions, courses and lectures on art and any other artistic undertaking within the city limits of Vitebsk and the entire Province of Vitebsk.”2 To mark the one-year anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7, 1918, Chagall worked on embellishing all of Vitebsk “with 450 large posters, flags, grandstands and arches.”3 A youth team was brought into service and Chagall himself made propaganda posters which Alexander Romm, his painter friend and art critic, described in these terms: “His posters were magnificent, perfectly matching everything that was needed on the street: strange, shocking, radiant with colours. They bespoke a refinement of thought and taste, similar to what is found in the great paintings executed in the leftist (i.e., avant-garde) style.”4 Examples of this work are the watercolours War on Palaces and Horseman with Trumpet (Tretyakov Gallery).

This activity in the field of urban design was the root of the future Vitebsk People’s Art College (Narodnoy Khudozhestvennoye Uchilische), which Chagall founded in 1918. The following year was spent setting up community studios for the production of paintings, sculptures, signs and posters. Not only were “artists of the people” recruited; Chagall also planned to bring in teachers from Moscow and Petrograd, following the model of the Free Studios (Svomas) that had been created in Petrograd on September 5, 1918, to replace the old art schools and academies throughout the former Russian Empire. No longer subject to the previous bureaucratic rules, these studios encouraged students to set out on the road to experimentation.

The Vitebsk People’s Art College officially opened on January 28, 1919, with representation of every movement, from the “itinerant” realism of the Vitebsk painter Yehuda Pen, who had trained Chagall and Lissitzky in the very early part of the century, to the Suprematism of Malevich, who arrived in the Belarusian city in November of that year. By April 1919, Chagall had taken over from Mstislav Dobujinski, an eminent representative of the St. Petersburg journal World of Art (Mir Iskousstva) and a former drawing teacher at the Elizaveta Zvantseva School of Art in St. Petersburg, where Chagall himself had studied in 1909. Other teachers included Kseniya Boguslavskaya (applied arts) and her husband Ivan Puni (a.k.a. Jean Pougny) (painting), Alexander Romm (art history), Vera Yermolayeva (painting), Nikolai Radlov and El Lissitzky (graphic arts) and Ivan Tilberg (sculpture). The January 21, 1919, edition of the Vitebsky Newsletter (Vitebskiy listok) published the school program: “1) theoretical study of contemporary leftist art methods; 2) composition of drawings for the applied arts: wallpaper, embroidery, bookbinding, wood painting; 3) practical courses.”5

Nearly 200 students would attend the Vitebsk People’s Art College. Chagall put all of his energies into this undertaking, producing numerous articles, debates and lectures.6 In a “Letter from Vitebsk” published in the Art of the Commune (Iskousstvo Kommouny), the Futurist communist newspaper, he emphasized the upheavals that had occurred: “The City of Vitebsk has changed. This used to be a provincial ‘backwater’ of some one hundred thousand inhabitants where, not long ago, Yuri Klever (an academic landscape painter) could be seen rotting away and where itinerant art ended its pathetic existence. And, thanks to the October Revolution, it was here that revolutionary art with its colossal and multiple dimensions was set into motion.”7

Chagall thought of himself as a “leftist” artist – in other words, an artist of the avant-garde. In a 1919 article entitled “Revolution in Art,” he rose up against art for art’s sake, but at the same time asserted that “proletarian art” did not consist of depicting the lives of workers and peasants. “Proletarian art will be the form of art which, with wise simplicity, will manage to make the break, both inwardly and outwardly, with what we can only call literature.”8 The legend that Chagall and Malevich were personal enemies, and that Malevich attributed intrigues to Chagall in a bid to oust him does not stand up to scrutiny now that the facts are fairly well known. The peaceful coexistence of the various aesthetic trends can be observed in the photograph of 1919–1920, where one can see all of the teachers side by side, as well as in the formal agreements signed by Chagall and Malevich.9 In April 1920, Chagall informed art critic Pavel Ettinger that there were two groups: “1) The young people around Malevich and 2) the young people around me. Both of us are making our way to the circle of leftist art, doing so in the very same way but viewing the objectives and means of this art in a different manner.”10

In September 1919, before Malevich arrived, a dispute had already broken out between Chagall and the members of the College, including some who were his friends. He reported on this in his memoirs with some bitterness.11 On several occasions he contemplated leaving Vitebsk because of the bureaucratic harassments and additional shortages. The fall of 1919 brought with it the First National Exhibition of Paintings by Local and Moscow Artists. Featuring an exhibition catalogue with a preface by Alexander Romm, the 41 participating artists included the leading avant-garde players – Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodchenko, Alexandra Exter, inter alia – as well as Chagall and his students (Wechsler, Zevin, Kunin, Lissitzky, Tsiperson, Yudovin). In 1915, Malevich had founded Suprematism, a new form of art that relinquished all references to the visible and carnal world; his authority was immediately acknowledged. No aesthetic, picturology or poetics could possibly have stood in greater contrast to Chagall’s world, which represented a Hasidic hymn to everything he created.

The young artists of Vitebsk were attracted to Malevich’s total commitment and inspired words, as reported by the famous poetologist, historian and art philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his oral memoirs12, and by his messianic and prophetic way of speaking. These young people turned away from Chagall and towards the UNOVIS (a movement of the champions and founders of what is new in art), created very early in 1920 as the “party of economic Suprematists in art.”13 On May 23, 1920, all of Chagall’s students went over to Malevich’s studio. Chagall officially resigned in June, and that fall he was already in Moscow producing stage sets and costumes for three short plays by Sholem Aleichem that were being presented at Alexei Granovsky’s Jewish Chamber Theatre.

Chagall would never return to Vitebsk. All the same, we can assert that this city would never abandon him and would continue to haunt his creations until the end of his life. There could be no better way of summarizing its recurring presence in Chagall’s enormous œuvre than by rereading his poem “You Have Filled My Hands.” Here is the first verse:

“I am your son on earth walking with difficulty you have filled my hands with colours and brushes I know not how to paint you.” 14

  1. See G.G. Pospiélov, Boubnovyi valiet. Primitiv i gorodskoï folklor v moskovskoï jivopissi 1910-kh godov (Jack of Diamonds: Primitive and Urban Folklore in Moscow Painting in the 1910s). (Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik, 1990), 266–267.
  2. The agreement, housed in the Vitebsk Regional Archives, was signed by art critic Nikolai Punin, who was head of the IZO (Plastic Arts Section) of the NarKomPros (People’s Education Commission) at the time.
  3. Marc Chagall, “Pis’mo iz Vitebska” (“Letter from Vitebsk”), Iskousstvo kommouny (Art of the Commune), no. 3 (December 22, 1918), 2.
  4. Quoted by Aleksandra Shatskikh, “Raznyïé roli Marka Chagalla iz vospominaniï Alexandra Romma” (“Marc Chagall’s Various Roles Based on the Memoirs of Alexander Romm”), Niézavissimaya gaziéta (Independent Gazette) (December 30, 1992).
  5. Quoted by Claire Le Foll, L’École artistique de Vitebsk (1897–1923). Éveil et rayonnement autour de Pen, Chagall et Malévitch (The Vitebsk Art School, 1897–1923: The Influence around Pen, Chagall and Malevich) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002), 107.
  6. Ibid., p. 106; in Russian: Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebsk. Jizn’ iskousstva. 1917–1922 (Vitebsk: The Life of Art: 1917–1922) (Moscow, 2001).
  7. “Letter from Vitebsk,” op. cit.
  8. Quoted in Le Foll, op. cit., 256.
  9. See I.A. Vakar, T.N. Mikhnienko, Malevich. Malevich o sebié. Sovremmienniki o Malévitché. Pis’ma. Dokoumenty. Vospominaniya. Kritika (Malevich: Malevich in His Own Words. Malevich As Seen by His Contemporaries. Letters. Documents. Memoirs. Criticism) (Moscow: “RA,” 2004), vol. 1, p. 442 – “Report on the Activity of the Vitebsk People’s Art College during the Months of February and March 1920,” jointly signed by Chagall and Malevich on March 20, 1920.
  10. Letter from Chagall to Pavel Ettinger, April 2, 1920.
  11. Marc Chagall, My Life (1922) (Paris: Stock, 1993), 199–200, 205–206.
  12. M.M. Bakhtin, Biésiédy s N.D. Douvakinem (Conversations with N.D. Duvakinem) (Moscow: Soglassiyé, 2002), 154–159.
  13. For details, see Valabrègue 1994, 156.
  14. Chagall, Poetry (Geneva: Gérald Cramer, 1968).

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