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In the Beginning, There Was Vitebsk

Vitebsk: The Life of Art

Belarussian Bonanza: A new book explores how Vitebsk, a modest Russian town, became one of the most influential gateways to the art of the 20th century. Top to bottom: Yu Pen's 'A House with a goat'; Marc Chagall's 'Over the Town'; M. Kunin's 'Art of the Commune'; and El Lissitzky's 'Study for panel Rosa Luxemburg.'

By Aleksandra Shatskikh, translated by Katherine Foshko Tsan

Yale University Press, 408 pages, $55.

In the beginning, otherwise known as the year 988, Rus converted to Christianity, Vitebsk was founded and 1,000 years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, which was good. Today a backwater of fascist Belarus, Vitebsk had always been the place to change trains between Moscow and Kiev, its coordinates triangulating among the Russian and Baltic capitals of Vilnius and Riga. Due to this geography, and its three rivers — the Vitba and Luchesa flowing into the Dvina, which flows west toward the Baltic Sea — the city became a haven for traders, and as Jews could not work the land by law, Vitebsk became a haven for Jews. These Jewish merchants did what Jewish merchants have always done or should have, in all times, in all countries and cultures: They gave birth to Jewish artists, then supported their careers. As the Russian Revolution fired imaginations before the Bolsheviks turned repressive and, later, Stalin snuffed them with the gulag, these Vitebsk Jewish artists, and those Russians who gathered around them, re-envisioned the visual world.

Here, then, are the generations of that artistic Vitebsk, according to its recently published Bible, Aleksandra Shatskikh’s “Vitebsk: The Life of Art.” In the words of its author, this book — a Torah that, unlike the original, is color illustrated, and translated for us from the Russian — “examines the artistic life of Vitebsk during the years 1917-1922, when a great burst of creative experimentation transformed the modest Russian town into one of the most influential gateways to the art of the 20th century.”

Shatskikh tells us that Jewish children in Vitebsk became artists, and those artists overwhelmingly painters, thanks to the efforts of Yuri Moiseevich Pen, the Adam of his artsy race and a painter of skillful portraits and still-lives. And yea, this Pen opened an art school in Vitebsk, and this art school was known as “The Artist Pen’s School of Drawing and Painting”; and lo, it was located on Gogol Street, which, either because it was picturesque or the locus of Vitebsk’s artistic life, or both, was painted many times. Pen, who was religious and favored sentimental depictions of disputatious rabbis and yet secularly instructed in techniques such as perspective, and the disciplines of plein air drawing and the sketching of nudes, was said to have charged a ruble per lesson, though he collected from only those families who could afford it, among them Moisei Shagal’s.

Pen’s school begat that blond boy by the name of Shagal (the name being a Russian Yiddish version of Segal, or Segan Levi, “Assistant Levite”; Shagal himself began artistic life as an assistant to only a sign-painter), who in 1906 began his serious painting studies, absorbing from Pen both the rudiments of craft and a love for the subjects that, imbued with French élan and the example of the Spaniard Picasso, would be his throughout his career: Jews, lovers and livestock. In 1907, Shagal would move to St. Petersburg to study with Léon Bakst — also known as Lev Rosenberg, a Jewish painter from Grodno — before leaving in 1911 for Paris. Shagal returned to Vitebsk at the outbreak of the First World War to marry his fiancée, Bella, the daughter of a local jeweler. Along with his new name in a new alphabet, “Marc Chagall” had a newly maturing style, as well as a family to support. And children, as everyone knows, cannot be fed on Surrealism.

To sustain himself, as well as his hometown, Chagall established his own Vitebsk school in the early days of the Russian Revolution, with the support of his Paris friend Anatoly Lunacharsky, an influential journalist and art critic who’d been named head of a newly formed bureaucracy responsible for official Soviet culture, called The People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment and known by the acronym Narkompros.

And God said, “Let there be official acronyms for just about everything!” and there were, especially after another ally, the painter David Shterenberg, who’d occupied neighboring studio space to Chagall at Montparnasse’s debauched La Ruche, recalled himself to Russia, straightened his tie, combed his hair and was made head of Narkompros’s Department of Fine Arts, which was known by the acronym IZO.

And these are the generations of the Vitebsk People’s Art School:

Once Lunacharsky appointed Chagall to the post of local arts commissar in 1918, tasking him with decorating his native city in celebration of the revolution’s first anniversary, the artists began arriving like Chagall himself applied paint, thick and fast: A.M. Brazer, S.D. Yudovin, D.A. Yakerson and less anonymous others helped redo the muddy streets in the latest of styles, while creating a school that — on communism’s eternal Seventh Day, the People’s Sabbath — would enshrine the formerly provincial Vitebsk in the annals of art history.

Painter Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, co-conspirator with the older Bakst in the Silver Age’s “World of Art” movement, was named the school’s director, as Chagall recommended younger artists such as Ivan Puni, the avant-garde painter and illustrator, Ivan Tilberg, the monumental sculptor, and Aleksandr Romm, the critic, as comrade instructors. Chagall’s own painting studio’s students included Lazar Khidekel, Moisei (Mikhail) Veksler, Moisei (Mikhail) Kunin, Lev Tsiperson, Ilya Chashnik, Chaim Zeldin and Lev Zevin, among others.

Some found fortune, others are to be found in Shatskikh’s endnotes: Zevin began as a lowly housepainter, and under Chagall’s tutelage emerged as a talented watercolorist, now mostly forgotten; Chashnik became a noted Constructivist designer and Supremacist painter whose works are still internationally shown, and Kunin abandoned painting altogether, becoming an early “performance artist,” half-clown half-clairvoyant (his playbills advertised “The Psychological Experiments of Mikhail Kuni”), whose acts are said to have inspired Chagall’s circus paintings.

And, in the spirit of such drastic transformation, a Smolensk Jew named Eliezer (Lazar) Markovich Lissitzky left home to work and teach not in any of the Russian capitals but in Vitebsk, renamed himself El and, with the arrival of his future mentor, painter and theorist Kasimir Malevich, the depiction of the local rabbinate and landscapes took a sharp turn for political tracts and geometry.

In the fall of 1919, two Octobers after the October Revolution, as it was now being called to distinguish it from the Revolution of February of the same year, the school hosted the arrival of Malevich — whose art was apparently the logical, super-planar, supra-dimensional extension of such concepts as “Cézanneism,” “Cubism,” “Cubo-Futurism,” “Futurism,” and “Constructivism.” Malevich’s “Unovis” group eventually ousted the retro Chagall from the school; “students” became communist “apprentices” — and so would invent their own movements and histories.

“In the minds of many avant-gardists,” Shatskikh writes, “the greatest act of artistic self-affirmation was not the creation of a novel work of art but rather the construction of an entire art movement based on such a work, with a name, a fully developed theory, and a circle of followers and disciples.” Verily, the intense, mystical Malevich, who often predated his own works so as to appear the first to have achieved a certain style or effect, begat what he called “Suprematism.” Soon, the flying motion of Chagall’s lovers and fiddles dropped the lovers and fiddles to become, instead, pure Suprematist motion, a flight for flight’s sake embodied in the sleek coordination of blocks and bars, trapezoids and parallelepipeds. These shapes, pioneered with the greatest technical skill by Lissitzky, found their ultimate theoretical expression in Malevich’s black square — and in his infamous black square canvases that were all black — whose nullity could be viewed as fullness, simultaneously total motion and motion’s total erasure.

Malevich, being a lawgiver of sorts, wrote intricate and often unintelligible texts to accompany these and other paintings of his, and soon polemic was the newest of new media, and the canvas became renewed by the page as the booklet or pamphlet. As its art became more publicly minded, or politically engaged (books lent themselves to more efficient distribution than did paintings), Vitebsk’s art school — now known as the Vitebsk Free State Studios, its name change another Bolshevik improvement — became oppositely more hermetic, abandoning its ideal of arts education for the masses, or for the talented children of the Jewish bourgeoisie, in favor of specialist training for professionals in the Soviet visual avant-garde.

(How heady and manic were these changes? Here’s one quick chronicle of many: On January 17, 1920, Malevich’s Unovis [a Russian acronym for “Affirmers of the New Art”] hosted what was called “the organizational meeting of young Cubists”; on January 19, these “young Cubists” then organized a movement called Molposnovis [an acronym for “Young Followers of the New Art”]; a week later, on January 28, the older and recently formed younger groups had already merged, to organize something they called Posnovis [“Followers of the New Art”], which, as Shatskikh notes, “lasted a full eighteen days.”)

It was the Catholic (in both senses), ethnically Polish Malevich who was to play Moses, and liberate a people whose generative culture had proscribed the visual, and enacted bans against representation. Malevich smashed the Second Commandment against the making of graven images, only to instantaneously reinstate its prohibition on his own terms — not due to the sacrilege inherent in representation, but because he believed representation to be if not purposeless, then impossible. With great abstraction of thought and materials, but no abstraction of mission, he would lead the Jews out of the Egypt that was the Vitebsk shtetl, into the Promised Land of utopian socialism, which, after Stalin disowned them, destroyed them, both savior and the saved.

In this Exodus redivivus, the multicolored goats were forgotten, as if deemed obsolete then tossed out of the Party, as were the crumbling synagogues and lugubrious White Christs. Among the many figures left behind for kitsch was a certain green violinist, famously painted by Chagall as fiddling on the roof. His name has not survived, only that portrait, the strange pallor of his face.

The outstanding merit of Aleksandra Shatskikh’s Vitebskian Bible can be talmudically inferred from this detail she gives us: That green fiddler used to stand on the corner of Zamkova and Gogol Streets and beg. With this one masterstroke, the representation has once again become the represented — no longer the subject of a painting, but a man restored to himself, and so open to being interpreted anew. A Nero fiddling for a Vitebsk that would burn in the coming war, one could imagine him playing until the flying cows came home to roost, which they never did.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.

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