Angela Lampe, ed. Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922. London: Prestel Publishing, 2018. Illustrations. 285 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-7913-5807-9.
Reviewed by Victor Martinovich (European Humanities University)
Published on H-SHERA (March, 2019)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)
This edited volume is dedicated to the avant-garde in Vitebsk, which lasted for only four years, from 1918 (when Marc Chagall received a position as “the commissar of fine arts” in Vitebsk) until 1922 (when Kazimir Malevich left the town). These four years have been researched, reflected on, and reconstructed from many possible angles. The number of books and articles on the Vitebsk years of Chagall, Lazar “El” Lissitzky, and Malevich in English, French, and Russian is enormous, and it appears that we know exactly what the teachers of the People’s Art School did every hour of every day of the year 1919. At the same time, no new documents have been discovered; all archives were drained some time ago and it takes a lot of effort to find new data to analyze this period or to bring fresh insight to speak about Vitebsk’s years of Chagall, Lissitzky, and Malevich. That is why the album issued by Centre Pompidu in French and Prestel Publishing in English is so interesting to discuss.
Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich is a collection of essays devoted to the life of the arts in Vitebsk. The essays are written by reputable authors, such as Alexandra Shatskikh, the first to publish a book on this topic in 2001 (published in Russian in 2001 and in English as Vitebsk: The Life of Art in 2007); Alexander Lisov, who is among the pioneers of this subject; and Tamara Karandasheva, who organized the first Chagall exhibition in his native Belarus. International authors include Maria Kokkori, research fellow of the Art Institute of Chicago; Samuel Johnson, assistant professor of art history at Syracuse University; and Willem Jan Renders, specialist in Russian art at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. Essays were collected and edited by Angela Lampe, the curator of modern collections in Centre Georges Pompidou. The range of topics is broad; however, the essays lack internal cohesion. Another general problem is that in most cases, there is little new in these texts. Some authors simply retell the stories they have already published elsewhere. For example, the chapter “Teach, Write, Experiment: Malevich in Vitebsk, 1919-1922” by Shatskikh is a shortened version of pages 73-99 of her book Vitebsk. But keeping in mind that the publication of Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich is dedicated to the eponymous exhibition organized in 2018, we may treat it as an art catalogue and lower our expectations.
Structurally, the book consists of seven chapters, each written by a separate author or a team of authors. The first chapter is devoted to the postrevolutionary fervor in Vitebsk and describes the atmosphere of 1918-19 by focusing on Chagall’s service to the new revolutionary government, which he represented in the Vitebsk guberniia. Lampe presents Chagall as “the son of a worker” and “the young Jew from the working class,” who was summoned by the chief of Moscow’s Narkompros (People’s Commissariat for Education) Anatoly Lunacharsky to manage cultural life in Vitebsk (pp. 19, 20). It is hard to agree with both the “proletarian roots” of Chagall and his connection to the working class. Chagall’s father was not a “worker” but a herring trader. Thus, Chagall himself was treated by the revolutionary administration as a rather alien element, descended from the vendors’ environment (which was far less acceptable for government service in revolutionary Russia than real “workers”). The real reason why Lunacharsky decided to hire Chagall to this position was that he was personally charmed by his art. We should remember that prior to his appointment to Narkompros, Lunacharsky was an art critic and composed his first article about Chagall in 1914. The second part of this chapter, by Lisov, reconstructs the debate about the revolutionary arts in Vitebsk in 1918-19 with an accent on Chagall’s active participation. It provides important contextual information.
The second chapter, “The People’s Art School,” by Kokkori and Alexander Bouras, is devoted to the institution that Chagall founded to provide art education for Vitebsk children. Generally, the authors provide information about UNOVIS (The Affirmers of the New Art) and the arrival of Malevich and not much about Chagall, despite the fact that it was Chagall who organized this art school. According to Lampe in the first chapter, Chagall lost his followers (all his students went to Malevich by early 1920), because his students “were soon disoriented by a teaching method deemed too unusual” (p. 22). To make this statement, Lampe uses Shatskikh’s book, which does not provide many details about Chagall’s teaching methods, since Shatskikh worked mostly with historical documents and archives. In contrast, for his 2013 book Viartannie imionau, Barys Krepak found and interviewed Chagall’s pupils from the art school and discovered that Chagall’s approaches were not so unusual. Chagall used the knowledge he got from the art commune called La Ruche (“The Hive”) during his stay in Paris in 1911-13. And the true reason why Chagall’s pupils abandoned him and fled to Malevich’s UNOVIS was that “Malevich didn’t actually teach how to paint or draw. He taught how to be an avangardist. After one month in his workshop a pupil was treated as a fully prepared artist.”
The third chapter, “Leftist Art according to Chagall,” by Karandasheva, narrates the story of how Chagall used “left ideas” in his paintings, while Lisov in the second part of the first chapter reflects on a similar topic employing Chagall’s newspaper articles as a foundation for his research. The fourth chapter, by Renders and Shatskikh, concentrates on the relations between Lissitzky and Malevich and on the forging of “the new in art.” Despite the fact that Malevich was well known before his arrival to Vitebsk, his main manifestos and theoretical works were published mainly in Vitebsk. Meanwhile, after Malevich’s arrival to Vitebsk, Lissitzky abandoned his first teacher Chagall and became a suprematist, “El” Lissitzky. The following chapter, “Collective Utopia,” Tatiana Goriacheva, reconstructs the organization and ideology of UNOVIS, focusing mainly on “Almanakh Unovis N1” and the examples of UNOVIS’s pictorial design and tools designed according to suprematism.
The sixth chapter, “A Collection as Model,” by Irina Karasik, touches on the subject of Vitebsk’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the idealistic cultural project imagined by Chagall. Reconstructing many details about the not-so-fortunate fate of this museum, Karasik does not take into account one of the key nuances of its appearance: the proposed space for this museum was the subject of the first fight between Chagall and Malevich and the main reason for the growing rivalry between these two art leaders in Vitebsk. Thus, she writes: “By the summer of 1920, newspapers began to write about the imminent opening of the museum, delayed only because of the lack of suitable premises. The collection was finally hung in the school building.... It seemed that in Vitebsk, at last, the Museum of Contemporary Art has been created and this museum will develop over time. However, at the beginning of the school year, the collection was dismantled, the museum closed, and the space it had occupied turned over to a new painting studio” (p. 181). But apparently, the situation was far more dramatic. In the autumn of 1919, to create more space for the museum, Chagall was evicted from the apartment he occupied in the building of the People’s Art School. He was dragged out with force (we can read about it in his autobiography) together with his wife and three-year-old daughter. After Chagall and his family were expelled from the house, a place for collection of art became available and as mentioned by Karasik preparations to hang art began. But by the start of the new 1920 academic year, the school had to provide housing for a new teacher, Malevich, who (and not the “new painting studio,” as Karasik states) benefited from the closing of the museum.
The last chapter, “After Vitebsk,” by Johnson, informs readers about what happened to Malevich’s suprematism after he left Vitebsk and provides detail about three-dimensional suprematism established by Lissitzky, VladimirTatlin, and others. Here, as in the entire book, we find no reflection on the cultural influence that these dense four years (1918-22) had on the culture of Vitebsk and the country, the part of which became Vitebsk. There is no “after Vitebsk” story of Chagall. There is no mention of the late Soviet oblivion of these years. Moreover, the whole collection is written with an implication that Vitebsk was and is the Russian provincial town nowadays, which by some fleeting reasons (namely, better food provisions in comparison to Moscow) attracted the key actors of the “Russian” avant-garde and then lost these actors since food provisions became worse. But is that so?
The idea that the Vitebsk avant-garde was linked only to Russia was popular thirty years ago when Chagall was still forbidden in Belarus. Anti-semitic post-Soviet elites did not accept Chagall’s oil paintings to be exhibited in his home country. The first time Chagall’s paintings were shown to the Belarusian public in Minsk was only in 2012. Prior to that, Belarus did not attempt to research or speak of his identity. Moreover, studies on Chagall and Vitebsk’s art school did not receive state approval and funding until the 2010s.
Today, when somebody states that the avant-garde in Vitebsk was part of Russian culture, they can easily be suspected of Soviet postcolonialism. This assumption would be equal to a statement that Rabindranath Tagore was a British poet, since he lived on Indian territory colonized by Great Britain. We should build some distance from pure history of the fine arts and apply art theory and philosophy of visuality. Therefore, Chagall indeed was born and worked in the city that was a part of imperial and then Soviet Russia. Malevich left Vitebsk in 1922 and Vitebsk was included in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1924. But how do we attribute “nationality” to works of art? Art works do not have voice and they rarely speak verbal language. Pictures do not have citizenship or a passport. Should we state that the Vitebsk phenomenon is of Russian origin only because at that stage, thanks to imperialism and Soviet colonialism, it was occupied by Russia? Did Chagall speak Russian? He thought he did, since he called his language of the Vitebsk period “Russian” and he named himself “Russian.” But what exactly did Chagall mean when he called himself “Russian”? Did he have in mind “Russia” of Moscow and Petrograd or “Russia” of Peskovatik, the Jewish quarter in Vitebsk where everybody communicated in Yiddish? As to the “Russian” language of his Vitebsk period, we can trace it in Chagall’s newspaper articles of 1918-19, a language very far from Russian literary norms.
Visual arts usually reflect objects they represent. Chagall’s paintings and early Lissitzky illustrations depict towns, people, and culture that now can be read as Eastern European, and not Russian. It gets even more complicated when it comes to non-representative art of Malevich and late Lissitzky, since suprematism manifested its crusade beyond reality and did not react or copy the world, creating its own geometrical space. So, why considering this context do we not recall that Mikhail Bakhtin’s key concept of chronotope was created in Vitebsk, where the philosopher lived between 1920 and 1924? According to Bakhtin, the unity of time and space is represented in language and discourse. Perceived through the optics of Bakhtin, Vitebsk of 1918-22 was neither a part of the Russian avant-garde nor a fragment of Belarusian culture and history but a kind of “mannered enchaining of coordinates both spatial ... and temporal,” for some radical changes appeared in the pattern of visuality.
Approaching Vitebsk from a non-colonial angle might be a very useful perspective for studies of Chagall, Lissitzky, and Malevich in the future.
. Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Mark Shagal,” Kievskaia Mysl’ 73 (March 14, 1914): 3.
. Victor Martinovich, Rodina: Mark Shagal v Vitebske (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe obozrenie, Ocherki Vizualnosti, 2017), 93. All translations are by author.
. See details in ibid.
. Liudmila Khmelnitskaia, “Sentiabrskii konflikt 1919 goda v Narodnom Khudozhestvennom Uchilishche,” Biulleten’ Marka Shagala 2, no. 10 (2003): 17-20.
. Marc Chagall, Ma Vie (Paris: Stock, 1931), 64.
. See details in Martinovich, Rodina, 164-99.
. Andrei Voznesenskii, Gala Shagala: Katalog vystavki (Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1987), 12.
. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics,” in Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 15.
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