For a brief moment after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, the Soviet state looked like it would become a new Camelot. Energized by the communist promises of redistributed wealth and collectivized labor through a new means of production, artists like Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky embraced abstraction as an avant-garde equivalent to the radical societal transformations happening around them. They wanted to push past Cubism and approach the very limits of what painting could be.
Unlike his contemporaries, Marc Chagall was not as interested in completely destroying the figurative tradition of painting, but he certainly adored the country’s new regime. After all, the state had passed a new law banning all discrimination on the basis of religion or nationality, which gave Chagall, who was Jewish, full Russian citizenship for the first time in his life. Accepting his appointment as Fine Arts Commissioner for the Vitebsk region (modern-day Belarus) in 1918, Chagall soon established the People’s Art School, which ran for four years as a feverish laboratory of artistic experimentation. And despite his aesthetic differences with Malevich and Lissitzky, he took both artists along for the ride as teachers at the school, only to watch as more of his students defected from figuration to Malevich’s new abstract style, called Suprematism, year-by-year.
This little-known chapter of art history is the subject of the Jewish Museum’s newest exhibition, Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922, which outlines the school’s influence on its students, teachers, and the evolution of art in the Soviet Union.
With his newfound citizenship, Chagall believed that the world’s opportunities were opening up for him and his family. He illustrates that elation in “Double Portrait with Wine Glass” (1917–18), depicting the artist drunkenly teetering on his wife’s shoulders as his spiritual baby body-double hovers above. A rush of warm colors and an unusually squat landscape evoke Chagall’s eagerness to see Russia’s revolution through. Even while balancing a husband on her back, Bella steps forward toward the viewer, perhaps toward a better future. She would remain Chagall’s primary muse for the next 35 years of their marriage.
With teachers as exuberantly devoted to Suprematism as Lissitzky and Malevich, is it any wonder that students attending the People’s Art School were so swayed by Chagall’s aesthetic opponents? Suprematism was revolution. When he founded the movement, Malevich made that very explicit by writing in his Suprematist manifesto that “art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object.” In that way, it was a cultural caesura that complimented Leninism’s break with the country’s czarist regime. Spiritually, it was a reinvention of Eastern Orthodox mysticism and iconography.
David Yakerson’s art is a prime example of how the shifting pedagogies at Vitebsk completely altered its pupils’ trajectories. Entering the school in 1918, Yakerson developed a painting style that echoed Chagall’s strange elongations and bold shading patterns. Only two years later, though, Yakerson had embraced a full-fledged Suprematism, seen here in over a dozen geometric compositions he created in hot pursuit of Malevich’s sparse style.
Though curators Claudia J. Nahson and Angela Lampe don’t account for the precise costs of friendship between Chagall and his Supremacist colleagues within the exhibition’s text, it’s quite clear that the former artist never acquired a taste for the Russian minimalist mode. After decamping from Vitebsk in 1920 for design work at the Jewish theater in Moscow, Chagall continued to use the shapes and squiggles of Suprematism in his work as a form of critique. Designs for plays like “The Playboy of the Western World” (1921) juxtapose the supposedly holier-than-thou geometries of Suprematism with goats and what appears to be a stupefied saint attached to a cross. (More likely, this “saint” is a reference to the main character of “Playboy,” Christy, a patricidal braggart who nearly kills his father twice.)
Meanwhile, in Vitebsk, Malevich took over Chagall’s position as head of the art school. With that platform, he organized the teachers and students there into a collective called UNOVIS, which stood for “Affirmers of the New Art” in Russian. Effectively functioning as a political outfit supporting the Soviet regime, UNOVIS would often attended political demonstrations, sewing Malevich’s famous Black Square onto their jacket sleeves or waving it on a large flag. (The extent to which the Black Square operated as a political symbol of the Red Army was one subject of speculation in art historian T.J. Clark’s London Review of Books article last year.)
Suprematism’s detractors have long accused Malevich of invoking a “sermon of nothingness and destruction,” as one of the artist’s contemporaries, the Russian Symbolist Alexandre Benois, commented about Black Square. The Jewish Museum’s exhibition clarifies how much grander a scope Malevich had planned for the political and commercial aims of his art movement. The exhibition’s final gallery displays a series of drawings, prints, and pamphlets penned by UNOVIS that propose new designs for government buildings of the ascendent Soviet regime. For instance, “Project for the Decoration of Workshops for the Committee to Combat Unemployment” (1920), which was co-produced by Malevich and Lissitzky, demonstrates a particularly extravagant use of Suprematist geometries for what amounts to a bureaucratic design. At the center of the room, various teacups and plates show Malevich’s willingness to commodify his style as early as 1923.
Understanding this four-year chapter in the wild, branching histories of Europe’s avant-garde feels necessary. Despite how the development of modernism and minimalism are often presented to students of art history — stripped of their political and economic contexts — the Jewish Museum’s Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich presents a much-needed reminder that all histories are more complicated than they appear. Like any other socio-cultural dynamic, the fall of figuration and the rise of Suprematism is replete with the stratagems of personal politics and grand ambitions.
Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922 continues through January 6, 2019 at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Claudia J. Nahson and Angela Lampe.