LETTER FROM VITEBSK
The town of Vitebsk has been the central character in the work of Marc Chagall. Its people and cityscape maintain a recurring, almost mystic presence. Chagall was intimately familiar with this town. The artist was not only born and raised there, but also came of age as a master in Vitebsk. Although he left in 1921, Chagall continued to explore images of the city and its people throughout his life, with this reimagining of Vitebsk nourishing his entire creative process.
Unlike the animated and luminous view of Vitebsk in Chagall’s paintings, today it is a bleak if tidy Belarussian city, much of it still mired in its Soviet past, interspersed with historical buildings and glimpses of verdant landscape. In the early years of the 20th century, around the time of the Russian revolution, Vitebsk was one of the centers of the European avant-garde, sustained by the likes of Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Mikhail Bakhtin and Chagall himself.
But though this great cultural tide has long receded, it left islands of intellectual and artistic vitality as well as a group of dedicated people committed to preserving and enriching this past. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Marc Chagall Museum in Vitebsk hosted an opening of the exhibit “Chagall and the Stage.” The museum itself is housed in an evocative old red-brick building that overlooks the Dvina River. The building became a museum in 1997 and, along with the extant Chagall family house on Pokrovskaya Street, serves as one of the centers of resurgent local interest in the town’s most famous son.
“The affinity is evident, even if the town he knew is no more,” said Arkady Shulman, the editor of a prominent local magazine titled Mishpoha (Yiddish for “family.”) “For Chagall, homeland was a temporal, not a geographical, term. His home was childhood and adolescence, both of which were always fused with his life in Vitebsk.”
The range of works on display in “Chagall and the Stage” included sketches for theater decorations, murals, costumes and character studies from his earliest experimentations with stage design at the Moscow Jewish Chamber Theater in 1920, to his later works on ballet productions in New York and Paris. The exhibit filled two rooms with items drawn from the collection of Chagall’s granddaughter, Meret Meyer Graber. Present at the opening reception were representatives of the French embassy in Belarus as well as high-placed local officials, and the large crowd in attendance was a mix of young and old.
“Today, there is a generational divide in the way Chagall is viewed by ordinary people in Vitebsk,” museum director Ludmila Khmelnitskaya said. “The older generation was raised on representational art, and they dislike the childlike fantasies of Chagall. But he finds a lot of resonance among younger people.” Indeed, the museum even organized two festivals for children, where they were asked to improvise on Chagall-inspired themes as well as to write illustrated letters to Chagall.
Although the overlap of the exhibit’s opening with the start of the Jewish New Year seemed a matter of incidental timing, it did not go unnoticed by the officials. After the presentation on the second floor of the museum, everyone was invited downstairs, where members of the local Jewish youth club gave a brief talk with a live demonstration of the rituals performed on Rosh Hashanah. The entire crowd of museum-goers stood and listened patiently in silence. Afterward, sitting in the museum director’s office and partaking in the leftovers of wine, apple, and honey, Khmelnitskaya said that she views Chagall as an indelible part of Vitebsk history and his Jewishness only accentuates what has been lost in Belarus.
“The unique significance of Chagall’s work is that he took a disparaged people, mired in poverty and deprivation, and lifted them to heavenly heights in his paintings, endowed them with magic and charmed qualities,” Shulman agreed. “Chagall’s Jews hover above Vitebsk, tearing the gravitational pull of the land that brought so much untold suffering to them.”