Dada in New York: Artists in Exile, Part Two

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

In an interview with Pierre Cabanne, decades after the Great War, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) explained how he became an artist and how it was that he came to be exempted from military service–and the two events were linked together. In pre-war France, a nation anticipating a war with Germany, there was a “three year law,” which allowed a young man to do one year instead of three, if he fell under certain exemptions. Feeling, as he put it, “neither militaristic nor soldierly,” Duchamp stumbled upon the fact that there were exemptions for doctors and lawyers and, surprisingly, “art workers.” For the military, “art worker” meant someone skilled in typography or printing of engravings and etchings. It is at this point that Duchamp shamelessly cheated: his grandfather had been an engraver and had left behind some copperplates with “extraordinary views of old Rouen.” The grandson worked with a printer and learned how to print his grandfather’s plates and impressed the jury in the same city and Duchamp was classified as an “art worker.” However that promising start to his military career ended under the withering disapproval of his commanding officer and he was discharged and forever exempted. And so it was that Marcel Duchamp, discouraged by the emptiness of a sad Paris during the Great War was able to come to New York and find Dada there.

It is during that brief period of time, from 1915 to 1918, that Duchamp concentrated on a theme he inherited from the Futurists: the machine. In his introduction to The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Michel Sanouillet explained,

Duchamp’s attempt to rethink the world rests on two supports, the machine, the image and incarnation of our epoch, and chance, which for our contemporaries has de facto replaced divinity. Towards 1910 he was in contact with futurist experiments and conceived the vision of a society where the automatic and artificial would regulate all our relationships. it was to better affirm his humanity that he integrated himself into this new world. He was going even beyond our own time, which still persists in wishing to adapt the machine to man. Duchamp was trying to imagine a state of affairs where man would humanize then machine to such as extend that the latter would truly come to life..What if the machine, stripped of all anthropomorphic attitudes, were to evolve in a world made in its image with no reference to the criteria governing man, its creator? What if, like Kafka’s monkey, it servilely imitated all human grimaces and gestures with the exclusive goal of freeing itself of its chains and of “leaving” them? Then, if the machine were to love, desire and marry, what would be its mental processes?..According to Duchamp, the machine is a supremely intelligent creature which evolves, in a world completely divorced from our own; it thinks; organizes this thought in coherent sentences, and following the technique describe above, uses words whose meaning is familiar to us. However, these words conspire to mystify us..On the other hand, what would happen if the machine admitted the possibility of accident, or non-repetition, exclusive attribute of man? Better yet, if having gotten ahead of us, it learned to use chance for utilitarian or aesthetic ends?

2ef167f5afb9a56caead14f6ca0bdc89

Mechanical drawing of Bolts and Screws

This rather long speculation on the machine owes more the contemporary science fiction than to the mindset of 1915, but there is no question that Duchamp and his friend Francis Picabia (François Marie Martinez Picabia)) though long and hard about machines as humans and considered the possibility that humans were also machines or mechanical in their operating systems. When Picabia returned to New York, he paused in his career as a painter for almost a decade and embraced on an interesting series of “mechanomorphs,” or portraits of those in the New York art scene as corresponding machines. In other words, if his friends were machines, what kind of machine would he or she be? It was, at this stage of his career , for Picabia to give up painting for it was a medium too “fat” and shiny and sensuous for the machine and its mechanical nature.

900_i-see-again-in-memory-my-dear-udnie

Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory, My Dear Undine (1913)

Like the artists of New Objectivity who would emerge in a decade, Picabia turned to mechanical drawing, dry and circumspect, straightforward and pragmatic. The source material was plentiful and industrial designers and their drawings, artless and presentational, were available in catalogues and manuals. Mechanical drawing itself is an acquired skill, with the artist working at a drafting table with instruments such as compasses and straight edge rulers. It is an art or precision, designed to show and tell without introspection and without need of interpretation. Or course,
reading” these complex renderings is a skill in itself, but, for artists, the reading was less important than the emotionless rendering itself.

francis_picabia

Francis Picabia

When Picabia returned to New York in 1915, his sponsor and colleague, Alfred Stieglitz, was in a bit of a holding pattern. A successful photographer, art dealer, sponsor of avant-garde in America, publisher of a major art journal, Camera Work, Stieglitz had been the main conduit for contemporary art but the Great War had stymied the free international exchange of ideas and art. Middle aged and in an unhappy marriage, the photographer faced a crossroads, and, indeed, in 1916 he would close 291 and end that chapter in his life. But, as always the older man surrounded himself with young protégées, in this case, the poet Paul Haviland and the poet Agnes Ernst Meyer, who convinced him to start a new and innovative art magazine, 291, after the famous gallery. Picabia eagerly joined this new enterprise and filled the pages of 291 with a series of “object portraits,” or mechanical drawings of notable members of his artistic circle, pictured as machines. This idea of a person as a metaphor would be copied a decade later by Charles Demuth who painted the poet William Carlos Williams as one of his own poems, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold. But Picabia was far more rigorous in both is approach and his drawing of these “portraits.” No painting is involved, a renunciation similar to that of Duchamp, who was also moving towards a mechanistic form of rendering, as seen in his linear recreation of one of his earlier paintings of a chocolate grinder on the cover of The Blind Man. Picabia explained later that it was his time in America inspired his turn to the machine:

This visit to America has brought about a complete revolution in my methods of work..Almost immediately upon coming to America it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression. I have been profoundly impressed by the vast mechanical developments in America. The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life–perhaps the very soul.

Picabia was in and out of America between 1915 and 1917, before declaring his farewell to Dada in 1918. During this time of restless traveling, he was in Barcelona where he published a European version of 291, called 391, in which a number of his machine drawings appeared. Using industrial catalogues as a resource, Picabia seems to have favored cars and their many parts as his main source of inspiration. For a man as fascinated with cars as he was, it would not be surprising that he would not only know of manuals of parts but would also be familiar with the actual experience of being a mechanic. Early cars were temperamental and the owners were expected to be able to do their own repairs at a basic level. As Mariea Caudill Dennison explained in her interesting article, “Automobile Parts and Accessories in Picabia’s Machinist Works of 1915-17,”

His American residency gave him ample opportunity to browse in contemporary American printed material, finding illustrations and diagrams of auto parts in magazines, advertisements, handbooks, manuals and even window dis- plays..By the summer of 1915, combination starting, lighting and ignition systems were becoming increasingly common in cars, both as standard equipment and add-on packages.

francis_picabia_ici_cest_ici_stieglitz_foi_et_amour_cover_of_291_no1_1915

Francis Picabia. Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (1915)

In one of the finest of these “portraits,” Alfred Stieglitz was, predictably, a camera or his exact camera to be precise, a vest pocket Kodak model. But Picabia added additional “equipment,” so to speak, a gearshift, which gives the car instruction, and a brake lever that perversely put the camera/car in an immobile position. The brake on Stieglitz has been interpreted as the stalemate the photographer faced as he was a decade past his breakthrough as a “straight photographer.” Both William Innes Homer and William Camfield assert that the brake should be thought of as the photographer at a creative standstill. Appearing on the cover of the July-August 1915 issue of 291, this crisp drawing indicates the speed with which Picabia, who arrived in New York in June, found his métier. As William Rozaitis descried the drawing in “The Joke at the Heart of Things: Francis Picabia’s Machine Drawings and the Little Magazine 291:”

The viewer is confronted with a crisply rendered machine. Its parts are easily identifiable as those of a camera: a lever and a handle appear to the right; a bellows puffs out of a film box at the bottom; and connected to the box by a series of overlapping, riveted supports is a lens. The drawing bears the inscription and title, Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (Here, this is Stieglitz / faith and love), an apt description of the master photographer (1864-1949) who selflessly worked, with “faith and love,” to raise the status of photography to an art form and to introduce modern painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography to the American public. The word “ideal” appears in Gothic script above the camera’s lens, while 291-the title of the magazine as well as the name of Stieglitz’s well-known gallery-appears to the left, suggesting that the contents of the magazine will champion the same “ideal” standards for modern art that led inspired artists and devotees to crowd Stieglitz’s small room.

4655d3e207d4c0d76a041fcea5f3bb53

Francis Picabia. Le Saint des saints (1915)

The meanings of the suite of five “mechanomorphs” are as complex and personal as the drawings are simplified and impersonal. Picabia’s own self portrait, Le Saint des saints, is a braying automobile horn, also called a “canter,” by the artist, that is one who speaks “cant” or a local language. At the bottom, Picabia wrote “C’est de moi qu’il s’agin dans ce portrait,” which means: “The holy of the holies is to me that it is in this picture.” Le Saint des saints is a portrait of an artist as a conveyor of a message, but, as a prophet, he arrives in a fast car, a machine, the object of the future. If Picabia was a source of noise, then Paul Haviland was a portable electric lamp–a source of light. the poet was wealthy, representing Limoges china to American consumers, and was a financial backer of 291. The portrait, titled, La poésie est comme lui. Voilà Haviland, is a relative simple one, suggesting that Picabia was politely paying tribute to the man who was making his work possible.

8ed5afb0fece2b47ba13fe9132dc0ed1

Francis Picabia. De Zayas! De Zayas! (1915)

If we overlook the curious fact that the cord for the lamp lacks a plug, in contrast, the rendering of Stieglitz was borderline insulting, if art historians are to be believed, and the portrait of the close associate of Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas (1880-1961), and their benefactor Agnes Ernst Meyer were also less than flattering. Much ink has been spilled on figuring out the many parts of De Zayas! De Zayas!, the portrait of De Zayas, the editor of 291. Indeed, it was De Zayas who had introduced the idea of Apollinaire’s petit revue to New York and published twelve issues of the magazine. He soon left the association with Stieglitz to open his own gallery, The Modern Gallery in 1915. Stieglitz, used to being the only game in town, objected to this sudden move towards independence and the two collaborators drifted apart. Perhaps as an acknowledgment of the estrangement, the gallery was renamed the De Zayas Gallery in 1919.

That said, in 1915, the object diagram of De Zayas is complex and undeciphered, part machine and part fashion illustration, complete with an old fashioned woman’s corset, with no woman in it. Homer noted that the inscriptions were equally strange: “J’ai vu/et c’est de toy qu’il s’agit,” or “I have seen you and it is you that this concerns.” Even more puzzling, the artist wrote, “Je suis venu sur les rivages/du Pont-Euxin,” or “I have come to the shores of Pont-Euxin.” As suggested by the presence of the empty corset, this portrait seems to have sexual content, from a male perspective. Indeed as Mariea Caudill Dennison remarked

Given Picabia’s inclination for linking women and sexuality with machines, it is no surprise to find a woman’s corset here..The female sphere in De Zayas! De Zayas! is clearly the black electrical schematic drawing. Picabia equated a female to a spark plug in Portrait of an American girl in a state of nudity (1915) and here the spark plug is linked by a diagonal line..This point of contact between the red and black systems in Picabia’s rendering suggests that the female creates a spark or surge of electricity that excites or activates the base of the connecting rod. In a car engine the connecting rod moves with the piston (not shown in Picabia’s work) up and down inside the cylinder. The plunging movement within the cylinder is analogous with sexual intercourse..Picabia has seen machinery and females as sources of art and has conquered them both.

0340f4e7fb184eeda7d5975074b14191

Francis Picabia. Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié (1915)

Next to the famous portrait of Stieglitz, it is the spark plug, perfectly copied in its simple entirety but titled Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié of 1915, that is the most well-known of the object portraits. Homer suggested, although others disagree, that the jeune fille was a portrait of Agnes Meyer, a married woman, with a wealthy husband. The money she was able to contribute to the “cause” of avant-garde made her a “spark plug” for the artists. As a patron, she made their engines go, sparking their progress. Engraved on the side of the spark plug was the word “Forever,” an ironic inscription, given that it was she who funded De Zayas’ gallery, considered a rival to Stieglitz. The “young girl” was copied from a very deluxe spark plug called a “red head,” but, viewing this homage from the vantage point of one hundred years later, the analogy between a mature married woman and a spark plug in the service of male artists is patronizing and condescending. However, the equation between women and machines and sex was one of the conceptual foundations of Picabia’s work of this interim period. In Picturing Science, Producing Art, Peter Galison noted,

Here we get to the heart of the matter, or rather, the sex of the machine. Surely the spark plug is a phallic woman (which is to say a metaphoric hermaphrodite). Yet she is rendered quite explicitly unthreatening by her very “nudity” and controllability–by our recognition that she stands naked of the larger apparatus that controls her sparking. .PIcabia’s vision of the plug’s erotic potential is suggested by is statement that he chose the spark plug for his girl because she was the “kindler of the flame.”

Sadly, shortly after this remarkable series of machine portraits or mechanomorphs, Picabia had a mental and physical breakdown and in 1916 left New York for Barcelona where he produced a new magazine, 391, nihilistic and alienated and aggressive. Reflective of the personality of Picabia himself, the issues also presented some of his ”portraits mécaniques.” In the third issue, Marie, a fan belt represented the artist Marie Laurencin, who was associated with Apollinaire. Then in 1917, Picabia returned to New York and continued his publication. Subsequent studies of the work of this artist during the years of the War have been somewhat sloppy in assuming his art was a critique of the New Woman or the Flapper, but these liberated women asserted themselves only after the war was over, and in America at peace, women were safely in their traditional places. There is no evidence to suggest that the Spanish-French artist was aware of the Suffragette movement, taking place in front of the White House in Washington D. C. Both Picabia and Duchamp had complex and varied experiences with many women and these events often found their way into their art in what David Hopkins called “male self-referentialty.” It seems more likely that, like Duchamp, Picabia’s interest was less in women and their social position and more in the mechanics of sex itself–Stieglitz is old and impotent and women, as sex machines, exist for the pleasure of the young male, also a sex machine.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Dada in New York: Artists in Exile

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) arrived in New York for his second visit early in 1915, a few months before the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in May 1915. Born in Cuba to a wealthy family, a Spanish father and French mother, Picabia, early twentieth century Euro-trash, was a rolling stone who drifted through his life and roamed the art worlds of Paris and New York, sampling many styles and expressing multiple moods. Much of his butterfly art was derivative and only mildly interesting but he had an eye for the main chance and hung about some of the bigger players in the very interesting new game called “Dada” during the Great War. It can be argued that, inspired by Alfred Stieglitz and his old friend Marcel Duchamp, Picabia enjoyed a brief flowering as an interesting artist. As Michael Gibson wrote for The New York Times on the occasion of yet another exhibition in 2002 attempting to sort out his complex oeuvre: “The exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris demonstrates with dazzling clarity that Francis Picabia was, in fact, a pretty awful artist.” In November of 2016, the Museum of Modern Art received a traveling exhibition, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, which has a section on his machine drawings, products of his Dada experiences. Moving past Picabia’s Impressionist, Post-Impressionsit, Cubist works, Roberta Smith concentrated on the most famous segment of the artist’s work: “The Mechanomorphs line the walls of the show’s largest gallery while vitrines of Dadaist material occupy its center, reflecting the artist’s activities from 1915 to the early 1920s, during which he abandoned painting for drawings, prints and magazines and pursued Dada first in New York, with Duchamp, then in Switzerland with Tristan Tzara, the movement’s founder, and finally in Paris.”

picabia-a-dada-1919-t

Picabia à dada (1919)

Picabia who had come to New York in 1913 for the Armory Show was already a character in Paris, who cut a flamboyant figure with his penchant for fast cars and fast women and an accomplished wife. New York in 1913 was not exactly a frontier of avant-garde art, but there was one gallery in the city and one man who was interested in contemporary artists: Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz held parallel exhibitions of cutting edged European artists in his gallery, 291, and Picabia wisely made his acquaintance. Stieglitz showed two of Picabia’s early abstract paintings, Udnie (1913) and Edtaonisl (1913) at his gallery, adding to the shock of the provincial New Yorkers. Looking back on this famous exhibition that changed American art, Life Magazine noted in 1959 that Picabia’s painting, Dancers in the Spring, was a close rival in shock effect to Duchamp’s nude.” Like Marcel Duchamp, Picabia became well-known on New York as a result of the Armory Show and this fame beckoned once the Great War began. Like many of his peers, Picabia was drafted into the Army. Sent on a mission to America, Picabia managed to disembark in New York in 1915 and simply did not return to his military life. New York was now home to Parisian artists in exile: Albert Gleizes, the famous Cubist painter and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who had given up painting, thanks in small part to Francis Picabia. Thus Picabia had a small part in the fold of the career of Duchamp, who was shocked by the rejection of his 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase from the Salon des Indépendants. Smarting over the betrayal of his brothers, who failed to back him or protect him with their colleagues of the Salon, Duchamp joined Picabia and his wife Gabrielle Buffet and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on a road trip through the Jura Mountains in the fall of 1912. Already, the artist had decided to exit the art world and to take another path–whatever that might be–towards being a different kind of artist.

900_i-see-again-in-memory-my-dear-udnie

Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (June-July 1914)

During this weekend journey, Duchamp began making notes on his future conceptual direction, scribbling down ideas that would eventually become The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, The Large Glass. Roaring along the mountain road with Francis Picabia at the wheel of one his large and elegant cars, Duchamp imagined what Richard Hamilton described as “a prose fantasy. A machine, with an animal component, is describe as absorbing the long, straight empty road, with its comet-like headlights beaming out in front towards a seemingly infinity.” One hundred years later it is hard to recognize just how novel such an experience would be in these early years of automotive traveling. Surely it was one of the eventsthat shifted one’s attention towards all things mechanical–the machine, upon which one was totally dependent in the mountains. Already Picabia was fascinated with the motor car, an object of desire that drove him, so to speak, to collect one hundred twenty seven of them during his life time. But there is more to this experience–driving at night on a road then innocent of highway markings with the headlights attempting to penetrate the dense darkness, like comets streaking across the sky–an idea that make a tremendous impression on Duchamp.

Speeding over the mountain roads, hardly suited for the fragile cars and their thin tires, there was a sense of not seeing and not knowing what was ahead. While Picabia was driving, Duchamp was writing: “On one hand, the chief of the five nudes will be ahead of the four other nudes towards the Jura-Paris road. On the other hand, the headlight child will be the instrument conquering the Jura-Paris road..The term ‘indefinite’ seems to me to be more accurate than infinite. The road will begin in the chief of the five nudes, and will not end in the headlight child.” Later Duchamp, thinking of glass, wrote, “Use ‘delay’ instead of a picture or painting: picture on glass becomes delay in glass–but delay in glass doesn’t not mean picture on glass..” This delay could be seen as the “delay” in seeing that happens when one drives in a fast car, approaching a new sight but not quite there yet–a scene that lies ahead but is delayed in time and space but is always being anticipated by the passenger. Picabia and Duchamp, then, had a history of being outsiders and iconoclasts in the Parisian art world and it was to be expected that they would reconvene in New York in 1913 and again in 1915 in with anarchy on their minds. Casting around for like minded artists, equally alienated for whatever reason, they met the American Man Ray, who was still painting in his pre-Dada phase, and joined cause with John Covert and Morton Schamberg and the collector and collaborator, Walter Arensberg. For lack of a better name, this “group” was later called “New York Dada,” because it was supposedly “anti-art.”

However characterizations and definitions came later, often after the Second World War. In 1966 fifty years after the fact Hans Richter stated of New York Dada, “..its participants were playing essentially the same anti-art tune as we were. The notes may have sounded strange, at first, but the music was the same.” The term anti-art is a broad idea that is not only an anachronistic historical determination but is also an umbrella for all the different manifestations of Dada. But, if one thinks of Dada emerging in a number of cities, more or less sequentially, then the fact that Dada may have arisen avant la lettre in New York, emerged full blown in Zurich a year later and ended with a few clever gestures in Paris before being absorbed into Surrealism, signals that there were different artists thinking different thoughts in different cities under different conditions. The New York group shared in common with the Zurich artists the condition of exile but they were visual artists who were fascinated with the mechanical. This interest in mechanics suggested an anti-aesthetic or a non-sensuous approach in traditional artmaking procedures. Machines were the way “out of” art, the path that allowed them to think beyond the hand and the “talent” of the artist, and this fascination with machines, learned in Paris before the war. was only enhanced in the most modern city in the world–New York City. Picabia, in particular, was struck by the modernity of a city sprouting skyscrapers, elevated by machines that hoisted steel beams agains the open sky. Duchamp was fascinated by the products of the city and one of the first Readymades he purchased was a shiny new snow shovel, the like of which did not exist in Paris. Both artists were anti-art in the sense that they were pro-machine or pro-mechanics and they understood well that an old way of making art was coming to an end.

For the artists who had fled the war, the stalemated trench warfare, the modernity of suffering, the mechanization of death made it imperative to rethink the role of art and, even, what “art” would or could be in this conflagration. In an interview for The New York Tribune, probably conducted in French, in 1915, Duchamp predicted a new “severe, direct art,” suitable for the beginning of the twentieth century. He continued, “One readily understands this when one realizes the growing hardness of feeling in Europe, one might almost say the utter callousness with which people are learning to receive the news of the death of those nearest and dearest to them. Before the war the death of a son in a family was received with utter, abject woe, but today it is merely part of a huge universal grief, which hardly seems to concern any one individual.” Duchamp was speaking in this, the second year of the war, which had already defined itself as a simple bloodletting. Although the myths of the Great War have tended to emphasize the high casualties on the British side, especially those of the highly educated classes, it was the French who were nearly wiped out in the first month of the war. In November 1918, once again, it was the French who, at the end, suffered the greatest losses, an entire generation was simply gone. Duchamp, who was in France in that terrible first year, would have been well aware of the high cost the French Army had paid in holding the German Army at the Marne. Duchamp was deemed unfit for military service but his brothers Raymond and Jacques were in service, as was Guillaume Apollinaire, while he was a bystander observing the unfolding of random mass death without “glory.”

fontis_place_de_lalma_8_novembre_1915

Paris, Place d’Alma 1915

Duchamp describe the deserted art scene in Paris: “Art has gone dusty,” he said, referring to the stalled creativity. “Paris is like a deserted mansion. Her lights are out. One’s friends are all away at the front. Or else they have been already killed.” He noted the toll the War took on creative and artistic thinking: “Nothing but war was talked about from morning until night. In such an atmosphere, especially for one who holds war to be an abomination, it may readily be conceived that existence was heavy and dull.” Once he came to New York he noted, he had stopped painting altogether. Therefore as a wanderer, who did not depend upon cultural nourishment, he wryly asserted that “it is a matter of indifference to me where I am.” But this posture of indifference was used, as it often would for the rest of his life, to elide a more significant truth. For Duchamp and Picabia, New York was a no-place, a private place, a refuge away from the hard critical eyes of the art world they had left behind. Here in this new city, leaping skyward, one could become a new person and one could make new art. Here there were no rules. Here there was only freedom. Both artists thrived in this open minded milieu and produced, in the middle of a nihilistic war, a new way of making and thinking about art. Part Two will discuss the individual ways in which Picabia and Duchamp broke with the art of the past.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Three

Creating a Language for the Revolution

The ROSTA Windows

In 1917, Russia was a nation no longer a nation, but an empire unraveling, torn between a weak provisional government and rear guard resistance of the so-called “White Russians.” The Russian Empire collapsed under the unbearable weight of an un winnable war, resulting in a wholesale refusal to carry on under the weak and ineffectual Czar. This was the February Revolution, which, according to the new calendar happened in March, and it was a simple and spontaneous strike, a rejection of not just an unwanted war but also a failed ruler. Despite the will of the people who wanted to extricate themselves from the Great War, the Provisional government continued to participate, leaving the door open to continuing discontent and further rebellion. Even though the Czar abdicated, no doubt hoping for a peaceful retirement, another coup took place in October Revolution (November). The arrival of the “Reds,” or the Communists, under Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) pushed the temporary regime aside and established a new kind of revolution, the first Marxist government, led by the Bolshevik Party. Once Lenin had negotiated a withdrawal from the War–at great cost to Russia–making peace with Germany, a five year struggle for the soul of the new nation began with the Whites. This fight was waged militarily and politically, but Lenin, recognizing the power of the visual image, called upon artists to join the conflict as part of the propaganda effort to educate the Russian people on the merits of Communism.

vladimir-ilyich-ulyanov-lenin-propaganda-poster-comrade-lenin-cleanses-the-earth-of-filth

Comrade Lenin is Sweeping Scum off the Earth

At the time of the Revolution, “Russia” consisted of a few cities, located mostly in its western half. it was here in the municipalities and the urban centers, that culture, both high and low, was produced, mostly for a literate population. However, the new Soviet Union was a huge and vast expanse of land and forty five percent of its inhabitants were illiterate. The stupefying fact that half the people could neither read nor write was an outgrowth of an elitist system in which the upper classes spoke French and the vernacular Russian speakers, the middle classes, strove to produce a specifically “Russian” culture with Russian roots and history. Adding to that division between classes was the total neglect of the lower classes who were left to fend for themselves and remain uneducated. Under the autocratic and ruthless rule of the Czar, the illiteracy hardly mattered, but when the Bolsheviks came into power, they had to fight a civil war to consolidate that power. Part of the war, beyond actual fighting, involved convincing people–all the people–of the benefits of a revolution that promised the level the class system, eliminate all traces of elitism and former loci of collusion, including religion, and to redistribute the wealth and property of the aristocracy. It would be less a matter of convincing the people that this revolution would be preferable to the Czar and more a commitment to informing the people as to the progress of the Reds in their battle against the Whites.

c03

ROSTA poster

The solution was straightforward propaganda, an information campaign that would announce the new government and explain its new benefits for all. Lenin expressed the scope and urgency of the task, published in the Bulletin of the All-Russia Conference of Political Education Workers in 1920:

The transition from bourgeois society to the policy of the proletariat is a very difficult one, all the more so for the bourgeoisie incessantly slandering us through its entire apparatus of propaganda and agitation. It bends every effort to play down an even more important mission of the dictatorship of the proletariat, its educational mission, which is particularly important in Russia, where the proletariat constitutes a minority of the population. Yet in Russia this mission must be given priority, for we must prepare the masses to build up socialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat would have been out of the question if, in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat had not developed a keen class-consciousness, strict discipline and profound devotion, in other words, all the qualities required to assure the proletariat’s complete victory over its old enemy.

okna_rosta_427

ROSTA poster

During the Great War, mostly due to German misinformation, the word “propaganda,” once a neutral and positive word, gained a negative connotation by the 1920s, but never in Russia. The Soviets used propaganda during the entire life of the Union as a vital tool to control public opinion. As soon as Lenin became the leader a broad strategy emerged called “agitatsiya-propaganda,” or political agitation and propaganda, or “agit-prop.” Agit-prop was dedicated to raising the consciousness of the people, in the Marxist sense, to inform the people of their exploitation at the hands of their masters so that their eyes would be open to the truth of their oppressed condition. In his book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, José Alaniz noted that the earliest example of Civil War art was a series twelve posters showing the workers’ consciousnesses being “raised” when the peasant is freed from his blindfold and “sees the truth.” Alaniz described one poster, Once Upon a Time There Lived the Bourgeoisie, as resembling a comic strip with eight panels, a format that would become familiar to the public as a progression from one cell to the next. Once the readers understood that the Bolsheviks were their benefactors, the powers that had set the peasants free, the lower classes could be joined in solidarity against the enemy, whether the Whites or an outside threat. To achieve the proper level of communication and education and consciousness raising, agit-prop was deployed as theater, as trains, as posters, as art forms of all kinds form verbal to visual. The agit-prop efforts were especially intense during the war between the Whites and the Reds, from 1917 to 1922, when the activities were less controlled by the government and more in the hands of the artists themselves. After the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, the agit-prop activities were formalized and brought under the command of the victorious regime.

c02

ROSTA poster

From the very beginning of the propaganda campaigns, the question of the language of art came up in the form of a dialogue of sorts between artists and officials. Most avant-garde artists were enthusiastic supporters of the Marxist cause and worked hard to ensure the success of the new government, but their efforts did not always please the new masters. Artists and politicians are very different kinds of individuals with entirely distinct educational and cultural experiences. Artists such as Marc Chagall in Vitebsk celebrated the October revolution with his own fantastical version of traditional Russian luboks and Jewish imagery, but the authorities were not pleased with the green cows and blue donkeys, improbably flying through the air. The problem for the artists would be two fold: first, as in the case of Chagall, his or her imagination and singular perspective could interfere with what the government needed: a clear message to the people. Second, as in the case of Malevich, art that was too intellectually “advanced” or “avant-garde” was equally incapable of being recognized by the illiterate public as “art,” much less as communication. The artists were deeply sincere, willing to lay down their art in the service of the revolution, but they were also equally committed to their art and the logical outcomes of avant-garde art. This aesthetic outcome, as demonstrated by Malevich’s abstract Suprematism and Tatlin’s spectacular but unbuildable “monuments,” was not very useful to the government and its needs. As Raphael Sassower and Louis Cicotello pointed out in their 2006 book, Political Blind Spots: Reading the Ideology of Images,

..the avant-garde style of geometric abstraction typical to the experimental art of the pre-Revolutionary aesthetics..began to arouse objection from supporters of traditional representation imagery in both the artistic and government circles. Art historians associated with the government publication of posters for the military argued for realistic rather than abstract work. Workers, soldiers, and peasants drawn in squares, circles, and triangles were senseless images that couldn’t express the integrity of the revolution..Public decorations in the avant-garde manner, often referred to by Pravda reviewers as “the fashionable futurist style,” met with opposition as being incomprehensible and condemned as a mockery of the taste of the working class.

c01

ROSTA poster

The most successful art form dedicated to the Revolution was the production of ROSTA posters, an outpouring of artistic enterprise that cranked out thousands of lithographs. Only a few of these posters survive today but they are the best examples of art made on the fly, responding to the urgent need of the Revolution to communicate with the people. The English writer Arthur Ransome had traveled through Czarist Russia in 1913, acquainting himself with the culture, learning the language and collecting Russian folk tales. The publication of Old Peter’s Russian Tales, (1916) took place during the War and, in fact, Ransome spent the four years in Moscow, reporting on the war. After the Great War, Ransome’s long stay in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, and Moscow was considered valuable to his newspaper, the Daily News, and he began reporting on the Revolution. His book Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 ccontained an account of his encounter with agit prop. Ransome noticed that posters were everywhere:

When I crossed the Russian front in October, 1919, the first thing I noticed in peasants’ cottages, in the villages, in the little town where I took the railway to Moscow, in every railway station along the line, was the elaborate pictorial propaganda concerned with the war. There were posters showing Denizen standing straddle over Russia’s coal, while the factory chimneys were smokeless and the engines idle in the yards, with the simplest wording to show why it was necessary to beat Denizen in order to get coal; there were posters illustrating the treatment of the peasants by the Whites; posters against desertion, posters illustrating the Russian struggle against the rest of the world, showing a workman, a peasant, a sailor and a soldier fighting in self-defence against an enormous Capitalistic Hydra. There were also-and this I took as a sign of what might be-posters encouraging the sowing of corn, and posters explaining in simple pictures improved methods of agriculture. Our own recruiting propaganda during the war, good as that was, was never developed to such a point of excellence, and knowing the general slowness with which the Russian centre reacts on its periphery, I was amazed not only at the actual posters, but at their efficient distribution thus far from Moscow.

a43630f88744c8e8657cebb88e6d4bee

ROSTA poster

ROSTA stands for Russian Telegraph Agency (Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA) which was an organization that transmitted messages and the news across the nation. These agencies had windows which would be plastered with posters, changing hour by hour, “broadcasting,” as it were, accounts of the most recent events and the need to get medical vaccines and bulletins about the Civil War. The idea of the ROSTA windows being the ground for posters has been attributed to Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh (1890-1962), who created the first poster filled window. The images needed text and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), a revered poet, supplied the slogans and phrases needed to inform the public in a succinct and direct form. As Mayakovsky said, “A machine like speed was demanded of us; it would often happen that a report of some victory at the front would come in by telegraph–and 40 minutes to an hour later, the news would be hanging out in the street, in the form of a colorful poster.”

b02

Vladimir Mayakovsky

The posters were a collaborate production and most of the artists, such as N. Treschenko, O. Savostyuk and B. Uspensky, labored unknown or unsung, working under difficult conditions, using stencils and linotype to facilitate the speed of output to capture up to date news. These posters were widely distributed, flowing far beyond Moscow to the provinces, where there would be plastered in the windows of the local Telegraph Agency. The massive numbers and expansive distribution of these perishable art forms should be contrasted with the work of artists in Moscow, where photomontages by Alexandre Rodchenko and posters by El Lissitzky tended to remain in more or less elitist circles. The ROSTA posters were kin to the propaganda deployed during the Great War and cousins to the peasant art form , the lubok, but it is important to note that these posters were far less complex and were far more eloquent in their new stripped down easily readable language. According to Alexander Roob, writing in 2914 for the Melton Prior Institute,

The project was support with great effort by Platon Kerzhentsev, the new director of ROSTA. Kerzhentsev was one of the driving forces of the avant-garde Proletkult organization, whose aim was to establish an autonomous working-class culture leaving all traditional, bourgeois genres behind. The revolutionizing of expression, which Proletkult had hitherto sought mainly in the field of literature and theatre, could now be applied under the aegis of Mayakovsky to the area of graphic picture publishing as well. Mayakovsky selected the ROSTA news items and prepared them along with other poets and journalists for pictorial realisation.

a04

ROSTA posters

Robb noted that “the pictorial sign system” that was developed to reach the “mostly illiterate population” had to be “consistent.” He stated that “The grammar of pictograms established by the ROSTA collective over time is a novelty in the history of illustration. it had a decisive impact on the development of infographics.” Surprisingly, the ROSTA windows (Okna ROSTA) were filled with posters that were designed by artists educated in the most elite and avant-garde of circles and they combined the lubok with Futurism and Cubism with touches of Suprematism that laced these twentieth century comic strips with Western style. The accomplishment of these artists is that the texts engaged the reader in a dialogue that ran parallel to the attention grabbing bright colors and strong shapes. In fact the images in the posters were considered ideograms or hieroglyphs, picture writing accompanied with reinforcing texts that gave instructions on how to survive in terrible times. The posters told entertaining and sometimes horrible stories containing information with entertainment and were among the best examples of art being put into “production,’ in other words, art taken out of the artist studio, out of the galleries and out of the museums and placed in the middle of life itself, an ongoing historical situation that was changing by the hour.

a01

Exhibition of ROSTA posters

Mayakovsky stated, “Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere–on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops and in workers’ homes.” Instead of heavy handed critique, satire from artists Victor Deni, was used to discredit the Whites and those who disagreed with Communism. The major achievement of the ROSTA posters was that of creating an efficient sign language, uniquely suited to the pouchier style of drawing and print production. Rushed from town to village by rail, the poster artists devised but a visual and verbal language which was able to communicate effectively with peasants without patronizing them. The tradition of the ROSTA posters came to an end with the Civil War and, under Stalin, this very bold and efficient mode of communication fell by the wayside to make way for a more traditionally illustrative tradition coupled with simple slogans. But in their day, the importance of the ROSTA posters and the vital role they played during the war is reflected in the warning: Anyone who tears down or covers up this poster – is committing a counter-revolutionary act

you_volunteer

Dmity Moor. Have You Enlisted In the Army?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Two

What to do During a Revolution

The Death of Art

It is one of the oddities of modernism that the nations most attached to the past gave birth to movements that yearned most strongly for the future—but that longing for a new way of life cannot be a coincidence. Mired in the past, Italy and the Russian Empire were, by any standards, “backward,” a word universally used, when comparing them to the rest of Europe, to describe these two anachronistic and decrepit nations, clinging to the past and unsure of the way forward. And yet on the eve of the Great War, Italy and Russia had two admittedly small groups of avant-garde artists, writers and poets, the radical intelligentsia, straining to find modernity in places mired in the past. In the case of Russia, the sprawling ungovernable Empire, stretching like a growth, reaching out from west to east, the imperial government was ambivalent when it came to its relationship with the rest of Europe. Russia had a Western face, the side that struggled to modernize and adapt technology to its needs, but Russia also had an Eastern face, a deep consciousness of Russian exceptionalism or uniqueness. And it would be that backwards looking traditionalist face that would—ironically—fuel Russian Futurism—a contradiction in terms.

img098

Marinetti in Moscow in 1914

When Futurism came to Russia, first as a word, a neologism implying all that which was modern and then later in the person of Marinetti, it was in the waning years of the anachronistic reign of an incompetent Czar. Marinetti was badly received by his Russian audiences in 1914, whose “Futurism” derived more from literature than from contact with actual Italian art. Little did he or any of the other Russian Avant-Garde artists, realize that that winter was the last before the Great War. Although the Futurists could not realize that the Empire could not survive such a massive social and cultural disruption, they were keenly aware of the anachronistic and insanely melodramatic nature of an illegitimate regime. The Czar, Nicholas II, was ruled by his vindictive and unstable wife, Alexandra and, through her allegiance to a mad monk, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, called “Rasputin,” the royal couple had allowed this unstable character to control the affairs of state. For whatever reason, Rasputin had managed convinced the parents that he alone could keep their precious child alive and cast a spell over the poor doomed child Alexia, heir to a throne he would never mount. The situation of the royal family sounded like a plot from a horror film but was, in fact, indicative of how insular Russia had become, going far off course, drifting away from modernity and moderation. The pointless and parasitic aristocrats, like the Royal Family served little purpose, but the nobles plotted against Rasputin and eventually managed to murder him in 1916.

7eb79e0c673a20af7e72c9da4de496a6

Russian Royal Family

Rasputin and the drama in the Royal Family were symptomatic of deep internal instabilities within the Empire that could not be sustained. In order to hold on to its power, the regressive Russian Orthodox Church had deliberately held back the hands of time—literally, for, unlike the other nations of the so-called family of Queen Victoria, Russia refused to adopt the Julian calendar and rejected Greenwich Mean Time. In terms of time, Russia was in one place, the rest of the world was in a totally different time, all in the name of tradition and all things “Russian.” So hostile was the Empire to all things foreign that the railroads in Russia were of a gage different from those in Europe. Nevertheless, the counterweight to this deliberate refusal to dilute the uniqueness of the Empire was the life line to modern life was a paradox: the railway that stretched from Moscow to Paris. In the annals of art history, the fabled Moscow to Paris train carried Sergei Schchukin to the studios of Paris where the wealthy art collector scooped up the latest canvases from the ateliers of Matisse and Picasso, browse the galleries and carefully stowe his purchases on the train which carried the art back to Moscow.

04shchukin1-master768-v4

Matisse paintings in Sergei Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace (1920)

Compared to Cubism, Futurism was, before the Great War, a brief movement, only two years and, during this short time could be seen only in Italy, France, Germany, and England, and, in 1915 and 1917 in America. No Futurist exhibition was ever mounted in Russia. Although it was possible to receive Cubism if one were an artist invited to Schchukin’s mansion, a more reliable conduit for West European avant-garde styles would be black and white reproductions seen in magazines and postcards. Dr. Konstantin Akinsha gave an interesting lecture at the Neue Galerie in New York in 1915 in which he described David Burliuk coming in to possession of a post card of a Cubist portrait by Picasso and how the artist immediately did a portrait of his own, telling himself to make it as “good as Picasso.” In addition to scattered reproductions, there were two catalogues of Futurist exhibitions circulating in Russia. With the exception of Russian expatriates in Paris, Russian artists in Moscow received Cubism and Futurism in black and white, a mode of replication which would stress line and structure and obliterating the subtleties of color or facture. As a result, the early responses to both styles on the part of Kazimir Malevich and Nataliya Goncharova were labored and naïve and literal, and it is only when the Russian artists appropriate the reproductions and transform Western styles into something uniquely Eastern and deeply Russian do the Russian avant-garde artists come into their own.

2012aa41298

Nataliya Goncharova. The Forest (1913)

But if we follow the usual Modernist narrative, the Paris to Moscow tale, which has privileged French art, assuming that paintings from the familiar “isms” perpetrated in Paris brought “culture” to the Russians, we will see the “avant-garde,” and totally miss the “Russian” aspect of the art world. In fact, Futurism was already alive and well in Moscow before Cubism arrived, but this is a Futurism that was created at a great remove from Italy. It is important that it was in Moscow where so-called “Cubo-Futurism” and then “Suprematism” were invented, because this was a city deep inside Russia. In fact, when Lenin moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow, it was not only because the port city was in danger during the civil war but also because having Moscow as the new capital sent a signal that Russia was no longer looking outward, towards the West and would turn inward, seeking its essence. The Russian artists, even before the Revolution, were dedicated to transforming the ideas coming in from Europe into Russian concepts or ideas that reflected the very nature of the Russian soul and mindset. Going back to the earlier statement that both Italy and Russia were technologically backward nations, carried into the twentieth century by a few pockets of modernism, the Futurists were interested in speed and dynamism in very literal ways, seeking to replicate the motion of fast objects, such as cars and trains, on the static canvas. The Russians, in contrast, translated the idea of “dynamism” into abstract forms, indicating a shift from the material to the spiritual.

Certainly, the Russians were aware that the pace of modern life was quickening and as in Italy this incursion of modernity would have been a sharp contrast to the motionless and becalmed regime of the Czar. The poet the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky remarked in 1914, on the edge of the Great War that, “In Russia the nervous life of cities demands quick, economical abrupt words.” It is important to stress that, in Russia, Futurism predated Italian Futurism and was always a linguistic exercise in finding a new form of expression. Kazimar Malevich (1878-1935) learned basic lessons of the appearance of the European avant-garde works in his series of paintings in the so-called “Cubo-Futurist” style but his understanding was surface only. These paintings, oddly enough, often focused on subjects that are anything but modern, the traditional Russian peasant. In foregrounding the peasant, Malevich was stressing his Russian heritage but there are political overtones as well in his presentation of a group long exploited by the government. The painting show that he was far removed from the theoretical underpinnings of either Cubism or Futurism and this separation allowed him to seize upon a visual vocabulary, rather than an intellectual concept, and translate Cubist semiotics and linguistics from an exploration of space and time to a leap into the spiritual realm. Suprematism, based upon the Latin word “supremus” which means “extreme” or “highest” and of course “supreme.” Malevich’s version of Cubism, especially his take on collage, did not rest upon fragmentation but upon the idea of combination.

1913-malevich_bureau_and_room

Kazimir Malevich. Bureau and Room (1913)

For Malevich, Cubism was unsatisfactory, not just because its basis was strictly material, but also because any understanding of the style depended upon an exercise of logic in which the viewer accepted the premise that the object was being depicted from multiple points of view. But for the Russian artist, logic was limited and he sought something beyond logic, outside the materiality of the object itself. Malevich proposed a stance called the A-logic or the non-logical, stating, “The ‘Alogical’ movement has been created to free it from preconceptions.” In other words, the exercise of logic creates certain preconceptions which then limit thought and consequently burden art as well. The notion of the alogical was borrowed from the modern movement in poetry and referred to the “zaum” or the idea that words must be freed from their task of having to make meaning. The word, divested of its traditional role, could transcend spiritually. Malevich himself explained that his leap into the void of painting, manifested by the Black Square of 1913, was out of a desire to throw off the “ballast of objectivity.” Once Malevich had made the leap, he had launched his own personal premature Revolution, if you will, preceding the actual political changes just a few years in the future. As he said of Suprematism:

The Suprematist square and the forms proceeding out of it can be likened to the primitive marks (symbols) of aboriginal man which represented, in their combination, not ornament, but a feeling of rhythm. Suprematism did not bring into being a new world of feeling but, rather, an altogether new and direct form of representation of the world of feeling..The new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space..Only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a work of pure, living art.

kazimir-malevich-and-el-lissitzky-suprematism-3

Kazimir Malevich. Self Portrait in two Dimensions (1915)

Thus the “zaum” and Surpremtist art were closely related to the idea of translational poetry, being developed in literary circles. The poet, Aleksey Kruchenykh, who was the first poet to use the non-word, “zaum,” explained in 1915, “Writing and reading must be instantaneous,”or in other words, visual, graspable at a glance. The notion of the fourth dimension, time, was a popular one, much buited in intellectual circles, and, like many artists early in the twentieth century, Malevich was interested in the possibility of totally freeing artistic forms from “objectivity” or reality. In creating what he called Sprematist “Zero Forms,” Malevich slipped the bonds of logic and was able to mobilize forms without any worldly reference points on to his canvases. The artist had complex and deeply felt concepts which explained and justified his extreme art, blank forms, so shocking at the time, and he invested an enormous amount of time in polishing his rarified positions. Out of the large group of Avant-Garde artists, Malevich had created his own uniquely Russian spiritually based approach to art. Without the competition of Mikhail Larionov and Nataliya Goncharova, after the Great War began, Malevich was the leader of the avant-garde in Moscow; a leader with followers and a new Russian style. But fate intervened, and a Revolution, political and social, suddenly exploded, demanding new art, an art that was practical and useful for the new state regime. After 1917, the fate of Malevich and his art was on the line.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part One

Artist and Revolution

Art at Ground Zero, Part One

In 1981, the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a remarkable exhibition, selections from the collection of an otherwise unknown individual, George Costakis (1913-1990). Born in Russia, a nation he considered his home, Costakis was the son of Greek parents who did business in Russia. He was “Greek” and had a Greek passport, but he lived most of his life in the Soviet Union, working at the Canadian Embassy, where his job was organizing the service staff for the ambassador. According to one of his biographers, Bruce Chatwin, Costakis wanted to do “somethimg” to make his life worthy and began collecting art in Moscow around 1946, a time of hardship when a number of privately held goods came up for sale. Undoubtedly there are entire stories attached to each object he purchased–pieces from collections sold off by “white” Russians fleeing the “reds,” and later, perhaps even art looted from Germany, unmoored from provenance, but the total collection grew into something impressive and unprecedented. However, his interests changed from traditional classical art to an obscure view of “modern art” when Costakis was introduced the the brightly colored works of long forgotten artists, once part of the then forgotten “Russian Avant-Garde.”

258px-art_of_the_avant-garde_in_russia_selections_from_the_george_costakis_collection

The 1981 Guggenheim Museum Catalogue

Under Stalin, abstract art was banned and Socialist Realism ruled as the desired mode of communication. No one wanted, much less remembered, the art produced by a disgraced and discarded group of artists, many of whom were dead. The Guggenheim Museum described how Costakis was impacted by his discovery of the avant-garde: “One day he was shown a brilliantly hued abstract painting by Olga Rozanova, an artist of whom he had never heard. Its impact upon him was instantaneous: ‘I was dazzled by the flaming colors in this unknown work, so unlike anything I had seen before.'” Stunned by finding a neglected body of art by Russian artists, Costakis began to hunt for the paintings of Kandinsky and Rozanova and Popova, searching like a detective on the trail of treasure for lost works of art. In the fifties, there was no competition for these works, and Costakis, as a Greek, was able to amass an impressive collection, which lined the walls of his home, covering all available space, stacked in piles, and numbering in the thousands of objects. Over the years, his Moscow apartment on Bolshaya Bronnaya Street became a place of pilgrimage as the grip of Stalinism slackened and people began attempt to fill in the early Revolutionary years lost to unending oppression.

tumblr_mte1xr9gkk1rgxgbko1_1280

Olga Rozanova. Battle of the Futurist and the Ocean (1916)

In his biography of the collector, Peter Roberts, who saw the collection in 1957, recounted his experience:

In 1957 I was not alone in my ignorance of the avant-garde. Few people other than art historians, and not many of those, had any detailed knowledge of this movement. Except for those such as Chagall and Kandinsky who had gone abroad at the time of the revolution and had become famous in the West, the artists who comprised the movement were largely unknown. Most of them were dead by 1957; few of them had continued painting after 1934, when their brilliant style was peremptorily suppressed and forbidden by Stalin.

In his book, George Costakis: A Russian Life in Art, Roberts indicated that the unorthodox collecting of the Greek citizen working at the Canadian embassy using Canadian money attracted the attention of the KGB, which may or may not have understood what he was doing but were concerned at the growing numbers of foreigners who wanted to view the collection put together by a person who was considered “crazy.” However, those in the art world, curious as to the contents of his apartment, and those in the museum circles of Russia, were aware that the art was potentially very valuable–not in Russia, of course, but outside in the West. By 1978, Costakis was officially considered a “traitor” and was forced to leave the Soviet Union, his lifetime home. Because he was allowed to take only one thousand two hundred works from his collection out of the USSR, under duress, he generously gave a large portion of his collection to the State Tretyakov Gallery and departed for Greece.

128e0648-b706-4b45-84ee-1bc920fbeb47-991x1020

Vassily Kandinsky. Red Square (1916)

Almost immediately, his collection, or what was left of it, became available to the West, supplementing what little was known of the suppressed Russian avant-garde movement, such as the foundational work by Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art. 1863-1922, published in 1962. In a 1963 review of this seminal and pioneering book, Mary Chamot wrote in the Burlington Magazine, “Armed with a knowledge of Russian, and an immense amount of courage and determination, Camilla Gray has succeeded in contacting the few survivors of the artistic groups she writes about; she has also had access to a number of documents to be found only in Russian libraries and, perhaps most difficult of all, she has managed to see and obtain photographs of the works of art closely guarded in Russian Museum Stores.” Other reviewers were less kind, pointing to the limitations in the book, caused, for the most part by Gray’s decision to begin in 1863 and end in 1920, but the research was undoubtedly shaped by the amount of access to materials in Russia obtainable by a scholar in a period when the Cold War was at its peak. That said, the book would have provided at least a platform or a foundation upon which to build a study of Russian art, and the arrival of the Costakis collection would have literally thrown open the doors to the wide range of artists involved in the avant-garde movement before they were suppressed by Stalin. Commenting in 2011 on the slow revelation of revolutionary art and the difficulty of building a discourse on unavailable art, Owen Hatherley wrote for The Guardian,

(Costakis) created what has been called a “futurist ark”, buying up drawings, paintings and sketches by artists who were dead, discredited, forgotten, prohibited, or who had moved on to the very different “socialist realism” prescribed from the 1930s onwards. Until Costakis’s collection went public, there was only a vague idea that something extraordinary had happened in the former Russian empire – perhaps a couple of mentions of Kasimir Malevich or Alexander Rodchenko, usually in connection with the German artists they had inspired. Costakis’s work was aided from the 1970s on by the archaeological research of the Soviet historian Selim Khan-Magomedov and the late English architectural writer Catherine Cooke; it’s no exaggeration to say that without this small group of people, the current prominence of the “Russian avant garde”, which has featured in seemingly dozens of exhibitions on the heroic era of modernism over the last decade, would have been impossible.

fffc7b34-ba93-4df3-b2b2-9a3b8ab50dc9-995x1020

Aristarkh Lentulov, Kislovodsk Landscape with Gates (1913)

Obviously, what happened the the Russian Avant-Garde? is a compelling question, as is the question: what happened to the artists? The traditional attempts to understand these long-lost artists have usually relied upon the connections, both stylistic and intellectual, between the West and the Russian artists. As pointed out in earlier posts, there is a distinct break in the narrative of the progression of avant-garde art in Russia, and it is the trauma and freedom of the Revolution that severs the artists from the West, forcing them to produce not “Russian” art but “Revolutionary Art.” Before the War broke out, the artists responded to art from Paris and Berlin but translated what they saw into objects that were semiotically “Russian.” During the War, the artists continued mining and developing their pre-war ideas with little interruption. But the Revolution changed everything for these artists, isolating them from any ties to Western Europe they might have had, and, indeed, the authorities were inclined to force them to stay in their homeland. Signs of governmental oppression were apparent from the start of the Revolution and it quickly became clear that if one wanted to work, one needed permission and support from Communist leaders. The artists with pre-existing European connections were the first the leave, signaling that the first phase of “the Russian Avant-Garde” had ended. The great ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev chose to not return to Russia after the Revolution and, strangely, the famous Ballet Russes never performed in their homeland. Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov left for Paris when the Great War began. Marc Chagall left his homeland in the early twenties and only with special permission. Kandinsky left at the same time as Chagall, taking a job at the Bauhaus. None of these artists would ever return to Russia, except for Chagall, who made a quick visit in 1973, only to find the world he left behind gone forever.

8995da81-20af-47b9-bd52-ce62168f7865-1020x612

George Costakis with his collection in the 1970s

From the time of the Revolution, especially the October Revolution, the artists who stayed behind were at ground zero, a site where an old world had violently ended with such finality that the old art, once thought so darling in front of the backdrop of the anachronistic regime, now was “bourgeoisie” and out of step with the brave new world that had to arise from the ashes. For a few brief years the artists had tentative government permission or benign neglect to create new art for a new world. Although they threw themselves into the task with great and naïve enthusiasm, those in power had no definitive concept of what the role of art should be in the Communist proletariate society and no instructions to give to artists. Over time, the Soviet Union would have very specific guidelines, but in the beginning, the officials were preoccupied by the internal civil war between the Reds and the Whites. As intellectuals, the artists were always on the side of revolution, which is to say they wanted change and they relished the opportunity to be part of the vanguard of a new visual language. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out earlier, the artists themselves were internally conflicted, split off into different factions and went in multiple directions. Some wanted to continue bourgeois painting, while others wanted to experiment constructively as engineers rather than create as artists, still others wanted to contribute to the production of an art dedicated to the Revolution.

Vassily Kandinsky, a traditional Expressionist artist out of place in Russia, complained in 1920: “Even though art workers right now may be working on problems of construction (art still has virtually no precise rules), they might try to find a positive solution too easily and too ardently from the engineer. And they might accept the engineer’s answer as the solution for art—quite erroneously. This is a very real danger.” Unlike Vassily Kandinsky who was still involved with German ideas, Kazimir Malevich was more the native son referred to the Productivists and Constructivists as “lackeys of the factory and production.” He equated utilitarianism and Constructivism, which he disparaged as “subsistence art.” On the other hand, the new antagonist to Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin declared, “The influence of my art is expressed in the movement of the Constructivists, of which I am the founder.” But he rejected the Moscow group of constructivists and its leading figure, Rodchenko, and went his own way. The result of the dissension about the use of art and its role in social change was a splintered art movement that failed to present a either a united front or an ordered or an orderly slate of solutions to the government.

art_46_07_03

Kazimir Malevich. Portrait of M.V. MatyUshin (1913)

The government, for its part, had issues more pressing than coming up with an art program for the artists, but, on the other hand, those in charge also recognized the importance of art, its power to do harm or good, support or undermine the ideals of the revolution. At first the most obvious reform to make was the extrication of the production of art from the bourgeois class and freeing art from the mechanisms of capitalism. Art should be in the service of the people, the state and removed from the corrupting effect of being a decorative luxury item. As the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, also known as the Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, issued a new definition for art very early after the Revolution: “The Proletariat must finally eradicate the sharp difference between life and art that has concerned the ruling class of the past. From now on art for art’s sake does not exist. In the hands of the Proletariat art will become a sharp weapon of communist propaganda and agitation. In the hands of the proletariat art is a tool, the means, and the product of production.” In other words, art would become art for everyone, not a consumer good for the wealthy elite, and, therefore, its role would change from passive to active, suggesting a reduced role for painting and an enlarged role for graphic design.

artwork_by_el_lissitzky_1919

El Lissizky. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

As we move to the next posts on Russian Revolutionary Art, it is important to remember that, in the minds of the intellectuals, the Revolution itself was based in Marxist philosophy. They assumed that the Revolution was the result of the thesis-anti-thesis of capitalism and the failure of capitalism and class warfare. Having succeeded in bring about the inevitable collapse of the government, the Communists dreamed of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Without class hierarchies, everyone would be part of the proletariat or urban lower classes, the true revolutionary foot soldiers. The state would wither away, as Marx predicted, and the people would govern themselves. In her book, The Russian Revolution, Sheila Fitzpatrick noted that the most fervent dreamers imagined a cold, clinical and impersonal state, run by machine-like bureaucrats. The steely mind-set, devoid of personal (bourgeois) feelings and full of ideology imagined that the state would be a “well ordered machine.” In this new world, the family was secondary to the state and it was a given that, within marriage, women were oppressed. Children were recruited by the state to watch their nostalgic parents for any lingering bourgeois sentiments. The entire world was to be economically remade according the what the Revolutionaries considered to be Marxist beliefs and socially reexamined in terms of their interpretations of Engels. To be an artist in this utopian era was to be a righteous radical. As Fitzpatrick wrote,

Avant-garde artists like the poet Vladirnir Mayakovsky and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold saw revolutionary art and revolutionary politics as part of the same protest against the old, bourgeois world. They were among the first members of the intelligentsia to accept the October Revolu- tion and offer their services to the new Soviet government, producing propaganda posters in Cubist and Futurist style, painting revolutionary slogans on the walls of former palaces, staging mass re- enactments of revolutionary victories in the streets, bringing acrobatics as well as politically-relevant messages into the conventional theatre, and designing non-representational monuments to revolutionary heroes of the past. If the avant-garde artists had had their way, traditional bourgeois art would have been liquidated even more quickly than the bourgeois political parties. The Bolshevik leaders, however, were not quite convinced that artistic Futurism and Bolshevism were inseparable natural allies, and took a more cautious position on the classics.

2n2meyerholdcopy

Meyerhold’s 1922 production of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Death of Tarelkin

It is customary to begin any discussion of the avant-garde made during the Revolution to begin with Constructivism and Productivism, with a side bar about the quarrel between Malevich and Tatlin, but it is also useful to shift the focus away from elite art and to investigate popular culture and how certain artists embedded themselves in the vernacular in order to coin new visual currency in the service of the revolution. The raw materials, the foundational alpha and omega for the new language seeking to communicate with the proletariat and the isolated peasants in the rural regions, were sophisticated and effective at the same time. The next post will discuss the ROSTA art in ROSTA windows, a fleeting attempt at agitprop.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Marc Chagall at War

Marc Chagall and the War, Part Two

Vitebsk as an Art Center

When the Great War began, like all eligible and fit young men, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was conscripted for military service to his motherland, the Russian Empire. A more unsuitable soldier could hardly be imagined. The young artist, in his mid-twenties, had been stranded in his childhood home of Vitebsk, located behind the lines of The Pale of the Settlement. Chagall was merely visiting from Paris, a city he must have already considered his home. Letters to friends in France reveal his dislike of his plight and in a rather unpatriotic move, Chagall even applied for a visa to leave. His plea was ignored and, thanks to the kindness of his wife’s brother, he was posted to the safety of Petrograd where he worked as a clerk. Bella Rosenfeld was part of a wealthy family of jewelers and Jews of wealth were allowed some status in Russia. In addition, after the War began, Jews, presumably out of necessity, were mobilized which automatically granted them relative freedom of movement outside the Pale. The capital city, St. Petersburg, was renamed “Petrograd” a more Russian sounding name in contrast to “Petersburg,” which was distinctly German. Now patriotically renamed, Petrograd, as the capital city, would have been one of the major military centers where command and control was located. Yakov Rosenfeld was in charge of an army economic department located in the bureaucracy inside an entity called the Central War-Industrial Committee. The brother-in-law saved Chagall’s life by giving him a job that demanded little of him and allowed him to continue his work as an artist. As a result Chagall’s output during the War was split between his recordings of the sights he saw in Petrograd and the flights of fancy inside his head which were totally disconnected from the war.

sisters-of-mercy-and-wounded-men-in-the-hospital-of-the-pokrovskaya-commune

Sisters of mercy and wounded men in the hospital of the Pokrovskaya Commune. Petrograd

In Petrograd, the wounded and dead poured in from the Eastern Front and the Winter Palace became a hospital. An Anglo-Russian Hospital was set up at the beginning of the war with equipment and staff coming from England by 1915 to help the Russians to cope with the casualties. The Russian Empire was utterly unprepared for war and food had to be shipped into the city by rail. But refugees coming into the city added to the civilian population and by 1915, the citizens were literally starving begging on the streets for food, standing in line for food forty hours a week.

Marc-Chagall-A-Group-of-People

Marc Chagall. A Group of People ()

It would be no coincidence that the Russian Revolution would start in Petrograd, exploding from a march by women demanding food in 1917. In November of that year, Vladimir Lenin slipped secretly into the Petrograd, arriving at the Finland station and the Revolution was underway. A year later, in 1918, when Petrograd came under military threat, Lenin would be forced to move the capital to Moscow.

e7da7493151c23614411000cbe33bc88

Marc Chagall. On the Stretcher (Wounded Soldier) (1914)

It was in the midst of such misery that Chagall painted the early years of his married life, the bliss of being in love, the birth of his first child, as if Ida were not crying for milk and aggravating the new father.

bathing-of-a-baby

Marc Chagall. The Bathing of a Baby (1916)

Revolution was brewing even as strictures against free movement were ending and Jews were beginning to travel freely. The city was full of prisoners of war, who, were not allowed in shops but were allowed fairly free movement, if they were escorted. These new people and the modern crowds of strangers swirled on the streets lined with elegant neoclassical buildings, designed to evoke the grandeur of the past. Given the presence of military hospitals in the city, wounded soldiers were everywhere, living reminders of the catastrophic causalities suffered by the army. Most of Chagall’s response to the war were black and white sketches of soldiers, apparently based upon sights he had seen in the city–departing soldiers, wounded soldiers–the sights of war.

6dec9db33362fedf21d16717bc35d41f

Marc Chagall. Wounded Soldier (1914)

This format, reminiscent of the lubok tradition, the limitation of color to stark contrasts, was totally uncharacteristic of Chagall who had been know for his vivid colors, but the approach was wholly in concert with the way in which Russians reacted to the War.

05e2e32935f326a02eed1588942ccf00

Marc Chagall. Departure for War (1914)

As Aaron J. Cohen wrote,

There was something in the air, a psychological aspect to their war that led some artists to return to conventional aesthetics. War’s stark and unpleasant reality challenged those at the front and the millions left at home to consider existential questions. Thinking about war fostered an atmosphere of sobriety and reflection..Traditional motifs allowed viewers and artists to comprehend the trauma of mass war and the mystery of mortality and the presence of familiar classical, romantic, or religious images in the popular culture of the war in Europe attests to a universality of sorrow and bereavement. Russians of all stations in life expressed feelings of nostalgia and grief through symbols that echoed the pat in content and form..The war’s emotional impact was important in changing the art of Marc Chagall..he began to drop the cubist and expressionist leanings of his Parisian work for a series of pictures that used more conventional perspective, color and composition..The great conflict itself attached his eye and inspired him to engage war through his art. In a striking series of ink sketches, the artist memorialized wounded soldiers whom he saw around him..

Chagall’s output during the war was inconsistent, deviating from his personal history, his marriage, his life with Bella, and the sights and sounds of War that were everywhere. His life was bifurcated as well. On one had, he was a soldier of sorts, serving as a clerk, on the other hand he was still a practicing artist. It was during the war years, that Chagall was able to establish himself as an artist in Russia. Certainly his reputation as a Parisian based painter added to his luster and according to Jonathan Wilson, he showed twenty five paintings in Moscow at the Michailova salon and sixty three paintings at the Dobitchina gallery. In addition, Wilson added, Chagall sent forty-five works to the famous “Jack of Diamonds” show in Moscow.

temp.png

Marc Chagall. Strawberries, Bella, and Ida at the Table (1916)

Wilson does not stipulate but we can assume that the bulk of the work exhibited in Russia was work executed since his return from Paris. But in a letter to Aleksandr Nikolaevich Benois, the designer for the Ballets Russes, Chagall himself wrote, asking for help on the eve of the Revolution, referring to his time in the military: “..in those three years I did almost no work (I do not count the Vitebsk series made in the middle and end of 1914, before my army service.” It seems probable that Chagall, in Vitebsk on a temporary visit, did not bring a great deal of art with him, and that his is referring to the work he did in his home town before he married Bella and moved to Petrograd in 1915. So it is the Vitebsk works about which the reviewers appear to be writing.

The anthology, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, provided reviews of Chagall’s work, not all of which were positive in a nation known for its anti-semitism: “Why do Jews have to be so dirty, with such idiotic and animal works! Odessa anecdotes are disgusting, but these Vitebsk anecdotes are even more intolerable. And a whole Hall was given over to them! This is what the most modern art is like!” Another, kinder reviewer from Moscow wrote, “In the exhibition “The Year 1915,” there are works by a young artist, almost unknown in Moscow but famous abroad, Marc Chagall. Among the unbridled bacchanalia of “Plastic Rayonism” and painterly bric-a-bric, they seem to be be modes, almost ‘retrograde.’ But this is characteristic of any authentic art, that is moved not by the demands of an aesthetic fashion, but by the inner and timeless necessity of an artist soul.”

When Russian was plunged into Revolution, Chagall’s role in the army came to and end and once Lenin arrived in Petrograd, Chagall and Bella, fled to Vitebsk to avoid the upheavals of the Revolution. Now “redundant” in the army’s terms, Chagall returned home and wrote to the Director of the Dobychina Gallery in Petrograd, “Now I am here it Vitebsk. This is my town and my tomb..” The decision would be a wise one. As Jackie Jackie Wullschlager wrote,

On the 26th of October, Lenin’s Bolshevik forces stormed the Winter Palace, announcing at 5 a.m. that they had seized power. By the end of October, the provisional government had toppled, street fighting erupted around the Kremlin in Moscow..In Petrograd, mobs went on the rampage and looted shops, while soldiers wrecked and robbed bourgeois apartments, killing as they went. The capital emptied out..the population of Petrograd fell from 2.5 million on the eve of the revolution to 700,000 in 1919.

Although most young artists from Russia wanted to see a regime change, most remained under the radar and few were overt revolutionaries. Chagall, an artist who had every intention to return to Paris and make his life and career there, cannot be called a political individual when it came to Russian politics. But, as a Jew, he could not help being captured by the romance and excitement of a Revolution which offered, not a regime change, but a new way of life that promised emancipation for the Jews. The intelligentsia, which had learned to be discrete, were suddenly liberated and, in their enthusiasm for the Revolution, were politicized. Many artists, as shall be seen, put their art in the service of the Revolution, declaring themselves to be “engineers” and art to be “dead.” Chagall, on the other hand, seemed more interested in serving, not the Revolution, but the people through free artistic expression. His old friend from Paris, Anatoly Lunacharsky was now the “People’s Commissar of Enlightenment” (also known as an acronym Narkompros), after years of living in exile in Paris. And he was given the task of changing the education of Russian people and the direction of their culture away from Czarist goals and towards the desires of the Revolution.

Jew_in_Bright_Red

Marc Chagall. Jew in Bright Red (1915)

Although he had initially been invited to take part in the Revolution as an artist, Chagall backed away, but over time he became more enthusiastic about the changing times and literally became a new man. With a new haircut, close cropped and without curls, Marc Chagall returned to Petrograd and approached Lunacharsky with a suggestion for am art college in August of 1918, a few months before the War ended on the Western Front. Lunacharsky responded by appointing his friend a “Plenipotentiary for the affairs of the Province of Vitebsk,” a rather heady title, but not an uncommon one. For example, Aleksandra Ekster was given the same title for Kiev, and many of the other appointments came from among the Jews who were suddenly elevated in this new Russia, where they were being integrated into the culture. The attention from Lunacharsky, following upon the heels of Chagall’s exhibitions in Moscow would have consequences. Here was Chagall, an artist who had acquired prestige in Paris, a burnishing that few could match, invading the tight knit world of the Moscow artists and challenging them with art that was conversely based in Russian culture and in Jewish folklore. As the “Plenipotentiary for the affairs of art of Vitebsk,” Chagall needed a place for his art school and began his planning during a time of transition and turmoil.

DT7873

Marc Chagall. The Marketplace. Vitebsk (1917)

In March of 1918, the new Soviet government moved the capital away from Petrograd to Moscow, an act that was on one hand practical–the fighting have shifted far too close to the city–and a symbolic act, signifying a turning away from Europe, for Petrograd, a port city, faced West. The new capital of Moscow located far inside Russia, announced an inward turn towards the indigenous culture and away from European ties, but Lunacharsky stubbornly stayed in Petrograd, apparently disregarding the signals so clearly given. And then there were ruthless actions. The Russian Revolution churned up strong feelings and otherwise decent people did unfortunate acts. The building confiscated by the new government for the art school was owned by a wealth Jewish banker, an action in which Chagall apparently participated. The banker, Israel Vishnyak, had done little to deserve his fate, which would be tragic. The banker was a philanthropist who gave back to Vitebsk for years, sharing his wealth. But his good deeds counted for nothing–he was from the old world of patronage. The house was nationalized or taken over by the government in November 1918, one day before the Armistice. With few apparent qualms, the artist moved himself and the family into the now empty mansion, where the faculty lived on the third floor. The former banker’s home was now the People’s Art College and Art Museum. Far from home, Vishnyak died destitute.

PENTAX Image

People’s Art College, now Vitebsk Museum of Modern Art

For Chagall, the first years in Vitebsk, when he was in charge of his own school were happy ones. His war was over and it seemed as if a new world had opened up. His paintings returned to their mode of happy fantasies, full of a joyous spirit so beloved one hundred years later. But Lunacharsky commanded that Chagall and the other Plenipotentiarys to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution in October 1918. Chagall, in response, passed on the command and summoned all artists and sign painters to the public cause. “All artists, decorators and painters are required to appear every day at the commission for the decoration of the city of Vitebsk for the October festivities to register and be assigned various tasks as requested by the commission. Those who do not appear will be considered conscious evaders.” Most of the Plenipotentiarys responded by producing street art, designed for the public in a proletariate style–popular culture replacing elitist “fine art,” in response to Lunacharsky’s vision of streets decorated with lengths of canvases with “lovely colors” to celebrate the anniversary. In Petrograd and Kiev, swathes of cloth shrouded old buildings, suggesting oppression and the end of aristocratic rule, now dead and buried with joyous new clothing.

AGC-F-001439-0000

Marc Chagall. War on Palaces (1918)

In Vitebsk, Chagall followed suit, but his own paintings dominated the décor and the charming animals in non-natural colors and his folk art approach puzzled Communist officials who had expected portraits of Marx and Lenin. The most doctrinaire image by Chagall, War on the Palaces depicted a peasant overthrowing–literally–a palace once occupied by a wealthy capitalist. His friend the critic, Aleksandr Romm wrote, “His posters were magnificent, perfectly matching everything that was needed on the street: strange, shocking, radiant with colours. They bespoke a refinement of thought and taste, similar to what is found in the great paintings executed in the leftist (i.e., avant-garde) style.”

By the beginning of 1919, the new Art School could begin. As Chagall wrote, “Let the petit bourgeois malice hiss all around us, we hope that new artists-proletarians will soon emerge from those working people.” The artist had gotten the nomenclature of revolution down but he was not a savvy politician. Perhaps few could survive on the constantly shifting ground of the Revolution, but at first it seemed as if Chagall was organizing the school well. He was able to recruit artists to come to Vitebsk because the city had food, something that other locations, even Moscow, lacked. Therefore, a rather complex group of disparate artists, including Chagall’s former teacher, Yuri Pen, the critic, Aleksandr Romm, Ivan Puni, El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich arrived and started teaching. Suddenly a city of the Pale became a major center of avant-garde. It is important to stress that the artists came to Vitebsk for food and shelter in an uncertain world turned upside down..and they also saw an opportunity. The artists did not necessarily come to Vitebsk to work with Chagall, an individual with whom they had little in common, either artistically or culturally. The artist had studied in St. Petersburg with with Léon Bakst (Lev Rosenberg), instead of studying in Paris and in Paris he had taken his own path. The other artists were honed in Moscow, a world very different from Paris. Malevich was more doctrinaire and was “Russian” in a very different way from Chagall, practicing his own “ism,” Suprematism.

vitebsk1919

Chagall and his Students at Vitebsk

In his review of Vitebsk: The Life of Art, Joshua Cohen explained the situation in Chagall’s school. At first, the artist was very well connected. As Cohen noted, “..the painter David Shterenberg, who’d occupied neighboring studio space to Chagall at Montparnasse’s debauched La Ruche, recalled himself to Russia, straightened his tie, combed his hair and was made head of Narkompros’s Department of Fine Arts, which was known by the acronym IZO.” Chagall’s work in Vitebsk was devoid of Parisian influences and he returned to his Jewish roots, asserting the Russian-ness of being Jewish, an approach that fit very well into his vision that the School would train lower class people, especially Jews, like himself. For a time, he became very prominent, and at the first State Exhibition of Revolutionary Art in Petrograd, Chagall had two rooms to himself.

mark-shagal-nad-gorodom

Marc Chagall. Above the City (1918)

But, as sincere as he might had been, Chagall, was caught in the middle. On one hand, there was the thicket of politics, which expected the art school to educate the people about communism, not to educate people about art. On the other hand there were the artists who taught at the school. Chagall seems to have been totally unprepared for the backstabbing so common in rivalrous academic settings. As Cohen related in his article, “In the Beginning, There was Vitebsk,” the downfall of Chagall began with

“..a Smolensk Jew named Eliezer (Lazar) Markovich Lissitzky left home to work and teach not in any of the Russian capitals but in Vitebsk, renamed himself El and, with the arrival of his future mentor, painter and theorist Kasimir Malevich, the depiction of the local rabbinate and landscapes took a sharp turn for political tracts and geometry. In the fall of 1919, two Octobers after the October Revolution, as it was now being called to distinguish it from the Revolution of February of the same year, the school hosted the arrival of Malevich — whose art was apparently the logical, super-planar, supra-dimensional extension of such concepts as “Cézanneism,” “Cubism,” “Cubo-Futurism,” “Futurism,” and “Constructivism.” Malevich’s “Unovis” group eventually ousted the retro Chagall from the school; “students” became communist “apprentices” — and so would invent their own movements and histories.

Accounts of what happened between Chagall and Malevich vary. It seems that the students of Chagall were, in the end, more attracted to Malevich and his vision of Suprematism. What ever the truth, the shift of the students had been preceded by quarrels with the faculty and Chagall and after only a year, the artist lost control of the School. True, the artist’s fame often took him to Moscow where he was involved in the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, and while he was out of town, Malevich took advantage of his absence and ousted Chagall, renaming the school, the Vitebsk Artistic and Practical Institute.

CRI_151189

Marc Chagall. Over Vitebsk (1922)

Less that two years after his appointment, in 1920 Chagall resigned from the school he had founded and never returned to Vitebsk in his life. Chagall worked for the Theater for three years, during which the instability in the newly founded Soviet Union became more unstable. Lenin suffered rehabilitating strokes died in 1922, which allowed Josef Stalin to slide into power, out maneuvering Leon Trotsky. By the time Lenin died in 1924, Chagall’s supporters had lost power and the government was no longer supporting him. But the artist had returned to Paris, which would become his permanent home.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Marc Chagall and Jewish Theater, Part Two

Marc Chagall in Moscow

The Murals for the Jewish Theater, Part Two

Perhaps because he was the first to visually imagine a totally Yiddish world, mystical and magical, sophisticated and folkish, avant-garde and traditional, Marc Chagall’s ability to capture the modernity of a new Jewish identity left a mark on Yiddish theater in Moscow. The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (Moskver idisher melukhisher teater) also known as GOSET became a staging ground for the incorporation of Yiddish culture into mainstream Russian society. Chagall was “present at the creation,” as it were and his unique and distinctive vocabulary and his iconic imagery made a powerful impression upon both artists who had to follow in his wake and upon delighted audiences. Abram Efros, the art critic, wrote in 1922 of the extraordinary experience of viewing the collaboration between Alexi Granovsky and Marc Chagall,

Oh, that Yiddish theater!–without a foundation or a roof, without borers to its domain or any blueprint! A theater that is its own grandfather, father and son. A theater that has not yet any past, present, of future, and that must create for itself a past, a present, and a future. A theater that has to live simultaneously in three dimensions of time. A theater with no tradition, but which has to invent for itself a historical time line; a theater without a present, but which has to be at the cutting edge of contemporary theater art; a theater without perspective, but which has to old the form of what is to come.

A sponsor and supporter of Marc Chagall, Efros was one of the first to write of the excitement of presenting Yiddish culture after the new Soviet Union, under Lenin withdrew from the Great War. Suddenly all restrictions on Jewish movement and upon Jewish cultural expressions were withdrawn and opportunities presented themselves to artists like Chagall who now had the possibility of creating the foundational visuals of Yiddish culture. The artist, fresh from his humiliation in Vitebsk, rallied and produced a series of murals, which turned a confiscated home into an enveloping work of art, a backdrop against which the beloved stories of Sholom-Aleihem were performed. Efros noted that the State Yiddish Chamber Theater both benefited and paid for the success of Chagall, who proved to be a hard act to follow. The critic wrote that the artist “did not..accept any directions..” and that Chagall “forced us to pay the most expensive price for the Jewish national form of scenic expression..in the end, the young Yiddish theater struggled because of this victory.” In 2009, Mel Gordon, professor of theater arts at Berkeley, noted that the Moscow Yiddish State Theater was the most successful theater of its time, even though the majority of the audiences did not understand Yiddish. Gordon pointed out that although Chagall mounted only one production in 1921 at the GOSET, he marked the theater with “Chagallism,” the “touch that utterly changed” the theater group and “created a new art form.”

Gordon revealed that Granovsky–a child of a wealthy family–did not speak Yiddish, which was “lower class” or vernacular, and had no interest in Yiddish culture, but he found himself in Russia after the Revolution, a nation that no longer spoke the enemy language of German. Nevertheless the director wrote of the new theater in a brochure: “Yiddish theater is first of all a theater in general, a temple of shining art and joyous creation — a temple where the prayer is chanted in the Yiddish language.” Many Jews who came to Moscow were Russian speakers but were eager to support their own culture and didn’t seem to mind if they couldn’t understand Yiddish. This simple fact encouraged Granovsky to create the kind of theater that depended upon visuals rather than upon dialogue, making of the Yiddish theater a optical spectacle that allowed the viewers to follow the stories thought gestures and postures which provided plot and action without words. The best way to explain this new form of acting, or “spots,” is to compare the plays to the fragmentation of Analytic Cubism.

Sadly, Granovsky and Chagall were unable to see eye to eye. The conflict was unsurprising, given that Chagall had a deep understanding of Yiddish culture and Granovsky was expecting an “origin story” of Yiddish culture which existed on a higher plane. Chagall understood that Yiddish culture was a distinct folk culture, cut off from elite culture, and knew first hand that the Jewish culture was down to earth and even vulgar and obscene and offensive. In comparison to urban Jews throughout Europe, the Russian Jews, unless they were wealthy and privileged, were unassimilated and alienated. Therefore, it could be concluded that the Yiddish culture was “authentic” and unalloyed by outside influences. Chagall’s vision of ghetto and shtetl popular culture as evolved by a peasant culture of lower class people was seriously at odds with Granovsky, who had higher ambitions, derived from his apprenticeship with Max Reinhardt, and expected perhaps an idealized and sanitized rendition of what an outsider would have preferred “Yiddish” to be–not quite so alien and ungoverned.

As autobiographical as always, Chagall depicted himself and his family and the relatives who lived in Vitebsk and Lion and wrote the names of his numerous relatives into patterns on the trousers of a clown who played a flute. The frieze above the windows portrays a wedding, a highlight of Yiddish culture, a guarantee that the Jewish people will continue as a unique group. The wedding was a continuous feast, an endless celebration symbolized by food, paschal hala and New Year’s dishes. Below the entirety of a Jewish year, are a series of four personifications of Yiddish culture, set between the back windows. These narrow spaces were inhabited with the klezmer or the musician and the badchan or wedding jester and the svacha, a dancing woman, all of which appeared as allegories for creativity in the performing arts. The icon for Poetry was a sofier, or the scribe who copied the Torah in the peace of his private quarters.

marc-chagall-panel-from-the-yiddish-theatre-moscow-1920-3-foto-henning-hoholt

A “bodkin” at a Jewish Wedding also known as “Drama”

By using these apparently stock figures in Yiddish culture, Chagall, the son of the shtetl, introduced a defiant authenticity into the theater with his use of “bodkins” or Jewish comedians whose humor was vulgar and homophobic and did not invite laughter. In addition, Chagall insisted that, contrary to Russian expectations, Jewish literature did not emerge from religious documents, but from folk tales or “grandmother’s tales,” oral tradition, as recreated by Sholom-Aleihem. Because he was revered and accepted by both Russian and Yiddish speakers, Sholom-Aleihem, who made the choice to write in Yiddish, was a wise choice for the first event of GOSET. According to the 1993 Guggenheim exhibition of the murals,

Through a natural outgrowth of his painterly vocabulary, Chagall presented a kaleidoscopic panoply of ecstatic figures in this work, which suggested an anti-rational model of carnivalesque abandon for the theater. This conceptualization of theater was not entirely new; Russian directors such as Vsevolod Meierkhol’d and Aleksandr Tairov were exploring the legacy of commedia dell’arte and other popular theatrical spectacles before Chagall began work on the murals.” Granovskii was already disposed to that kind of dramatic treatment through his studies under Max Reinhardt, the progressive Austrian director. Yet Chagall presented a unique, and uniquely Jewish, approach. Through specifically Jewish visual puns, Yiddish inscriptions, and references to the festivities of Jewish weddings and Purim — a Jewish analogue to carnival in its emphasis on ludicrous masquerades and outrageous intoxication — he posited a distinctive model for the Jewish Theater.

Chagall & the artists of the Russian Jewish Theater

Marc Chagall. Introduction to Jewish Theater (1921)

In order to understand the “Chagall Box,” it is necessary to view the murals by the artists as both contrarian and as revelatory of a long hidden culture of lower class rural Jews. Appearing between the windows at the back of the theater as a rectangular “portrait,” the “bodkin,” according to Gordon, was a “sour” comedian who was featured at Jewish weddings with the task of overturning convention and even decency. The bodkin would make the bride and groom cry, if he was good at this job, that is, and he would direct his most cutting remarks to the wealthiest and most successor and most smug residents of the ghetto. In other words, the bodkin was a leveler and created a moment of the carnivalesque, when conventions were inverted. The charivari was a Medieval European custom which was a subversive upending of the expected norms. To this day, in some parts of Europe a charivari will disturb the wedding night of a bride and groom. This counter culture, the antithesis to elite courtly behavior, was vividly depicted by Chagall on his twenty-five foot mural, Introduction to Jewish Theater, where he deliberately conflated Yiddish culture with Yiddish theater with its source of origin, the irreverent bodkin, to the often scatalogical and male culture of urinating and farting.

chagall8b

Detail of “Introduction to Jewish Theater”

The question is why did Chagall assert such a strong vision of Yiddish culture, unadorned and unadulterated, presented in a “popular manner” or folkstimlekh? Why was he not more tactful and and cautious in his “Introduction?” The answer probably rests in the mood of the Jews in Russia after the Revolution. For the newly freed Jews, the insertion or absorption of Yiddish or Hebrew cultures of the “masses” into the fabric of Russian culture was part of the Revolution itself. In making Jewish life part of a pan-Russian society, intellectual and political Jews, like Marc Chagall, insisted on bringing society into a state of equality. Therefore, in Chagall’s murals, we can read an insistence of equivalency of high and low culture and a refusal to censor or subdue aspects of the shtetl. Indeed as Benjamin Harshav pointed out, the theater was guided by two leading principles: “theater as Art” and “theater of the State.” Therefore, the characters created by Sholom-Aleihem and Marc Chagall are tropes or character types, exaggerations of iconic figures well-know and well-honed over centuries, such as the hapless schlemiel.

marc-chagall-the-fiddler-from-the-yiddish-theatre-moscow-1920-foto-henning-hoholt0902_art-chagall

“Music” as personified by the Green Fiddler and “Literature”

In the book, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, by Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav, it was pointed out that

The dense traditional culture of the Jewish religious world was now seen as folklore, a source of vitality, imagery, and folk wisdom that can be recycled into the modern, secular world, as Chagall tried to do in his murals for the Moscow Yiddish Theater. For a while, Chagall participated in this revival, he even restored his presumed original family name, and signed several paintings “Moyshe Segal.” The vast mural which “introduced” the origins of Jewish theater to the Moscow audience can be read from left to right–in Russian fashion–or from right to left—in Yiddish fashion, but in between is an antic display of dense imagery that needs to be read in terms of what the authors term “Jewish folk semiotics.” Quite different from the logic of Enlightenment thinking, this semiotic system reflects “a mind of associations that perceives events as situations and images parallel to one another in a global universe, rather than points in a causal chain, a narrative sequel with precise, rational chronologies. This traditional Jewish folk semiotics derives from the perception of post biblical Judaism, that after the destruction of the Jewish state and the close of the Bible, history was over; that their is a totality of beliefs above all and any history and geography; that the Jews are a chosen and persecuted nation irrespective of the changing powers and politics, and nothing changes until the Messiah comes..Most traditional Jewish texts lack a narrative direction (except for the short stories embedded in them); that is, every detail is not a link in a chain of events, but is significant outside of its context, in a total universe of meaning. Hence it needs interpretation rather than counting. And this atemporal world perception and significance of every detail was internalized in Jewish folklore and behavior.

5_chag_1

Detail from “Introduction to Jewish Theater,” featuring Chagall on the far left being carried in by Abram Efros.

Chagall did not stay to savor his brief triumph in the theater and left Russia in 1922 and did not return until 1973. Discouraged at the state of the art world, he wrote, “Neither imperial Russia nor the Russia of the Soviets needs me. They don’t understand me. I am a stranger to them. I am certain Rembrandt loves me.” Indeed Granovsky found that Chagall was trouble, “taking liberties,” and was unmanageable and was unable to comprehend the profound impact the murals would have upon theatrical production in Russia. Another designer, Nathan Altman was asked in 1922 to design sets and costumes for The Dybbuk, and Chagall was passed over. When he saw the performance, he felt that Altman had copied his conceptions from 1921 and translated them to a watered down version of his (postmodern avant la lettre) view of the Jewish world. He wrote, “Those five years churn my soul. I have grown thin, I’m even hungry.” Thanks to Lunacharsky, his old friend, Chagall was given permission to leave the Soviet Union, ostensibly to deliver art works to Paris. He was forced to leave without his wife, Bella, and their only child, Ida, but they joined him later in 1922. In 1924 the murals were moved to a new site, a concert hall more suited for theatrical productions. During these years, avant-garde art and Jewish culture was gradually purged from the Soviet system by Stalin. Few of Chagall’s associates, friends or enemies colleagues survived the purges and censorship of the thirties and he alone of the Russian avant-garde left to paint in freedom in France.

art_sh_06_09

The Wedding Feast Frieze (1920)

Tempera, gouache and white highlights on canvas, 64 by 799 cm. State Trtyakov Gallery

Through a miracle, Chagall’s murals were preserved in situ until they were hidden away in 1937 by an admirer, Alexander Tyshler. In the post-Stalin era, Tyshler turned the murals over to the Tretyakov Gallery in August of 1952 where they remained for the next twenty years. The artist had little hope that he would ever see the murals again and in fact, until 1973, this important body of work was unknown to the West. To Chagall’s joy, the seven murals, painted on the floor in goauche and tempera on canvas in forty days, had been removed from the walls and saved. The canvases were wrapped around drums which preserved the fragile painted surfaces. Chagall signed and dated the murals, interestingly enough in Russian, and from 1989 to 1990 they were restored at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland and exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in a landmark exhibition of 1992-1993.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Marc Chagall and Jewish Theater, Part One

Marc Chagall in Moscow

The Murals for the Jewish Theater

To the end of his life, Marc Chagall remained circumspect about his ouster from the People’s Art School in Vitebsk. And the coup against the artist was no small event. Chagall had been appointed by none other than the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933), an old friend from their days in Paris, living in the artists’ building, known as La Ruche. Moe than the friendly connection with the new government, there was the symbolic gesture of Lunacharsky appointing a Jewish head of an art school for the people, indicating the end of the Pale of the Settlement, or the erasure of the line that had kept Jews cordoned off and separated from non-Jewish Russians since 1791. Under Catherine the Great and Alexander II, areas beyond the original borders of Russia had been annexed, especially Poland, which continued a large number of Jews. The “Pale of the Settlement,” a phase coined by Nicholas I, scooped up, so to speak, much of this new population, which was subject to restrictions on their movements. For the most part, these restrictions were to eliminate economic competition from Jews and the travel restrictions were based upon a policy of restricting the comings and goings of Russians in general. After centuries, suddenly, in 1917, all Russians were equal, opening unimaginable vistas for Jews who were filled with hope for the future. Therefore, to remove a friend of Lunacharsky and a Jewish artist over aesthetic differences could have been a dangerous move for Chagall’s “enemies,” Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. But, Chagall, embittered, removed himself from the unpleasant situation and left Vitebsk for Moscow and a new project. Writing sadly about these difficult days, the artist later wrote sadly,

I would not be surprised if, after such a long absence, my town effaced all traces of me and would no longer remember him who, laying down his own brush, tormented himself, suffered and gave himself the trouble of implanting Art there, who dreamed of transforming the ordinary houses into museum and the ordinary habitants into creative people. And I understood then that no man is a prophet in his own country. I left for Moscow.”

17_chagall_the_fiddler_gallery_2

Marc Chagall. The Fiddler (1912)

Chagall walked into a pause in the historical Russian penchant for anti-Semitism. For the Russians, the war had just ended but during the Great War, local prejudices against Jews ran high. Over six hundred thousand Jews were ousted from their homes by the army and the historical pograms led by Cossacks increased–all because Jews were being scapegoated and blamed for the military’s difficulties with the Germans. But after the War, the government policy towards Jews changed abruptly. The significance of the sudden surge or influx of Jewish culture into the mainstream of Russian society rests upon political changes that went beyond the Revolution itself. When one looks at a list of prominent Bolshevik leaders of the October Revolution, it become clear that the majority were Jewish. According to Mark Weber’s article “The Jewish Role in the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s Early Soviet Regime,”

With the notable exception of Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov), most of the leading Communists who took control of Russia in 1917-20 were Jews. Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronstein) headed the Red Army and, for a time, was chief of Soviet foreign affairs. Yakov Sverdlov (Solomon) was both the Bolshevik party’s executive secretary and — as chairman of the Central Executive Committee — head of the Soviet government. Grigori Zinoviev (Radomyslsky) headed the Communist International (Comintern), the central agency for spreading revolution in foreign countries. Other prominent Jews included press commissar Karl Radek (Sobelsohn), foreign affairs commissar Maxim Litvinov (Wallach), Lev Kamenev (Rosenfeld) and Moisei Uritsky. Lenin himself was of mostly Russian and Kalmuck ancestry, but he was also one-quarter Jewish. His maternal grandfather, Israel (Alexander) Blank, was a Ukrainian Jew who was later baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. A thorough-going internationalist, Lenin viewed ethnic or cultural loyalties with contempt. He had little regard for his own countrymen. “An intelligent Russian,” he once remarked, “is almost always a Jew or someone with Jewish blood in his veins.”

According to Weber, over time, when anti-Semitism inevitably returned to this land of the pograms, this early history of active Jewish participation in the Revolution was obscured. But at the time, outside observers such as Winston Churchill were well aware of the role played by Jewish revolutionary leaders. “With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders. Thus Tchitcherin, a pure Russian, is eclipsed by his nominal subordinate, Litvinoff, and the influence of Russians like Bukharin or Lunacharski cannot be compared with the power of Trotsky, or of Zinovieff, the Dictator of the Red Citadel (Petrograd), or of Krassin or Radek — all Jews,” Churchill said–and his observations were not necessarily positive.

An anti-Semitic caricature of Trotsky which portrays the revolut

The most famous member of the inner circle was Leon Trotsky, targeted by an anti-Semitic cartoon from the White Army

This connection between Jews and Communism or leftism or revolutions was made by others, thus linking Bolshevikism with the Jews, with what would be tragic consequences. Rival factions in the Soviet Union were resentful of the sudden favoritism, and perhaps most unexpectedly, the ranks of the secret police were filled with Jews, also certain to former more discontent. However, in 1920, when Marc Chagall arrived in Moscow, he was part of a vanguard that would attempt to knit the Yiddish culture into Russia, an empire that once kept Jews within the Pale. Once the Jews became full citizens and were granted their rights as citizens of the Provisional Government, the explosion of Jewish culture was immediate. As Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution, written by Kenneth B. Moss, explained,

Most Jews in Russia and Ukraine no doubt spent the years of the Revolution and Civil War merely struggling to survive, like most of their countrymen. But a disproportionately large minority participated in Revolutionary Russia’s tumultuous political life.Most famously, many played important roles across the spectrum of Russian radical and liberal politics..Yet for a significant cohort of intellectuals, writers, artists, patrons, publicists, teachers, activists embedded in this national intelligentsia, February also bore a second imperative..some o Russian Jewelry’s most talented men and women also threw themselves into efforts of unprecedented scale and intensity to crate what they called a “new Jewish culture.”Between February 1917 and the consolidation of Bolshevik power in 1919-1920, European Russia and Ukraine became the sites of the most ambitious programs of Jewish cultural formation that Eastern Europe had yet seen or indeed would see again.

This Yiddish culture that Chagall would animate and illustrate in the Moscow theater, the Yiddish Chamber Theater, was a folk, rather than an elite, culture. Based upon a distinctive language, Yiddish, that emerged around 1000 CE, emanating from the Ashkenazic Jews or the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, clustered in large numbers in the Russian Empire by the beginning of the twentieth century. This hybrid language, a mixture of Medieval German and Hebrew, was used exclusively by the Jews of this part of Europe. Jews from the Western nations, such as Germany, could understand smatterings of this very old language but, for Gentiles, the words would be impossible to comprehend. This point is important because the Jewish Theater, moved from Petrograd to Moscow by Lunacharsky, was intended to not just preserve and formalize a part of Russian society, previously excluded, the productions also had to be integrated and assimilated by a non-Jewish audience. For this audience, the task of interpretation was made easier by the fact that the performances were pantomime like. Given that the reception of these Yiddish literary creations would be directed to a mixed audience, the images created by Chagall had to the iconic but not stereotypical and instantly recognizable as paradigm figures of Jewish culture.

When the theater was transferred to Moscow, its name changed slightly, and, indeed, would change off and on until it was extinguished in 1949. In Chagall’s time the theater, which was unexpectedly avant-garde and experimental, was called State Yiddish Chamber Theater or GOSEKT. Under the leadership of Alexei Granovsky, the Theater in Petrograd came into being before the Revolution, the presentations were very sophisticated, devoid of kitsch and imbued with the influence of the German theater director and producer, Max Reinhardt (Maximilian Goldmann), an Austrian who worked in Berlin and reformed the naturalism of the turn of the century into a self-conscious total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerk. As Curt Levient wrote, “Granovsky had trained in Berlin with legendary director Max Reinhardt and developed a vision of theater that melded acting, set design, costumes, lighting, music, dance, movement, and gesture — even silence — into an organic whole.” In his important book on The Moscow Yiddish Theater: Art on Stage in Time of Revolution, Benjamin Harshav noted that Granovsky was persuaded by theater critic, Abram Efros, to ask the distinguished artist to paint the back drops. The “theater” was actually a confiscated home of a wealthy merchant who had fled the Bolshevik distaste for the moneyed class. The site of the actual performance was small, holding less that a hundred people who were lucky enough to enjoy the remarkable combination of Marc Chagall and Sholem Aleichem, whose play would be the inaugural production.

jewish-theatre-moscow-panels-foto-henning-hoholt-600x415

Recreation of Chagall’s Box: the Back Wall and Frieze

Working with a young group of players, none over the age of twenty-seven, Chagall had a unique opportunity in a nation at a new starting point to reset the conventions for theater, a desire he shared with Granovsky, to drag theater into the twentieth century. More than that, according to the 1993 catalogue from the Guggenheim Museum on the work of Chagall for GOSEKT (or GOSET), “Chagall presented a unique, and uniquely Jewish, approach. Through specifically Jewish visual puns, Yiddish inscriptions, and references to the festivities of Jewish weddings and Purim — a Jewish analogue to carnival in its emphasis on ludicrous masquerades and outrageous intoxication — he posited a distinctive model for the Jewish Theater.” For this occasion, Chagall produced what would later be called “Chagall’s Box,” murals which bound the theatrical world inhabited by his sets and costumes. The main set piece was a twenty-sux foot mural on the left wall, “Introduction to the Jewish Theater,” that formed the main backdrop for the three one act plays. He also painted four panels, representing the arts, placed between the windows opposite. Leaving no surface untouched, Chagall painted a frieze and the ceiling and then produced a mural called “Love on the Stage” for the back of the “theater.”

The production was so elaborate and the costumes of painted rags and dotted face make up so Chagall specific, Granovsky accepted the unique contribution but did not invite the artist and his complex and expensive schemes and motifs to do another production. And yet, the spell of Chagall lived on and subsequent set designers were impacted by his unbridled imagination that activated a magical Yiddish cast of characters. The artist was inspired by the nineteenth century authors who created Yiddish literature, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsch, who wrote under the nom de plume, Mendele Moykher Sforim, often referred to as “Mendele,” and Yitzhak Leib Peretz, both of whom elevated and incorporated a folk culture into high literature. The writer whose stories were featured in the 1921 production designed by Chagall is perhaps the most famous, Solomon Rabinovitch, who also wrote under a name other than his own, Sholem Aleichem, which is a play on an old Yiddish greeting of “peace be upon you.” On the evening of January 1st of 1921, “Evening of Sholom-Aleihem” presented two one act plays, “Agentn (Agents)” and “Mazltov,” word that needs on translation.

images

Set for Mazltov

The plays may have been classic Yiddish literature but the action was totally avant-garde, based upon Granovsky’s idea that theater began in silence and a dark room and that the actors emerged in and out of the dream space. The actors were directed or guided, as it were by a “system of dots,” something like pantomime, in which the actors would freeze and pose in place, following “an assembly of dots,” as Abram Efros put it. In other words, theater was de-naturalized and flattened with the actual actors mimicking the painted figures of Chagall, binding the surrounding “Chagall Box” to the audience and to the actors, negating the theatrical stage and turning it into a dark non-space from which characters emerged as if from a canvas, becoming the artist’s creations.

The next post will discuss the famous murals, displayed until 1925 and hidden away for another five decades.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Marc Chagall and the Russian Revolution

Marc Chagall and the Revolution

Vitebsk as an Art Center, Part Two

A quiet and gentle man who loved his wife and cared for his family, especially his newly arrived daughter, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was an unlikely revolutionary. In fact, his position was not unlike those of the other Russian artists, writers, academics and intellgentsia, suddenly freed from the Czarist regime. Between the February and October revolutions of 1917, little changed as the news of the ouster of the only ruler most Russians had ever known rippled slowly across the vast expanse of the former Empire. But the cultural leaders were poised between a new awareness of possibly having a new mission and lack of direction and it would be up to people like Chagall to transform the political revolution into a social revolution. Unlike the American Revolution which happened gradually over decades, the end of the Empire in Russia was abrupt, even arbitrary. The Communists, the Red faction, had, of course, been planning for an overthrow, but the final collapse is usually random in any revolution. First, the break needs to happen and then, second, a leader has to emerge and then–and this is the point where the artists emerge–lastly, a discourse, both verbal and visual needs to be constructed.

9-7-2012-51452-pm-1

Lenin during the October Revolution

The February Revolution, which due to the eccentric Russian calendar really took place in March, was marked by the abdication of the hapless Nicholas II and the installation of an equally hapless Provisional Government. The mere word “provisional” would freeze innately cautious intellectuals who would hope for a freer education, unshackled from the regime’s control but would not be included to venture further, even thought the police state had been (temporarily, as it turned out) suspended. As R. Service noted in Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution, the elite was interested in serving the “dark people,” or the uneducated masses.

One attempt was made by the cultural-educations section of the Moscow Soldiers’ Soviet in early 1917. An appeal was made to “partners, sculptors, artists, poets, musicians and architects,” who were called upon to respond to the enthusiastic upsurge of interest in and opportunities for cultural advance. it was hoped,that, in the special circumstances of the sin of the great war between peoples, those responding to the appeal would throw art a lift belt. Initiatives of this sort led to the formation of Proletkul’t (proletarian culture) in the days immediately preceding the October revolution. Its chief luminaries, (Alexander Malinovsky) Bogdanov and (Anatoly Vasilyevich) Lunacharskii, had been involved in cultural-educational work in a variety of ways.

Service wrote about the difficulties of merely surviving during the early years of the revolution, but Chagall, who was safely stowed in home town, does not seem to have been among the intelligentsia who were burning their furniture for firewood. True, like other artists, he witnessed his patrons fleeing with their collections to safer locations but he had a home to go to. Even though Chagall enthusiastically supported the Revolution, prudently, when the October revolution brought down the Provisional Government and ushered the Bolsheviks into power, Chagall slipped quietly out of Petrograd and retreated to the safety of Vitebsk. When his old friend from La Ruche in Paris, Lunachrskii, was appointed Commissar of Enlightenment, Chagall was unexpectedly in line for a more elevated position than that of a small town artist. During the War years, Chagall produced a remarkable body of work, half truth, half fiction, half document, half dream, which preserved a record of Vitebsk, a traditional Jewish town of the Pale that would, later on in the century, lose its distinctive culture. As a Jew, Chagall, was suddenly empowered in the new Soviet era being placed on the same legal footing as other Russian citizens. In the newly colorful language of the new age, the painter was dubbed the Commissar of Art in Vitebsk and opened the Peoples Art College, dedicated to expanding education beyond the elite.

PENTAX Image

Narodnoy Khudozhestvennoye Uchilische

This new appointment was not exactly bestowed upon a passive Chagall. In fact, as time passed, he began to sense a shift in the winds of art, away from the European cubist-based avant-garde and towards proletarian art, or an art of native Russia. The artist was uniquely placed to take advantage of the need of the new regime to educate the lower classes–he spoke the language of the people. His Lubok style paintings were not just ethnically Jewish but also distinctively “folk” and uniquely Russian in a way that the “people” could receive. Chagall, who had previously been offered a prestigious position, realized that a real opportunity presented itself and the man rose to the moment. After returning to Petrograd, Chagall accepted the offer to run an art school in Vitebsk and returned home with a title and a position. Although the Russian avant-garde artists could not see into the future, in hindsight, the next few years would be remarkable ones. The new Bolshevik government would be preoccupied with putting down the White Army, while at the same time, extricating themselves from the ongoing war, and, during this interim period of little oversight, the artists could dedicate themselves to developing a new art for a new world and they could do so in their own terms. Once the government had settled its affairs, both with the civil war inside and the external conflict, Lenin’s successors began to examine the usefulness of cultural production to the government and the aims of Marxism. Censorship would soon follow.

For someone reluctant to work for the government in Petrograd, Chagall threw himself into his new role as the artistic leader of the city of Vitebsk. He was consumed, he said, “with the prodigal spectacle of a dynamic force which pervades the individual from top to bottom, surpassing your imagination, projecting itself into your own interior, artistic world, which seemed to be already like a revolution.” His appointment to his new post was in September of 1918, meaning that his first task was to stir the city to celebrate the first anniversary of the October Revolution. As Chagall himself reported, the city was painted in bright colors and festooned with four hundred and fifty posters (other sources cite three hundred and fifty) and flags and grandstands and arches were built to receive parades. Chagall’s posters were memorably colorful, combining whiffs of the avant-garde with imagery that the citizens of Vitebsk could grasp. At night the new Communist banners, complete with hammer and sickle, were flooded with light, stunning the citizens.

AGC-F-001439-0000

Marc Chagall. Peace to the Shacks War on the Palaces (1918-1919)

Baffled Party officials did not understand Chagall’s folk approach to a political revolution, but the inhabitants of the city were excited by art that was everywhere, brilliant and happy and celebratory of the lower classes and rejoicing in the new freedom from tyranny. Indeed the proletariate nature of the display of art for the people, provided by the town’s most famous artist, foreshadowed the mission of the art college. The old idea of an “academy” with all its old-fashioned elitism would be obliterated to be replaced with a school that would be dedicated to communicating with a wide audience of common people. However, Chagall was not interested in continuing old folk ways and indicated that a new art needed to be simple, meaning that a direct and straightforward approach would replace the genre and narrative works of older artists, such as Yehuda Pen.

vitebsk1919

Chagall and His Students in 1919

The People’s Art College (Narodnoy Khudozhestvennoye Uchilische) combined a non-exclusive approach to teaching and learning art with a sophisticated notion that artists should be encouraged to experiment, in an avant-garde fashion, in studios located at the school. To incorporate all points of view, Chagall invited well-known artists from Moscow, the couple, Kseniya Boguslavskaya and Ivan Puni and El Lissitzky to teach drawing, applied arts, graphic design and so on. With such distinguished teachers, the People’s Art College quickly swelled to two hundred students–mostly male. Chagall, rather bombastically, proclaimed, “..thanks to the October Revolution, it was here that revolutionary art with its colossal and multiple dimensions was set into motion.”

1280px-kazimir_malevich_-_suprematist_composition-_white_on_white_oil_on_canvas_1918_museum_of_modern_art

Kazimir Malevich. White on White (1918)

Having made “art descend to the streets,” Chagall’s triumph was followed by tribulations with the professors, some of whom simply drifted away from the school and other, such as El Lissitsky and his associate Kazimir Malevich, directly challenged Chagall for leadership. This agon between Chagall and Malevich is clouded by history and the passage of time and obscured by Chagall’s refusal to elaborate, but it seems obvious that the leader of Suprematism and the painter of Vitebsk would have totally different ideas of what art after the Revolution should be. Malevich, as is well known, was a deeply theoretical artist, combining Theosophy and semiotics to create his endpunkt for painting, and Chagall’s naturalism and charm infused Jewish themed paintings seemed neither revolutionary nor advanced to Malevich. In response to Chagall’s regressive art, Malevich formed UNOVIS, or in other words, he gathered students around him and supplanted the authority of Chagall in an internal coup de tête.

On one level, the quarrel between Chagall and Malevich was yet another parochial and internecine joust among academics–common to colleges–on another level, the question of which kind of art would be the most suitable for a nation in revolution was one that would continue to plague, not Chagall, but the avant-garde artists, who would find themselves increasingly at odds with the government’s expectations. That said, there is ample evidence that Chagall was not a good administrator or a tactful manager of the fledgling school. He had his own student followers but he was no match for Lissitsky, an ally of Malevich, who quickly joined (0r formed) anti-Chagall factions among the students and began moving against Chagall’s leadership. The new revolutionary faction intimidated the students loyal to Chagall while the local soviet officials and the newly revived secret police prowled suspiciously around the school. Threatened everywhere and showing little taste for petty combat, Chagall chose to not stay and fight to keep the art school he had founded.

chagalloverthe-town1918

Marc Chagall. Over the Town (1918)

In his own way, in the eyes of the new government, he was a more famous artist than Malevich and Chagall was able to leave honorably for Moscow to fulfill a commission. What he left behind, in 1920, were the beginnings of a war on the intellectuals, the next stage of leveling society, favoring the proletariat over the elite. Chagall’s in-laws, Bella’s family, left for Moscow after their home was ransacked by thugs, loosely sanctioned by the government, searching for treasures. Although Chagall was deeply embittered by the betrayals he suffered in Vitebsk, his experiences and the events that were roiling the town and the art school were also straws in the wind. Alert artists and intellectuals with foresight saw the warning signs and began to exit the newly repressive and unstable nation. However, Chagall had one last give to give his native country before his final exit–a famous and deliberately obscured expression of Jewish culture to be discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]