“I found myself in Vitebsk when the great celebrations of the October Revolution were over, but 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, but in those days everything was wonderful, and everything was possible, and at that moment the people of Vitebsk had become Suprematists.” — Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaia, 1921
“This is the first major exhibition to explore a little-known chapter in the history of the Russian avant-garde: Marc Chagall’s encounter with the leading figures of abstraction, El (Lazar) Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, at the time of the Russian Revolution. In 1917 Communist forces overthrew the autocratic Tzarist regime that had ruled Russia for more than four hundred years; a civil war followed, culminating in the establishment of the Soviet Union. This radical change in government kindled a passionate idealism among artists, who saw themselves as agents in the remaking of Russian society and culture.
In 1918 Chagall (1887–1985) conceived the People’s Art School in his native city of Vitebsk (today in Belarus). He was soon joined by Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Malevich (1879–1935), along with other teachers and students, many of them Jewish, including Lazar Khidekel and David Yakerson.
The three major figures sought, each in his distinctive fashion, to develop a leftist art in tune with the new revolutionary emphasis on collectivism, education, and innovation. Chagall remained mostly faithful to a figurative and allegorical style, in contrast to Malevich, whose recent invention, Suprematism, offered a radical form of geometric abstraction. Lissitzky, a trained architect, applied the concepts of Suprematism to his innovative Prouns—geometric compositions that he called ‘a transfer station on the way from painting to architecture.’
In this period of intense artistic and political ferment, history was made through art. Visionary creativity was nurtured in a city far from the cultural centers of Moscow and Petrograd. The five years following the 1917 Revolution transformed Vitebsk into the laboratory of a new world.” — Introductory Wall Text
El Lissitzky, Had Gadya Suite: Cover, 1919, lithograph on paper. The Jewish Museum, Gift of Leonard E. and Phyllis S. Greenberg, 1986-121a
El Lissitzky, Had Gadya Suite: The Fire Came and Burnt the Stick, 1919, lithograph on paper. The Jewish Museum, Gift of Leonard E. and Phyllis S. Greenberg, 1986-121g
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
David Yakerson, Sketch for the Composition “Panel with the Figure of a Worker,” 1918, watercolor and ink on paper. Vitebsk Regional Museum of Local History. Photograph by Vorontsov
Marc Chagall, Onward, Onward, 1918, study for the first anniversary of the October Revolution, graphite and gouache on grid-lined paper. Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, donation in lieu of inheritance tax, 1988. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; image provided by CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York
Marc Chagall, Anywhere out of the World, 1915–19, oil on cardboard mounted on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma, Japan, extended Loan from the Bureau of Public Utilities, Gunma Prefectural Government. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Easel, 1919, gouache on paper. Private Collection. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Yuri (Yehuda) Pen, Portrait of Marc Chagall, 1914, oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Belarus. National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk
Marc Chagall, Cubist Landscape, 1919, oil, tempera, graphite, and plaster on canvas. Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, donation of Ida Chagall, 1984. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; image provided by CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York
El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919–20/1965–80, offset print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Image provided by the Library of Congress
El Lissitzky, Proun 6, 1919-20, oil on canvas. Kulturstiftung Sachsen-Anhalt, Kunstmuseum Moritzburg, Halle (Saale), Germany. Photograph by Punctum/Bertram Kober
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism of the Spirit, 1919, oil on panel. Stedelijk Museum Collection, Amsterdam, on loan from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Stichting Khardzhiev
Kazimir Malevich, Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on Black Circle), 1920-22, oil on canvas. Stedelijk Museum Collection, Amsterdam. Ownership recognized by agreement with the estate of Kazimir Malevich, 2008
Vera Ermolaeva, design for the opera Victory Over the Sun, 1920, woodcut with watercolor additions. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Larry Aldrich Fund, 1977. Image provided by The Museum of Modern Art / licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York
Lazar Khidekel, Suprematist Composition with Blue Square, 1921, ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper. Lazar Khidekel Family Archives and Art Collection.
Ilya Chashnik, Suprematist Composition: Design for a Pictorial Relief, c. 1921, pen and ink, graphite, and watercolor on paper. Vladimir Tsarenkov Collection, London
Members of the Creative Committee of the People’s Art School, Vitebsk, winter 1919. Seated: Yuri (Yehuda) Pen (third from left), Marc Chagall (center), Vera Ermolaeva (second from right), Kazimir Malevich (right). Gelatin silver print. Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris
El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, summer 1920. Private collection
UNOVIS Creative Committee, September 1921 Standing in back, left to right: Ilya Chashnik, Lazar Khidekel, and Kazimir Malevich Seated at the table, left to right: Lev Yudin, Vera Ermolaeva, Nikolai Suetin with the UNOVIS emblem on his cuff, and Nina Kogan Seated on the floor, left to right: N. Efros and Mikhail Veksler At right: Efim Royak doubled over and Ivan Chervinka by the easel Photo courtesy Lazar Khidekel Family Archives and Art Collection
Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922 is organized by the exhibition curator, Angela Lampe, Curator of Modern Art, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, in collaboration with Claudia J. Nahson, Morris & Eva Feld Curator, The Jewish Museum, for the New York presentation. The exhibition is designed by Leslie Gill Architect. The exhibition graphics are designed by Topos Graphics.
Images courtesy Jewish Museum.