The harsh and complex relationship of Vitebsk-born painter Marc Chagall to his hometown was something that had a major influence on his artistic style, argues Dr. Victor Martinovich in his upcoming book Rodina: Marc Chagall in Vitebsk in 1914-1920, available in August from The European Humanities University (EHU) Press.
“The more troubles Chagall met, the more intense his colors became,” said Martinovich about the turbulent years of war and revolution that the painter spent in Vitebsk.
A renowned Belarusian writer, scholar, and associate professor at EHU, Dr. Victor Martinovich presented his research on the life of the famous Belarusian-born artist during an EHU Public Conversation on February 17 in Vilnius. The conversation, moderated by EHU Vice-Rector for Development and Communications Dr. Darius Udrys, explored the lesser-known details of Chagall’s life in Soviet Vitebsk after his return from Paris in 1914.
Martinovich’s research began in Minsk in 2000, and he completed it last year in Vienna at the Institute for Human Sciences. Until very recently, both the Belarusian government and Belarusian academic institutions had discouraged research on Chagall, who was seen as unpatriotic for having left the USSR in the 1920s.
Rodina summarizes all that is known about Chagall’s “second Vitebsk period” and joins it with events regarding “maintaining” Chagall’s memory in Vitebsk after his departure. According to Martinovich, the departure was followed by a complete ban of the artist in the Belorussian Soviet Republic.
“It is very important for me to have this book presented far from the traditional centers of Chagall studies,” said Martinovich. “For a long time, only Paris, New York, and Jerusalem have been seen as a proper places to talk about Chagall. That led to a kind of convenient convention about his life. The Belarusian school of Chagall studies had been simply absent all this time, because it never had a chance to institutionalize properly in the state that persecuted Chagall from 1920 until 2012.”
The Vitebsk-born painter, after having studied art in St. Petersburg and Paris, came back to Vitebsk in June 1914 to marry his fiancée Bella Rozenfield, a daughter of a wealthy jeweler in Vitebsk. The initial plan was to return to Paris after the marriage, but World War I changed that plan and the couple remained in Vitebsk for six years. After the Russian Revolution, Chagall became a Soviet official, serving as Moscow’s plenipotentiary in Vitebsk. According to Martinovich, this position raised Chagall’s hope of fulfilling his dream of introducing contemporary European art to Vitebsk and creating a local art school.
Chagall’s ideas and projects were typically met by discontent from provincial artists and the general public. This was the fate of the first celebration of the October Revolution in Vitebsk, whose art direction was supervised by the artist.
“The Master [Chagall] didn’t restrain himself within any aesthetic frames that would be appropriate for a small city on the outskirts of a Soviet republic. Chagall acted as if his aim was to beautify Paris or any other cultural capital of Europe. The city design was more avant-gardist than Soviet by any measure. There were parrots, harlequins, clowns, working class members cloaked in colorful dress, and a lot of red cloth combined with ornaments made from fir tree needles,” Martinovich explained. “Of course his message wasn’t properly received. The masses laughed at his parrots, newspapers published controversial reports, and city authorities blamed him for spending too many resources on his ‘unintelligible saturnalia’.”
Later, Chagall founded an art school in Vitebsk, where famous Russian artists such as Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and later Kazimir Malevich, were invited to work. As a result of numerous conflicts, often generated by war hardships and different positions on art and management, Dobuzhinsky left, and Malevich took over the school and the admiration of its students from Chagall. The negligence was so deep that most of Chagall’s art works were destroyed by the school’s own students, who recycled his canvases for their own paintings, and soon after his departure Chagall’s name was erased from the history of the school, the city of Vitebsk, Belarus, and the Soviet Union.
“The last publication mentioning Chagall’s name appeared in the Soviet Belarusian press in 1929. Between then and 1987, there was no such painter as Chagall in the art history of Vitebsk,” said Martinovich. “With the start of Perestroika in 1987, major Soviet magazines and newspapers started the campaign to rehabilitate Chagall. But this didn’t help to legalize Chagall in Vitebsk. On the contrary, the beginning of his praise in Moscow led to an aggressive campaign in the communist press in Minsk. So until 1987, it was a time of oblivion for him; and the time since 1987 was a time of suppression, as well.”
Chagall was not recognized in Belarus until as recently as 2012, when the local Gazprombank bought paintings of the master from Christie’s auction house and organized an art exhibition that not only popularized Chagall, but also aimed to demonstrate the good intentions of Gazprom in fostering Belarusian national culture, memory, and art traditions.
According to Martinovich, in the past 24 months Chagall has suddenly achieved respect and fame in Belarus with the same enthusiasm and intensity as he was ignored and suppressed. His paintings decorate not only official state celebrations but also gas stations.
According to Martinovich, the hardships of Vitebsk strengthened Chagall’s artistic style and his unique iconography was developed during his stay there.
“Prior to his return to Vitebsk, Chagall was a secondary painter failing to find his own figurative language in art,” Martinovich said. “In Vitebsk, the iconography of his works changed permanently. A gallery of new, very original, images and symbols was introduced. Lovers began floating in the air precisely during his second Vitebsk period.
“At the end of the day, we really have to say thank you to the Vitebsk of the 1920s—for all the misery, troubles, and tears it gifted, forging the Marc Chagall that we love so much,” Martinovich summarized.
EHU Public Conversations feature prominent public figures known for the thoughtful application of ideas from a broad range of fields, including philosophy, ethics, literature and the arts, history, politics, economics, psychology, and others. They represent EHU’s vision of the university as a forum for discussion of ideas and their application that involves and benefits the public.