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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Marc Chagall, Double Portrait with Wine Glass, 1917–18, oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, gift of the artist, 1949. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; image provided by CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York.
The older I get, the more convinced I am that to achieve success in the art world one needs not only visual talent, but the “right” personality. In fact, sometimes the “right” personality (variously defined) trumps the greater visual talents of others. In Manhattan this fall, we have two major museum exhibitions demonstrating the truth of my maxim. The first I shall deal with here and now. It’s the solidly conceived, abundantly documented and handsomely mounted “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922,” at The Jewish Museum (through January 6, 2019).


The subject of this show is the People’s Art School founded in Vitebsk in 1918 and ending in its role in art history in 1922, having graduated just one class.

But its story really begins with the birth to a humble Jewish family of a child named Moishe Shagal in Vitebsk 31 years earlier, in 1887.

He would grow up to become Marc Chagall, a painter famed for his semi-abstract blend of fauvism, cubism, Jewish folklore and totally individual but highly ingratiating fantasy.

(It is currently stylish to refer to this fantastic element in his paintings as “surrealism,’ but if so, it is surrealism avant la lettre, as he was already employing it before World War I, and André Breton wouldn’t even define the word, “surrealism” until 1924).

At any rate, in the beginning little Moishe was only a boy fascinated by drawing. Being Jewish, most of the city’s state schools and colleges were closed to him, but fortunately, Vitebsk was at least big and cosmopolitan enough to support a little private art school – even if it was run by a very academic painter, Yuri (Yehuda) Pen (1854-1937).

As indicated, Vitebsk wasn’t Saint Petersburg, but it also wasn’t the quaint little bucolic shtetl set in rolling farm country that one might expect from Chagall’s mature paintings (or from having seen the movie of “Fiddler on the Roof” too many times).

Although today Vitebsk is in Belarus, it was in the Russian Empire when the future artist was born. With a population of about 66,000, it was more a small city than a big town.

The population was about evenly divided between Jews and Gentiles, and the economy had a substantial manufacturing base, with clothing, furniture and agricultural tools produced especially by the Jewish community and sold throughout Russia.

Chagall seems to have had a reasonably good experience with Yehuda Pen, but anybody as ambitious as he was had to go on to St. Petersburg. This he did in 1906, when he was 18.

The capital of the empire, St. Petersburg wasn’t within the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were supposed to live, but Chagall managed to get a passport that officially allowed him to stay and attend more and better art schools.

Having discovered Gauguin and being taught by Leon Bakst, known for his flamboyant Art Nouveau paintings and stage designs, Chagall then had no alternative but to go on to the source of all the excitement: Paris.

He arrived there by 1910 and by 1914 had arrived at his mature style.

He loved Paris but he was also in love with a young woman named Bella Rosenfeld, and she lived at home in Vitebsk, so in 1914 he decided to return to marry her (pausing on the way to hold a very successful exhibition at Herwarth Walden’s daring Sturm Gallery in Berlin).

Once in Vitebsk, he was able to marry Bella, but then World War I broke out, and they couldn’t get back to Paris. In 1915 and 1916, he was able to exhibit his paintings in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they sold well.

In February 1917, the czarist government was overthrown, and a Provisional Government officially took over, dominated by socialists and liberals.

One of the seemingly few things that it managed to accomplish was enacting a law abolishing czarist racial and religious restrictions and making Jews full-fledged citizens.

Chagall was delighted with that, though on the whole the period was chaotic, since the communists, led by Lenin & Trotsky, were determined to take over the entire government – and succeeded in doing so in October 1917.

At first, Chagall seems to have dismayed by this turn of events, but the new regime endorsed modern art and in fact, placed a high priority on it: revolutionary art – at least for that one brief moment -- seemed to become the esthetic arm of the political and social revolution that the communists were determined to achieve.

As one of the country’s most eminent artists, Chagall was offered two jobs: as commissar of visual arts for the entire country, and as commissar of visual arts for Vitebsk.

Wary of the politics that might be involved with the first position he opted for the second—and used it to set up the People’s Art School.

This art school was to embody all the ideals of the revolution: open to everybody, free of charge and with no age restrictions, but it didn’t actually open until January 1919.

The first gallery of the show at the Jewish Museum is almost all about Chagall, and not only the exuberant paintings that he was executing with revolutionary fervor between 1917 and 1918,.

It also displays preparations that he and a younger fellow student of Pen’s, David Yakerson (1896-1947), were making – not only for the opening of the People’s Art School, but more immediately for the festivities in November 1918 to celebrate the first anniversary of the October Revolution.

Dominating this gallery is a screen facing the entrance with a film clip showing those festivities, which went on for two days and were attended by three-quarters of the city’s population (which by then had swelled to 80,000).

Dominating the entrance wall, however, is one of Chagall’s masterpieces, the monumental “Double Portrait with Wineglass” (1917-1918). It which shows him cheerily perched on the shoulders of Bella, in her bridal gown.

He holds a wineglass on high, and above him is what looks to me like an angel (though I can’t find any written reference to it being an angel). Anyway, it is clear that Heaven has blessed this match.

(This painting, incidentally, is owned by the Pompidou Center in Paris, where this exhibition was seen prior to its appearance in New York. The exhibition’s two curators here are Angela Lampe, of the Musée National d ’Art Moderne and Claudia J. Nahson of the Jewish Museum.)

Most of the rest of the work on the walls in this gallery is smaller Chagalls, works on paper and preparatory studies for the decorations to be used in the festivities, and a lot of them are very lively and very charming, too.


But even in this gallery we already have a hint of the worm in the apple, occupying the center of the floor in a series of vitrines.

This is eleven lithographs entitled the “Had Gadya Suite” (1919). It constitutes the cover and the ten verses of a book (possibly for children) illustrating “Had Gadya” (One Goat).

This is a song sung at the conclusion of the Passover Seder, and like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” it is a cumulative song (getting longer & longer with each verse).

The suite of terrifically cute little lithographs is by Lazar Lissitzky, who though three years younger than Chagall had also studied with him at Pen’s academy and is better known to posterity as El Lissitzky.

After his studies with Yuri Pen, Lissitzky had applied to study in an art school in Saint Petersburg, but falling afoul of czarist prohibitions against Jews went off to study architectural engineering in Germany.

His travels throughout Europe took him to Paris, where he confabbed with another graduate of Pen’s academy, the cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. From him and his circle, Lissitzky developed an interest in Jewish folklore.

Although some of Lissitzky’ s work was beginning to be shown in St. Petersburg, he remained in Western Europe until the outbreak of World War I, whereupon he like Chagall (and, incidentally, Kandinsky) returned home to Russia.

Back in Moscow, he attended another technological school, and worked with a couple of architects.

With the downfall of the czarist regime, and the Provisional Government’s repeal of anti-Semitic legislation, Jewish culture was experiencing something of a renaissance.

It was in this context that El Lissitzky became a book designer (in addition to an engineer and an architect), designing illustrated books for the Jewish community.

It was because of these accomplishments that Chagall invited him back to Vitebsk to teach in the new school’s printing, graphic art and architecture studios – but it was also because of their longtime friendship.

Nor was Lissitzky the only one to benefit from such friendship. In addition, Chagall hired Yakerson to oversee the school’s sculpture studio and even his childhood teacher, Yuri Pen, presumably to teach painting. .

Indeed, the second and third gallery focuses on these teachers. There’s a delightful – if irretrievably academic – self-portrait of Pen here (dated 1922). He looks very dapper with a broad-brimmed hat worn rakishly at an angle, plus a graying little mustache and goatee.

This is paired with an impish Chagall line drawing, mocking the self-portrait with squiggles and the figure of a tiny woman looking into the portrait’s eye – and there is also an immensely likeable portrait of the Chagall by Pen (dated 1914). The young artist is wearing another big hat and what looks like a green velveteen jacket.

Here the wall text intervenes to foretell the next stage of the school. It begins by saying that the school opened in January, 1919, in a nationalized building that had formerly been the home of a banker.

Enrolled were about 120 students, mainly Jewish boys from working-class families. And El Lissitzky arrived in May 1919.


Here my sources diverge on the subject of Kazimir Malevich, the charismatic creator of Suprematism, widely heralded as the first totally non-objective school of art.

Malevich had been born in 1879, making him eight years older than Chagall and eleven years older than Lissitzky, nor had he wasted his time. His parents, Polish Catholics who had settled near Kiev, seem to have been moderately prosperous—his father managed a sugar factory, though this seems to have meant the family had to move around.

Young Kazimir began with drawing lessons in local schools and a love of peasant decoration—as seen in embroidery, as well as painted walls and stoves. In 1904, after his father died, he moved to Moscow and continued his studies there.

By 1911, he was exhibiting in group shows with other young talents, and was soon painting like and exhibiting with the older avant-gardists of the period. Within a year, he was prepared to call his style “Cubo-Futuristic,” and in 1914, he even exhibited it at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris.

In 1915 (drumroll here) he published his manifesto, “From Cubism to Suprematism,” and began exhibiting the first of his totally non-objective “Black Squares.”

As far as he was concerned, cubism and even futurism were only way-stations on the high road to paintings completely divorced from the physical world around them, but therefore endowed with a mystical spiritual nature.

Suprematism seems to have been a very persuasive, seductive doctrine, and in less time than it takes to tell, he was working with other Suprematist in peasant/artisan cooperatives. Then came the Revolution and the move to Vitebsk.

Here is where my sources disagree. Was he invited to Vitebsk by Chagall at the same time that Lissitzky was? And did he hesitate to come until Lissitzky persuaded him to? Or was Malevich not invited at all until Lissitzky persuaded Chagall to invite him?

One thing seems clear – Lissitzky was a passionate advocate for Malevich and Suprematism. And, for whatever reasons, Malevich didn’t arrive at the school until November 1919 – 11 months after the school had opened, and six months after Lissitzky had started work there.

Once he had arrived however, his extremism proved intoxicating. All of the little students who previously had been satisfied to create cubist paintings now decided they wanted to study with Malevich instead, and become Suprematists like him. Lissitzky became a Suprematist, and so did David Yakerson.

Thus abandoned by everybody in the school he had so carefully worked to bring together, Chagall sadly gave up and left the school the following June (in 1920). Seems his personality was just no match for the moment – and that of Malevich was.

On the other hand, that was a moment which in turn would soon pass. Already by the early 1920s, the Soviets in Moscow seem to have begun having second thoughts about the virtues of avant-garde art as a rallying-point for “the people.”

Thus the third gallery in the show at The Jewish Museum combines a number of different motifs and styles of art. Yakerson is generously represented.

On the one hand there are a series of totally non-objective Suprematist studies and compositions on paper by him—but on the other, there are also with models for and a photograph of a 1920 monument to Karl Liebknecht, a martyred German communist; the lower portions are done in cubist style but the top is a realistic bust of Liebknecht.

To complete the confusion, the opposite wall has works in a jumble of styles. “The Red Violin” (1919) is a large & odd, somewhat representational work by Ivan Puni--though Wikipedia says Puni was a Suprematist during this stage of his life.

I liked a lot better two rather sweet little cubist drawings of a Vitebsk street and Vitebsk rooftops by Lazar Khidekel, a student at the school. Both supposedly were done in 1920, when Khidekel seems to have been taking his lessons from Chagall-- though the label says that he too soon became a steadfast follower of Malevich.


The next gallery, which is a big one, is devoted to the Suprematism of Malevich and his pupils, as well as Lissitzky’s variants on Suprematism, which he called “Prouns.” I confess that although this display came across as very pure, it didn’t as a whole move me deeply.

I have the greatest respect for Malevich as a theorist, and have long treasured his insight into how Cézanne was already beginning the process of abstraction by creating ambiguous leaves on his trees that combined the possibilities of reference to several species.

But theory is one thing and practice is another, and most of the time, Malevich’s Suprematist paintings are too pure for me. They register as intellectual exercises for me, rather than inspiring any sort of profound emotional response.

In the Western world they have been celebrated as forerunners of the minimalism that came to the fore as a byproduct of the pop revolution in the 1960s, and minimalism was sarcastic, a way of ridiculing abstract expressionism by driving abstraction to its logical -- but ridiculous -- extreme.

The Malevich abstractions are sincere, not sarcastic like minimalism, but that still doesn't relieve them of the charge of being overly logical and less emotional.

At a certain point, the artist introduced the image of a cross into them -- in order to tie them to Christianity -- and claim for them a "spiritual" component.

This was not unlike Kandinsky, with his tract, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," but the greater richness of Kandinsky's imagery makes his case for emotional content far more persuasive than did that of Malevich.

And the case is even less persuasive for Lissitzky: his “Prouns” are even less satisfactory. The labels in this show explain that he was seeking to inject three-dimensional and/or architectural elements into his images, but all this amounts to in practice is an attempt to reinstate conventional perspective.

The result tends to be a busy, fussy look that makes Malevich’s Suprematism appear to be serene and cerebral by comparison.

Nevertheless, this gallery contains to two lovely pieces. One is a painting by Malevich called “Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on Black Circle)” (1920-22).

According to the literature accompanying this exhibition, by incorporating a Russian Orthodox cross into his paintings and placing it on top of a black circle, Malevich believed that he was conveying the disconnect between bodily experience and spiritual hopes & dreams..

The other is a propaganda poster by Lissitzky entitled “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” (1919). This is a reference to the civil war taking place in the wake of the October Revolution, in which the “Whites” were the counter-revolutionaries (primarily monarchists and their allies) seeking to dislodge the communists (Reds).

Simple and effective, this poster combines a red triangle (or wedge) puncturing a white circle.

The last gallery in the show deals primarily with collaborative efforts by the students and faculty of the school, as organized by Malevich into a collective called UNOVIS – and also with work done by the three principal actors in this drama after the People’s Art School lost its vim & vigor, and all of our heroes left Vitebsk.

Very little in this gallery really did it for me, not the stage and costume designs being done by Chagall in Moscow for a Jewish theater troupe, and not the overly precious ceramic tea set (pot, cup, etc.) designed by Malevich. I did relate to a nice design for the opera “Victory over the Sun” (1920).

This is a woodcut with watercolor additions by Vera Ermolaeva (1893-1938). She too seems to have been an artist of many talents. Besides teaching at the school, she became its director.

She also directed a production of this avant-garde opera staged at the school—and finally, according to Wikipedia, she was the one who first invited Malevich to Vitebsk!

Finally, I loved the two displays in the passageway between these last two galleries. One was a small black-and-white photograph by Malevich of a three-dimensional cubist sculpture like a tall little building, entitled “”Arkhitekton: Zeta” (1926).

The other was “Arkhitektons and Figurines,” a 28-part display in a wall vitrine composed about half of other little building-like cubist sculptures and about half of human figures that are very large by comparison

Alas, even with the charismatic Malevich on board, the school only graduated one class, in May 1922. The times they were a-changing, and would change still more after Lenin died in 1924 and Trotsky was elbowed out of the government and eventually out of the country by Stalin in 1929.

Trotsky was really the only communist leader who had believed that art should follow its own rules. Stalin was all for “Soviet realism,” believing that it alone could reach the masses, and so our three leading figures went their separate ways.


Malevich bit the bullet and became a Soviet realist painter. He died in Leningrad of cancer in 1935, at the age of 57.

Lissitzky managed to stay reasonably “modern” by sticking to non-controversial art forms like graphic design, book design, and photomontage. He died of tuberculosis in Moscow in 1941, at 51.

Chagall went back to France, and made his home there except during World War II, when he took refuge in the U.S. He not only made many more easel paintings, but also murals, stained glass windows, book illustrations, prints, theater sets and costumes, tapestries, ceramics and sculpture.

When he died in 1985 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, he was 97 – the last major member of his generation of avant-gardists. .
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