They painted a revolution

Marc Chagall's tender wedding portrait "Double Portrait with Wine Glass" shines in the Jewish Museum's "Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922." Photo: Adel Gorgy
Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde

By Mary Gregory

Suprematists. Constructivists. Surrealists. Cubo-Futurists. Optimists. Socialists. Mystics. Leftists. Artists.

All of the above. The years 1918-1922 were heady times in Vitebsk, Marc Chagall’s hometown (in present-day Belarus).

After the Revolution of 1917, Russia was changed. For Chagall, it meant new rules and new possibilities. Discrimination against Jewish artists was made a thing of the past by law. He was guaranteed full rights for the first time in Russia. He poured his joy into an ebullient painting, “Double Portrait with Wine Glass,” where he and his new wife Bella embrace, toast life and, yes, there’s a little flying involved. An angel soars above, with purple wings echoed in the purple stockings on Bella’s ankles — as above, so below, in color. Chagall rides piggy-back on his bride’s shoulders and both beam beatifically. Though it was painted years after their wedding, her lovely décolletage and his broad smile paint a picture of marital bliss. Over 8 feet tall, it’s a towering portrait of happiness worth the trip on its own, and it sets the mood for the show.

Over 150 works are on view at the Jewish Museum’s “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922.” The exhibition was organized and curated by Angela Lampe, of the Centre Pompidou (where it debuted earlier this year) joined by the Jewish Museum’s Claudia J. Nahson. It’s the first show to examine the outsized influence of a small city in Russia where a unique collection of teachers, students, ideas and ideals changed the course of art.

Chagall (1887–1985), traveled to Paris in 1910 and found the Cubists. Though their fractured forms can be found in his buildings and backgrounds, Chagall never left figuration. He was a people person. The exigencies of wars, as well as Bella, whom he’d met at a young age, called him back to Vitebsk. In 1918 he was named the city’s commissar of arts. A free, radical art school, open to all, was what was needed, Chagall decided. He founded The People’s Art School. Before long, avant-garde artists, architects and students blanketed the snowy city with color, slogans and youthful, revolutionary enthusiasm.

Chagall invited El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, the reigning leaders of Russian radical art to join him. Malevich, a passionate, charismatic artist, espoused that only in pure abstraction could the highest level of emotion be expressed. He was one of the first to abandon the idea of pictures of something, striving instead for visual expression of feelings and mystical ideas through shape, line, color and form. His work and his titles have been linked with esoteric teachings of his countryman and contemporary, P.D. Ouspensky.

“Forms must be given life and the right to individual existence,” Malevich wrote in 1915. His “Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on Black Circle)” from the Vitebsk years (1920-22) is pared down to the named elements — a red cross and black circle on a white background with a few additional diagonal red lines. With three colors and two shapes we’re witness to a whole new world in art.

Lissitzky took those elements and used them to construct (hence, Constructivism) buildings, posters, speakers’ platforms, book covers, even coffee cups, all to serve modern society and the goals of Communism. “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” a lithograph with a red point cutting open a white circle (the Bolsheviks’ opponents were the White movement) was like the Mona Lisa of Soviet political propaganda.

Throughout the exhibition, letters, folios, designs and documents testify to an insistence on the new, on change. Five sections, “Post-Revolutionary Fervor in Vitebsk,” “The People’s Art School,” “‘The New Art’: Lissitzky and Malevich,” “Collective Utopia,” and “After Vitebsk” trace the early earnest impulses of a young Jewish artist, up through the realization of his dream and the final dissolution of the school. Chagall, himself, was perceived as too old-fashioned, with his flying people and goats. Students didn’t sign up for his classes, and he and Bella left the school and moved to Moscow in 1920.

Is it ironic that artists of the day could find more emotional experience in colorless squares of stark abstraction than in embracing, floating lovers awash in lush hues? That’s in the eye of the beholder. What’s apparent from the works in the exhibition is that an artistic zeal ruled Vitebsk for a few, glorious years. The wall text quotes a visitor from 1921, a year before the school closed, “The city was still resplendent with Malevich’s designs — circles, squares, dots, and lines of different colors — and with Chagall’s flying people. I had the impression of being in an enchanted city.”