At the dawn of the Soviet era, in a revolutionary art school in the city of Vitebsk, two different visions of modernism struggled for dominance.
In the conclusion to his 1902 monograph The History of Russian Painting in the 19th Century, Alexandre Benois—painter, stage designer, writer, and founder of the influential movement and magazine World of Art—gave his assessment of the state of art in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century and what he imagined might follow:
“Generally speaking, all art of our time lacks direction. It is very vivid, powerful, full of passionate enthusiasm, but while being entirely consistent in its basic idea, it is uncoordinated, fragmented into separate individuals. Perhaps we only imagine this, perhaps the future historian will see our general characteristics in perspective and will outline our general physiognomy. But for the time being, this cannot be done; any unsuccessful attempt would be pernicious because it would create a theory, a program, where, essentially there should not be one. Moreover, it is quite probable that the future will not be on the side of individualism. Most likely a reaction stands on the other side of the door.”
Benois’ prediction for the future of art in Russia turns out to have been eerily prescient. After the Revolution of 1917, new approaches to art would explode in the country, with competing factions battling on canvas and in theoretical texts. Indeed, art, particularly painting, toward the end of the 19th century had already seen major changes and the growth of factions, some Russophile and others influenced by modernist developments in Europe. After the Revolution, though, with the a new utopian society in its nascent stage, fundamental questions arose about the function of art and its possible utility. What had been merely theoretical before began to take on a new social and political reality. Movements such as Suprematism, Constructivism, Rayism, and others would attempt to utilize the revolutionary energy and potential of the historically unprecedented situation. Artists and theorists would vie for dominance in texts until, as Benois predicted, this multiplicity of approaches was quashed and art was given a state-mandated form with the final, official imposition of Socialist Realism in 1932.
The post-Revolutionary moment of radical possibility, however short-lived, was a vital one. This relatively short span of time presented a laboratory for new ideas not only in painting, sculpture, design, architecture, and literature but in the organization and dissemination of art education as well. Collectivist ideas were applied to art education, and citizens (the definition of which was newly expanded under protelatarian rule to include Jews) who hitherto would not have been able to study art, now had the opportunity.
Painter Marc Chagall, a Russian-born Jew who had left his homeland to study and work, was elated and intoxicated by the new freedoms the revolution promised. Newly married and enjoying full citizenship, Chagall’s optimism is evident in his 1917–18 oil on canvas Double Portrait with Wine Glass, in which two figures, a man and a woman (presumably Chagall and his beloved wife Bella), one on the other’s shoulders, stand tall, smiling and toasting the new world with an angel close overhead.
After being appointed the Fine Arts Commissar of the Vitebsk region, Chagall seized the moment and established the The People’s Art School in his native city, where local citizens, many of whom were Jewish, could receive art education under the tutelage of established artists free of charge and with no age restrictions. It was to be the realization of a beautiful collectivist dream of art for all and for the good of all, with students and teachers, in some instances, taking their work to the streets of Vitebsk, decorating the town with the “new art” and leaving some inhabitants scratching their heads. The story of the The People’s Art School was not a Chagallian fairy tale, however, but a tragedy of sorts. The school’s fate mirrors that of the avant-garde in Russia, where idealism and ideology would confront each other, and pedagogical and artistic antinomies would sow the seeds of eventual collapse.
The Centre Pompidou in Paris is helping to bring the story of the The People’s Art School, somewhat recently excavated from the avalanche of time, to a wider public by presenting “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922” at the Jewish Museum in New York (September 14–January 6, 2019). The show which was organized by the Centre Pompidou, in collaboration with the Jewish Museum, allows visitors the chance to learn about Chagall’s idealistic venture through a selection of 120 works and documents made possible by extensive loans from several American and European institutions as well as collections in Minsk and Vitebsk.
Jewish Museum curator Claudia Nahson has been collaborating with the Centre Pompidou to bring the show to New York for over a year, and she explains, “A year and a half ago I was actually working on an exhibition on Pierre Chereau. We received many loans from the Pompidou, and I was in constant in contact with them. I heard about the show and this sounded like a really interesting exhibition for us. It’s an exciting moment, brief but important, that hasn’t been talked about much.”
Of particular rarity and interest are those of the school’s students (some of whom were as young as 15 or 16 years old) which will be seen for the first time by many visitors. The bulk of the show, however, presents the work of the school’s illustrious faculty—Marc Chagall (represented by some 30 works), Kazimir Malevich (showing for the first time at the Jewish Museum), and El Lissitzky. The works by these visionary artists, seen in conjunction and counterpoint, help to illustrate the theoretical, pedagogical, and formal tensions that would characterize the school’s utopian project and ultimately, be its undoing.
Chagall brought in Malevich and Lissitzky as faculty members at the newly formed school, and as Centre Pompidou curator Angela Lampe points out, “Chagall knew he was playing with fire by bringing together figurative and abstract artists.” Chagall was no theorist; his approach was intuitive and individualistic. He believed in the passion and freedom of the Revolution, but, in a sense, lacked a concrete ideological agenda. Lissitzky was an artist whose work Chagall held in high esteem, and beyond that, the two men were friends and both had boyhood connections to Vitebsk. Lissitzky accepted Chagall’s invitation to teach at The People’s Art School, and with Lissitzky’s help, Malevich, Lissitzky’s former teacher, was persuaded to come to the new school as well.
Malevich and Chagall had shown work together in exhibitions before the Revolution, including a show organized by Alexandre Benois under the auspices of his World of Art group. In their respective approaches to the theory of art, however, there was a wide chasm separating the two—namely, Chagall had little, and Malevich had theory to spare. Chagall’s work was often fantastical and folkish, playful and personal, but Malevich’s approach was vastly more abstract and dense. Of his own system of Suprematism (the name seems to say it all), he wrote, “I am only free when—by means of critical and philosophical substantiation-—I can extract a substantiation of new phenomena from what already exists.” His was not exactly a “go with the flow” approach.
Lissitzky, a photographer, designer, and architect, was torn between Chagall’s intuitive, figurative creations and Malevich’s radical Suprematism, which extolled the use of geometric forms almost exclusively and a limited color range. The school’s students, many of whom were quite young, gravitated toward the more structured and theoretically concrete classes of Malevich and Lissitzky, and as Lampe observes, “The students were grateful for this structure and base of theory.” Chagall’s intuitive yet classical approach was based on his own memories and dreams and nurtured by his time in Paris and association with other visionary artists. It ultimately, proved too “old fashioned” and nebulous for the students, many of whom were encountering “fine art” for the first time. “These very young students maybe lacked the internal richness that Chagall could draw from as an adult,” says Lampe, and as result, Malevich gained a group of enthusiastic followers. By 1920 it seems that Lissitzky had found his allegiance as well, writing (presumably exploiting the recently invented “shift lock” function on typewriters), “AFTER THE OLD TESTAMENT THERE CAME THE NEW—AFTER THE NEW THE COMMUNIST—AND AFTER THE COMMUNIST THERE FOLLOWS FINALLY THE TESTAMENT OF SUPREMATISM.”
After Malevich’s ascension within the school, Chagall would leave in 1920, and Malevich and Lissitzky would continue on the path of Suprematism, staging exhibitions in Vitebsk and major Russian cities. By 1922, however, the state began to eliminate artistic movements that did not serve the ideological agenda of the party, Socialist Realism was “on the other side of the door,” and soon the school was defunct, having produced only a single graduating class. The People’s Art School would be lost to history for a time, another shining Camelot that had risen and fallen in the gloriously optimistic revolutionary fervor between 1917 and 1922.
The history of the school caught the attention of Lampe, who hoped to bring this fascinating and edifying moment in the history of art to an audience beyond academics and historians. Nahson worked closely with Lampe to bring the Jewish Museum’s iteration of the exhibition to fruition on a somewhat smaller scale but with some new works on loan from local American sources. Some of the exhibition’s most exciting revelations are works by less-known students and faculty of The People’s Art School; the work of artist David Yakerson (who came to the school at the age of 22) is particularly interesting and illustrative. Yakerson’s move from modernist figuration to Suprematism is emblematic of the school’s shift, and two works seen side by side, his 1918 Sketch for the Composition “Panel with the Figure of a Worker,” on paper with watercolor and ink, and his 1920 pencil and ink drawing Suprematist Composition (Walking Robot) tell the tale. The figures in the former are rounded and folkish, their scale symbolic, the colors cool, moody pastels—in a sense, Chagallian. The Suprematist work created only two years later under the influence of Malevich is a dense maze of geometric shapes, interconnected, forming a mechanical, futurist action figure.
Drawings and paintings like these by faculty and students including Lazar Khidekel, Nikolai Suetin, Il’ia Chashnik, Vera Ermolaeva, and Yehuda (Yury) Pen, help fill in the space between the theories and approaches expounded and the work that resulted. These works make clear that the bridge the school sought to build from reality to utopia was bifurcated, Malevich’s fork passing through the material and Chagall’s through dreams. The destination, however, was in many senses the same. “Utopia is by definition no-place,” says Lampe, “but for a short time, maybe, in Vitebsk Utopia may have found a place.”
As art seems to isolate itself more and more in the logic of its own industry and market, where trends and movements appear somewhat cut off from the world at large and art schools nurture individual practice with only a veneer of utility or political engagement, “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922” presents an alternative. The moment that reaches out through history to us is a moment of radical and crucial political art that sought to change the way people lived for the better, and to give form to a new way of life that promised, for the first time in history, true freedom and equality. For a span of four years in Vitebsk, theories and practices wrestled, students and teachers were challenged, and the very purpose of art was thrown into question. For Chagall, Lissitzky, and Malevich, at The People’s Art School during those four precious years, the only thing at stake was everything.
By Chris Shields