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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 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.

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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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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. 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 ()

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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: “ 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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 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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.

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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.”


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.


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.


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.

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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.

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

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The Russian Avant-Garde at War, Part Two

Marc Chagall and the War

Vitebsk as an Art Center, Part One

The fable that the Jews stabbed Germany in the back during the Great War began early, put forward by those who could not comprehend that the German army had lost the Battle of the Marne in 1914. This, the first of several battles over the contested land in northern France took place in September 6th and 12th and became famous in French folklore for the timely arrival of soldiers motored to the Front by a brigade of taxicabs, to fortify the beleaguered French forces. The hard-pressed French army was fighting off the Germans who could see the Eiffel Tower through their binoculars. The fact that taxicabs from Paris could casually drive to the front lines gives a sense of how close the Germans came to taking the city. The French were saved by a combination of several events, not the least the timely intervention of the British Expeditionary Force but what the decided the battle was that the Germans made a fatal mistake. General Alexander von Kluck decided to pursue the retreating French, who he presumed were making a last stand with their tattered forces, and, in his eagerness, he exposed the flank of his army. An attentive Commander in Chief, Joseph Joffre, immediately attacked with what was left of the French forces. The sudden counter-attack caught the German high command by surprise.

It dawned on (them) at long last that the Allies had not been defeated, that they had not been routed, that they were not in disarray,” wrote Lyn MacDonald in her 1987 book on the first year of the war, 1914. “Instead, aided by reinforcements rushed to the front (although most of the ones that were engaged in the fighting came by train) Joffre and his British allies repulsed the German advance in what is now remembered as ‘The Miracle of the Marne.’ Miraculous, perhaps, because the Allies themselves seemed surprised at their success against the German juggernaut. “Victory, victory,” wrote one British officer. “When we were so far from expecting it!” It came at the cost of 263,000 Allied casualties. It’s estimated that the German losses were similar.”

The unexpected defeat was so stunning that German troops could not understand why they were retreating instead of advancing. In his book on the Marne, Holger H. Herwig, recounted the reasons for the setback were mundane: “a flawed command structure, an inadequate logistical system, antiquated communications arm, and inept field commanders.” Herwig pointed out that the official German history of the war, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918, specifically stated, “In the hour of decision over the future of the German people, its leader on the field of battle completely broke down psychologically and physically.” Despite the facts to the contrary, rather than admit to an error of judgment made in the fog of war, the German high command in the person of Erich Ludendorff wrote in The Marne Drama that he blamed the “secret forces of Freemasonry, the machinations of world Jewry, and the baleful influence of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘occult’ theosophy…” In his book, The Marne, 1914. The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World, Herwig also discussed the work of German historian, Fritz Fischer, stating that “From the moment that German troops stumbled back from the fateful river of 9 September. Fischer argues, first the government of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and then the Army Supreme Command conspired ‘systematically to conceal’ the enormity of the defeat from the public.” Thus the “stab-in-the-back” legend was born, rising out of the smoke of the first Battle of the Marne. In 1916, the German army slandered the Jewish soldiers who served in their ranks by conducting a census under the assumption that the Jews were, by definition, shirkers when it came to service. When the results revealed that 80% of the Jewish recruits served at the Front, a percentage far higher than the rest of the population, the Army buried the report. It did not matter if Jews served and served bravely, the myth had taken hold—the Jews had stabbed the Army in the back. By 1919, the Dolchstoßlegenden–the Stab in the Back– had narrowed to a more familiar enemy, the Jews.

The idea of Jews being disloyal to their country was not confined to Germany. In his article, “How World War I Shaped Jewish Politics and Identity,” Paul Berger wrote,

About 90,000 Jews fought in German uniform, 275,000 Jews fought in the Austro-Hungarian army and 450,000 Jews fought for the czar. During the course of the war, these opposing armies advanced and retreated several times over the Pale of Settlement, a swathe of land on the Western border of the Russian empire where Jews had been forced to live for more than 100 years. Towns and villages were captured and recaptured several times. Each spasm of fighting brought with it new dangers and deprivations. After the Russian army was overrun by Germany, in 1915, the Russians began a retreat across the Pale of Settlement. Russian authorities saw Jews living in the Pale as a liability. As many as 350,000 Jews were either expelled or deported to the East under suspicion of providing intelligence to the enemy. The expulsions and deportations were accompanied by a wave of pogroms, characterized by rape and murder. Winter estimated that during the war between 30,000 and 100,000 Jews were killed.

This passage is interesting because the Pale was the home of one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who lived in Vitebsk, one of the cities in the Belarus region of the Ukraine. The Pale was defined in the 1906 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia by Herman Rosenthal as, “A portion of Russia in which Jews are allowed to reside. Unlike other Russian subjects, the Jewish inhabitants do not generally possess the natural right of every citizen to live unrestrictedly in any place in the empire. Furthermore, they are permitted to leave the Pale of Settlement—that is, to move to another place for permanent or for temporary residence—only under certain conditions defined by law.” The Pale of the Settlement was a place where the Russian Empire deposited Jews and forbade them to practice agriculture, lest they compete with the Gentiles that lived there. Confined by law to establish only businesses and to participate only in trades, Jews could become wealthy. If a Jewish family accrued enough wealth, it was allowed move to other parts of Russia. Vitebsk, an old city, dating back to the tenth century, had long been a mercantile crossroads, and in the nineteenth century, the city had the distinction of being the terminus of the railroad line from St. Petersburg. This railroad was the connection between Vitebsk, one of the oldest settlements in Europe, to the rest of the world.

It was here that Marc Chagall (the French version of his Russian name, Movsha Shagal) returned from his years on Paris to attend his sister’s wedding the summer of 1914. Educated and trained in St. Petersburg, even after years of living in Paris and consorting with Cubists, Marc Chagall always remained a child of Vitebsk. A Jew, he was deeply engaged with the Jewish culture he grew up with, its myths and folklore, its social practices and its customs as carried on in Vitebsk. Cut off from the world and yet connected to it by the thread of a rail line, Vitebsk had preserved the Jewish culture of old and, in being confined to the Pale, could retain the old ways, despite the encroaching twentieth century. For Chagall, Vitebsk was a magical and mystical place, where people flew through the sky and cows had dreams, where Jewish life was wrapped up in a place of safety and peace. Chagall’s work remained deeply nostalgic for the rest of his life, keeping the Vitebsk of his youth inshrined in his imagination. Even though, from 1911, he lived in La Ruche (The Beehive) in Paris with sophisticated artists as his friends, Archipenko, Kisling, Lipchitz, Soutine, Leger, Zadkine, Pechstein, Léger, Brancusi, Rivera, Modigliani, and Delaunay, he retained the folk ways of Vitebsk in his paintings, which were structured by the Cubism shown in the Salons.

Because of the unique art of Chagall, which defied the “movements” constructed by historians, his early success in the Parisian avant-garde has been overlooked, but, of all the artists, living in La Ruche, Chagall was on the brink of establishing himself when the Great War began. There were many Russian artists working in Paris, but few who had to overcome the difficulty of being Jewish in a nation hostile to Jews. Chagall was able to quickly transform his folk art style into an up-to-date approach which allowed him to use Cubism to translate his autobiographical musings about his past and present. His new friend and fellow expatriate, Guillaume Apollinaire, called his art “surnaturel.” Within a year, his paintings were accepted to the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, where he caught the eye of the Russian art critic, “Sillart,” or Yakov Tugendhold. Sillart wrote,

Most interesting are the works of the Russian artist Chagall. He loves the art of the Lubok (colorful narrative folk paintings). The naïveté of its composition, the wild chaotic, drunken life of the peasants in the remote villages of Lithuania (Byelorussia). On the background of toy huts and exotic nonsensical scenes of village life, an immense figure of a peasant rises, drumming on a fiddle of drunken despair. Chagall invests this figure with some higher symbolic significance. It speaks with a more lucid and expressive power than long stories about dead boredom and longing, about the dark and oppressed peasant existence. Chagall feels deeply the mystery of daily life, the abhorrent assets of the people’s life..Chagall has his own works, he gives us the truth, which sheds an original light on reality..

What makes this review, quoted here only in part, interesting is its erasure of the unique Jewish identity of “village life,” which was as Chagall depicted it only because of the anti-semitism that placed the Jews within the confines of the Pale. Anatoly Luncharsky, who would rise in the ranks after the Revolution as the “People’s Commissar of Enlightenment,” was also in Paris and wrote of “young Marc Chagall,” who “is already well-known in Paris. His crazy canvasses with their intentionally childish manners, their capricious and rich fantasy, their typical grimace of horror and considerable share of humor, unwittingly provoke the spectators’ attention in the salons–an attention that is, by the way, not always favorable.”


Marc Chagall. The Praying Jew (1914)

Lunacharsky did not mention the Jewish roots of the “crazy canvasses.” Neither did Swiss writer, Frédéric-Louis Sauser, better known as Blaise Cendrars, who wrote extensively on Chagall for the Berlin journal Der Strum, describing him as ” a young man, some twenty-four years, colorful himself, with strange wide eyes, peeping out under tempestuous curls–gladly shows me a countless quantity of his canvases and drawings..all elements of his of his fantasy come form the boring, crestfallen life of the lower class people of a Lithuanian suburb..Chagall is an interesting soul, though, no doubt, a sick one, both in its joy and its gloom. A young (E.T.A.) Hoffmann form a slum around Vitebsk. More precisely: a Remizov of the brush a Remizov of the Pale of Settlement. And yet, his is not a great painter..” Although the review from Cendrars is an odd one, it shares, with the others, a complete erasure of the Jewish origins of Chagall’s work. It is possible that, because there was and would be a great deal of anti-semitism in the art world, the writers did not want to acknowledge Chagall’s heritage and thus compromise the reader’s judgment of the work, which they take pains to define as “Russian.”


Issue of Der Strum dedicated to Marc Chagall

Despite the lukewarm but extensive review by Cendrars, Herwarth Walden, proprietor of Der Strum Gallery, gave Chagall an important solo exhibition in Berlin in June of 1914. It was Apollinaire who introduced Walden to Chagall in 1913, and the German art dealer probably realized that Chagall’s eccentric and individualistic paintings would have been quite interesting to German artists. Being a rare Jew allowed out of the Pale with a merchant’s pass, the artist was educated in St. Petersburg, legitimatizing Chagall. Then he had joined other Russian expatriates in Paris and became, not just a part of the Parisian cutting edge, but one of its leaders. From then standpoint of Walden, the art dealer, Chagall fit well into the avant-garde ranks. In addition, his work certainly aligned better with Expressionism than with classical Cubism and the child-like fantasies Chagall painted fed into the German fascination with alternative or outsider art, such as that made by children. In fact, when the War began soon after the exhibition, Walden sold the work Chagall left behind during the War, when it was widely and conveniently assumed that the artist was dead. Once the Berlin show had opened successfully, Chagall, on the edge of major success, took a brief side trip to Vitebsk and, when War was declared, he was trapped in Russia, a condition he referred to as “stuck” “involuntarily.” His art was also, as he described it, “stuck” in Berlin and “three big pictures” were “stuck in Amsterdam in the Salon,” while “Two other pictures remained in Brussels.” Caught behind the lines, Chagall wrote to his friend and fellow Russian artist, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, “I am longing for Paris. As to my exhibition (in Berlin), alas, against its will, it will become a prisoner of war.”


Marc Chagall. Vitebsk (1914)

Obviously in Chagall’s mind, Vitebsk was better remembered and not lived in. He married his childhood sweetheart, Bella Rosenfeld, who was apparently of a higher social status. Her family was opposed to the marriage but allowed the wedding to take place and her brother saved Chagall from duty on the Eastern Front with the Russian army. The artist became a military clerk working under Bella’s brother, who had little patience with Chagall’s lack of organization and efficiency. Without showing any gratitude for his delivery from what could very well have been a death sentence, Chagall moved to Petrograd, previously St Petersburg, and now newly renamed when the War began into something less German sounding.


Marc Chagall. An Old Man and an Old Woman (August 1916)

Suddenly, Chagall, who lived inside of his head and painted out of his imagination, was thrust into one of the most horrific realities of the twentieth century–the Great War. This was a war that would disgorge misery and rebellion into the streets of the city he and Bella found themselves. Petrograd was the capital of Russia, until 1918 when the capital was moved to Moscow; and, as such, the city was as cosmopolitan and as connected as Vitebsk was as isolated and disconnected behind the Pale. The city was sophisticated but familiar to Chagall, for this was where he grew up and was educated. Therefore, perhaps because of this familiarity with Petrograd, there are paintings by Chagall that betray nothing of the War except a date, 1915 or 1916.


Marc Chagall. Birthday (1916)

But there are other works that attempt to grapple with the impact of War upon people The next post will discuss the reactions of Chagall to the miseries of war and the disruptions of the rebellion against the Czar and the establishment of the Soviets in Russia.

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 at War, Part One

The Avant-Garde Artists and The Great War

Popular Culture

While it is undoubtedly true that the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 was somewhat responsible for the next war, the Second World War, it is also true that the First World War put an end not just to some empires but, most importantly, to the idea of “empire” itself as being legitimate. The German Empire ended on the battlefields of Flanders, the Ottoman Empire was systematically carved up by the Allies, happy to share the spoils of victory with each other, and the Russian Empire, undermined by incompetent leaders and unstable monarchs, fell like a precarious soufflé. Before the Great War, artists in Russia had been political in the sense of being part of the avant-garde, biased towards modernism and against the old order of things. The Russian Empire, abetted by the Russian Orthodox Church, was notoriously opposed to change and to all things modern. But, given that Russia was a police state, seething with plots and counter-plots, it would have behooved the intelligentsia to make revolutionary art and to not make political revolutions. However, these avant-garde artists lived in a time of political revolutions and were witnesses to the collapse of an empire. As they came of age, Kasimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharov would have learned of–through the veil of censors–the Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1903, the first time a European power had lost to an Asian power. Vladimir Tatlin and Varvana Stepanova would have lived through the Revolution of 1905, which was brutally put down by the Empire in what would be its last gasp or grasp on power. The social and political forces gathering against the Romanov Dynasty were merely interrupted by the Great War, for, with hindsight, it appears that revolution was inevitable, war or no war.

The Russian participation in the Great War started with patriotism and ended in the collapse of the Dynasty and the fall of the Empire as the Communist forces, attacking internally, spread discontent within the fighting forces. Unlike the other nations, Russia was not industrialized and was not prepared to fight a modern war. Despite the fact that Russia had a larger and better equipped army than the Germans, it was not as well led and, over time, it became unclear to the Russian soldiers what they were fighting for–a Czar who was content to sacrifice their lives on the Eastern Front? In fact by 1917, mutinies among the British and French militaries were not uncommon, and the Italian commanders would routinely execute soldiers who did obey orders; but patriotism depends upon a basic faith in the leaders and in the government. There was enough faith in the English and French authorities and their governments to convince the bulk of their armies to fight to the end. This loyalty or trust was absent among the Russian troops, especially after the terrible and humiliating loss at the Battle of Tannenberg. As early as August 30, less that a month into the war, 92,000 men were lost. Then a week later, another 100,000 casualties occurred at the Battle of Masurian Lakes. The “winter war” of 1914-1915 cost yet another 190,000 soldiers. All these losses in a few months. By the end of the year, two million Russian men were lost to the War. Once the Czar personally took command of the army, the end was not far away.

When the Czar abdicated, a provisional government under Alexander Kerensky was formed and kept fighting a War that no one wanted to continue to fight, fueling the victory of the Communist revolution. Once in power the Communists negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, giving away large chunks of the former Empire in order to get out of the War and carry on with the Revolution. For the next four years, civil war ripped the new nation apart as the “Reds” and “Whites” fought for control over what would become the Soviet Union. The fact that the Communists ended a War began by the Romanov Dynasty meant that when the history was written by the Communists, the Great War was an “imperial” war of “empire” and not an event to be proud of. After the War, the other nations, even the defeated Germans, marked the sacrifices with memorials, but in her interesting book, The Great War in Russian Memory, Karen Petrone noted that “As the successor state to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union was unique among the combatants in the virtual absence of public commemoration of World War I at the level of the state, community, and civic organizations, or even individual mourning. Scholars generally agree about this erase of memory..The Soviet government generally ignored the war and instead poured its energies into creating a myth of the revolution, construction Sovietness through a conscious process of forgetting imperial Russia’s last war.”

In 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, the historian Sir Max Hastings stated for The Moscow Times, “World War I was very nearly written out of Russian history during the early years of the Soviet Union because of the Bolshevik view that it was a capitalist war in which the Russian people had been the victim rather than the protagonist.” But in August of that year, Vladimir Putin spoke in a rare commemoration ceremony memorializing The Brusilov Offensive in the Spring and Summer of 1916, when the Russians successfully attacked from the Eastern Front in an attempt to draw the Germans away from Verdun and the Somme. Although Putin was probably exaggerating when he spoke of the fame of this battle, he was literally the first Russian official to mark an event in the Great War. As he said, “Today, we are restoring the links in time, making our history a single flow once more, in which World War I and its generals and soldiers have the place they deserve, and our hearts hold the sacred memory that they rightfully earned in those war years. As the saying goes, ‘better late than never.’ Justice is finally triumphing in the books and textbooks, in the media and on cinema screens, and of course, in this monument that we are unveiling here today.”

The deliberate erasure of the memory of the Great War in Russia means that it has been in just the past few years that serious study of the War began among Russian scholars. But there is an existing and compelling narrative of the War, left behind by the artists who reacted to the War for the three years Russia was fighting. It is through their work that it is possible to view the patriotism felt by Russians when their country went to War. In the fall of 2014, the Grad Gallery for Russian Art and Design in London showed a collection of rare prints, popular art and outright propaganda pieces, many being displayed for the first time in a century. Some of these prints by Russian artists, both unknown and famous, are rather amusing and delightfully folksy, such as Aristech Lentulov’s The Austrians Surrendered Lvov to the Russians like Rabbits Defeated by Lions, 1914 (left) and others are outright fantasy propaganda, such as The Russian War Against the Germans (right), while others were visionary, such as The Great European War, A Battle in the Air, 1914 (below).
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Emerging unexpectedly in the midst of his Suprematist period, the series of prints executed by Kasimir Malevich supporting the War were totally uncharacteristic of the artist’s avant-garde oeuvre. The lithographs seem to be made for children for they are comic and not serious considerations of war and its consequences. But there are reasons for this unusual collection of prints from an artist who was working abstractly by 1914. In writing of the impact of the War upon Russia and its artists, Aaron J. Cohen noted that the Russian Empire did not have a tradition of heroic military painting and that Russian audiences for academic art seem to have preferred genre scenes to visions of martial glory. In addition, he noted that the defeat of Russia by Japan, which to us now seems to be a portent of things to come, went almost unnoticed or at least unreported in the Empire. The conclusion one can reach is that Russian artists rarely dealt with the topic of war and had not considered a modern war at all. Art was not necessarily supposed to react to war or to military affairs and, in contrast to England and France, the two spheres were kept apart. This history of detachment from war might explain the divided response of Malevich, who, on one hand, did a series of lithographs, which functioned within popular culture with simple slogans or descriptions aimed at a public with limited literacy, while on the other hand, participating in avant-garde exhibitions.

Kazimir Malevich, Our French Allies

Kasimir Malevich. Our French Allies Have Filled a Cart with Captured Germans, And our British Brothers have a Barrel full (1914)

In his book, Imagining the Unimaginable. World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917, Cohen wrote, “The main forum for Russia’s visual culture of war was not the art world but the mass media,especially the popular prints (lubki), posters, pamphlets, and illustrated journals that flooded the book market with wartime images during each conflict. War and art are seen to be mutually exclusive activities..War art did not exist within the official sphere.” It seems clear that Malevich was active in the area which had been traditionally available for artists and altered his art to fit the audience’s expectations, producing a group of semi-amusing lubki.

Kazimir Malevich, Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up, 1914, lithograph. Courtesy of GRAD

Kasimir Malevich. Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up (1914)

The work Natalia Goncharov (1881–1962) executed for the War followed the same pattern of doing prints in a folk style for a general non-art audience. Her series of lithographs, issued in the Fall of 1914, presented a powerful narrative of Good, as led by mystical and spiritual forces, against Evil, no doubt the Germans. This message that God was on the side of the Russian Empire was not merely a patriotic reassurance. By the fall, two major battles had been lost and the armies had been soundly defeated and decimated, so the news that heavenly help might be on the way, would have been welcomed. The saints and angels descend to earth and mix in with the humans, blessing them, protecting them, comforting them. Shortly before the War started Goncharova had produced a series of Neo-Primitivist paintings, based on Russian folk icons and was criticized by conservatives for a sacrilegious appropriation. But the reception for these prints, with her “style” being removed from the precincts of the avant-garde, was more positive.

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Natalia Goncharova. The Christian Host, no. 9 from the series Mystical Images of War [Voina: misticheskie obrazy voiny] (1914)

The war series is a follow up, if you will, of the exhibition that had in fact established her reputation in Moscow, a huge showing of nearly eight hundred works. This event, Vystavka kartin Natalii Sergeevni Goncharovoi, 1900-1913, took place at the Khudozhest vennii Salon in the fall of 1913. This Moscow show was followed by a highly successful joint exhibition, organized by her artistic partner and lover, Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) for the Galerie Paul Guillaume. In 1914, therefore, Goncharova was the most famous Russian avant-garde artist, a leader in the international art world, with a major German exhibition to be mounted by Herwarth Walden at Der Sturm in the offing. However the War intervened. According to Natalia Budanova’s article, “Russian Avant-Garde Women, Futurism and the First World War,” Walden protected the large body of work, already in Berlin, for the artist and returned it to her at the war’s end. Larinov and Goncharova were forced to return to Russia, taking circuitous route. Larionov, an excellent promoter for Goncharov’s career, was drafted and badly wounded during the first year of the War. The round faced narrow eyed artist, who had invented “Rayonism,” could never as active as he had been before the War, and the couple returned to Paris. Intending to capitalize on her 1914 success with the Coq D’Or ballet, Goncharova continued her work with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When the couple left Russia in 1915, their exit was a rare exception, granted perhaps due to the prestige of the artist or the military service of her badly wounded companion, or the importance of the Ballet Russe. The couple was to never return to Russia. Budanova put their departure from Russia into perspective:

Larionov and Goncharova left the country at the very moment when the Russian avant-garde was gathering momentum. The mass repatriation of many Russian artists triggered by the war, however traumatic and disadvantageous on a personal level, produced a positive side-effect on the evolution of Russian modern art. In fact, it ‘marked the heyday for the Russian avant-garde,’ because such a high concentration of vigorous, creative and ambitious personalities, counting practically as many women as men, was destined to invigorate artistic life in Russian capital cities and reinforce the avant-garde Russian cultures.

One could ask “what if?” the famous art couple had remained in Moscow and mingled with Malevich and the returning expatriates, such as Luibov Popova, had been present at the creation of a revolutionary art, and had taken advantage of their fame. Although the pair lived the last thirty years of their lives in Paris in obscurity and poverty, the fate of those who stayed in Russia was equally tragic, for this was a starred and cursed generation of artists. Those who remained in Russia were impacted by the War and it can be argued that the jolt of being part of a “great,” as in expansive war, woke up that particular generation to wider social responsibilities. In Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe Before World War II, Tibor Iván Berend quoted László Moholy-Nagy of Hungary,At the time of the War, I developed a feeling of social responsibility, and today I feel it to an even greater extent. My conscience spoke to me: is it fitting to be a painter in an era of social change? In the past century, art and reality were a painter I can serve the meaning of life..”

Moholy-Nagy’s awakening to social responsibility would direct the rest of his life, and this artist would immigrate to Germany to work at the Bauhaus. But what of the Russian artists during the Great War? Certainly they must have reacted to the War as Moholy-Nagy did and were poised to enter into an art of the social if not immediately an art of the political. The artists made a distinction between supporting the Russia people and the Russian Czar, whom they viewed as an anachronism. The War, then, could be viewed as a prelude to readiness for the Revolution and the art they would gladly make on its behalf. The majority of histories of the Russian Avant-Garde divide the production of these artists in half, splitting their work between Pre-War and Post-War work, eliding the narrow slice that directly addressed the Great War. As was pointed out, there was almost no history of Russian artists gesturing towards any war and the normal behavior on the part of the art world was to simply carry on and make art as though nothing else was happening. For the purpose of this series, a distinction will be made, however, separating the avant-garde from the art made in Russia that directly addressed the War. This narrow task is difficult because the Russian government has suppressed this slice of time and then, in turn, hid the labors of the avant-garde artists from the 1930s on. That said, the next post will continue to discuss art in Russia during the Great War, between 1914 and 1917.

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

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The Futurists Go To War, Part Three

Futurism in Transition

From War to Fascism

The Great War did not go well for the Italians. Aside from the enthusiastic Futurists and their nationalist sympathizers, such as Benito Mussolini, most Italians regarded the war with wary eyes. The nation had to be bribed into the war by the Allies who promised Italy not just territories that were “lost” to the Austro-Hungarian Empire but also were given “permission” to add to their African territories and could help carve up the Ottoman Empire. One could say that Italy had driven hard bargain if the promises were possible to fulfill–but that outcome was in the future. The two solid years of causalities and deaths on the Alpine Front cost the nation over a million lives and that figure referred only to the slaughter on the Isonzo River plain, the Carso plateau. There was another site of death for the Italian army and that was the nearly forgotten “White War.”

The Alpine Front amounted to a third front which wended its torturous path from the Julian Alps to the Ortler massif to the Adriatic Sea, a line of over 250 miles. When the collective memory considers the Great War, it is the muddied fields of Flanders that come to mind, but the Italians and the Austrians were fighting in the mountains over disputed territories that lay between the two powers. These age old enemies, which once had the relation of occupier and occupied, faced off against each other in what was a war of mutual mass destruction. In his eloquent book of 2008, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, Mark Thompson recounted remarkable instances when the Austrians, sickened by slaughter warned their Italian counterparts to not advance, to not run towards the very mechanisms of death so admired by the Futurists:

On one occasion, the Austrian machine gunners were so effective that the second and third waves of Italian infantry could hardly clamber over the corpses of their comrades. An Austrian captain shouted to his gunners, ‘What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be.’ The Austrians stopped firing and called out: ‘Stop, go back! We won’t shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?’ The author continued making the point that no where on the other Fronts did such events take place. “To take their measure, bear in mind that there was no shortage of hatred on this front, that soldiers could relish the killing here as much as elsewhere, the Austrians were outnumbered and fighting for their lives, and any officer or soldier caught assisting the enemy in this way would face court martial. These deterrents could be overcome only by the spectacle of a massacre so futile that pity and revulsion forced a recognition of oneself in the enemy, thwarting the habit of discipline and the reflex of self-interest.

Much of the Italian experience in this war was not just on the relatively flat plain but within the Alps themselves, or that stretch of the Alpine range called the Dolomites in the northeast of Italy. Once can attempt to envision a vertical war, some 6500 feet above sea level, a never-ending struggle encased in many, many feet of snow, carved out the ice and blasted out of rock faces. The weapons were then same as used on the plateau but they had to be hauled up slopes so angled that they defined mules or horses. Only humans, not well versed in the now familiar sport of mountain climbing, would traverse these mountain faces and they could not carry a cannon. Heavy equipment was hoisted upward by ropes and when fired, the cannon, would cause a shattering sound as the explosions, contained in the encircling peaks, would reverberate and echo. The cannon fire was often not directed against the other side but was used as noise, a noise so loud that it caused avalanches, burying troops by the “White Death,” so deeply that they were unrecoverable. This ninety degree war in the mountains would have an unexpected outcome. When the war finally ended in 1918, the Austrians and the Italians simply abandoned their aeries and went home, leaving the war and its detritus behind, including bodies of the dead, submerged in the snow.

Writing for The Telegraph a hundred years later, in an age of Global Warming, Laura Spinney explained, “As much of the front was at altitudes of over 6,500ft, a new kind of war had to be developed. The Italians already had specialist mountain troops – the Alpini with their famous feathered caps – but the Austrians had to create the equivalent: the Kaiserschützen. They were supported by artillery and engineers who constructed an entire infrastructure of war at altitude, including trenches carved out of the ice and rudimentary cableways for transporting men and munitions to the peaks.” Then in the early 2000s, the ice began to melt. Michele Gravino, for National Geographic wrote,

Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater. Never before had battles been waged on such towering peaks or in such frigid conditions..Entire villages of shacks were built, though officers generally lived in old mountain refuges, some outfitted with grand pianos and gramophones. On Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Dolomites, the Austrian Corps of Engineers built an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms dug out of the bowels of the glacier..Now, a century later, the warming world is revealing the buried past, as relics and corpses are melting free of their icy tombs.

Most of the 150,000 dead in the Dolomites were from avalanches, frostbite and causes other than traditional battle wounds. Now one hundred years later, with the dead returning, demanding to be named, and needing to be returned to surprised families to be buried. For the Italians, the First World War, even with its catastrophic defeats, was a better war compared with the Second World War, which is tainted with the history of Fascism and Mussolini. In the book Italy’s Divided Memory, J(own) Foot noted that archaeological reclamations on the Carso plateau, revealing trenches cut from “hard stone.” He wrote, “In the areas of the ‘white war,’ the rapid melting of glaciers revealed a series of structures that had been built in tunnels within the ice..Global warming threw up some surprises. In the mountains above Val Rendena in Trentino, excavations began in 2007 into a frozen cave known as the caverna di caveat. This cave had been occupied by both the Austrian and Italian armies during the war.”

For Italy, it was a long strange war. But that was the war the Futurists demanded. In the strange year of 1915, while the nationalists and interventionists were marching for war, Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) painted a series of semi-abstract works, depicting crowds acting en masse. For Mussolini and Marinetti, the “crowd” was a mystical and mythical being, feminine, in its penchant for being malleable, moulded for any cause. Balla’s depictions of crowds reflected the events in Italy when the demonstrators would wave the flag of the House of Savoy–“Savoy” would become the battle cry that would lead the soldiers into battle. In 1911, Gustave le Bon wrote Psychology of the Masses, a book that would become something of a Bible for the Fascists, because the crowd, under the correct circumstances and with the right leader, could dominate. Le Bon described the “crowd” as “under these circumstances, the gathering of people possesses new, completely different qualities form the qualities of single people who form this gathering. The conscious personality fades, the feelings and thoughts of all the individuals are oriented towards the same direction.”


Giacomo Balla. Patriotic Demonstration (1915)

Meanwhile Gino Severini (1883-1956) was in Paris, watching an actual war unfold. Because he could view the Denfert-Rochereau station from his apartment in Paris, Severini was apprised of the comings and goings of troops and the constant arrival of the wounded from the Front. The Hospital Train of 1915 would have been a common sight. As the corner of the newspaper Le Figaro would indicate, the press would report on the long journey the trains would take from the aid stations at the Front to the hospitals in Paris. When the trains arrived in the various stations, the wounded would be unloaded and volunteer nurses, pictured by Severini, would offer water and care to the wounded. We discern this process through the red cross, the train smoke, and other details which from a composite collage like “idea-image.”

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Gino Severini. Hospital Train (1915)


Gino Severini. Hospital Train Passing a Village (1915)

In light of the seriousness of the sight of the hospital train and its passengers, a similar topic, Hospital Train Passing a Village, is a reminder that Severini was always a painter of pleasant things and that he was probably ill-suited to the task put to him by Marinetti. The painting is simply silly, better suited for a child’s book on the war than for the adult audience which would be jarred by the jolly colors. In comparison to this rather illustrative and imaginary work, Virtual Synthesis of the Idea – War (1914) is darker in tone, combining elements that would appear in another painting of a similar name in 1915. Severini used Marinetti’s “words in freedom” unfailing near the bottom, referring to the “Maximum Effort” that would be needed to repeal the Germans. What is interesting about these two paintings is the extent to which they are not Futurist, not about speed or change or dynamism. Instead the paintings are static and immobile, composed of stacked elements, typical of Cubism.


As a painted collage, Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War (1915) was successful for it at least captures some of the seriousness, from the reference to the mobilization order to the artillery and the airplane and so on, Severini combined, in a coherent fashion, his reaction to war, focusing on its technology and mechanization, eliminating the human factor.

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Gino Severini. Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War (1915)

Given the success of Christopher Nevinson in rerouting Futurism towards paintings of the Great War, the awkwardness of the actual works by the founding Futurists is a surprise. Severini’s sketch of Lancers, mirror that of Boccioni in its lack of comprehension of the fact that the calvary charge was a historical memory, unfit for modern war. Equally questionable are the static reactions to a war that was admittedly static by both Severini and Carlo Carrà (1881-1966). The stilled nature of the works, compared to the mobilized imagery by Nevinson, seems to be connected to their use of words and letters which tend to not activate the surface but fix it in place.


Gino Severino. Gun in Action (1915)

Severino’s Gun in Action of 1915 is simply wooded compared to Christopher Nevinson’s powerful and iconic La Mitrailleuse of the same year. It is no accident that Apollinaire praised Nevinson and apparently said nothing of Severini, who was, to be fair, hampered by his illness and could have had no comprehension of what it meant to be on an artillery crew, like Braque. If Severini’s paintings done during the Great War show his individual ambivalence about Futurism and reveal his long time affinity with Cubism, then it can be suggested that it was his distance from Futurism central, Milan, limited his full incorporation of Futurist aesthetics or purpose. But it was not just Severini for whom the War caused an artistic crisis. Carlo Carrà’s Guerrapittura of 1915, a virtual copy of an idea pioneered by Marinetti in his work Zang Tumb Tumb (1912) composed for the Balkens prelude. Combining words and abstract forms, Atmospheric Envelope-Exploding Shell of 1914, Carrà did a number of collages, combining words, drawings and pasted paper, more in the style of Braque, rather than Picasso. As these collages make clear, he was struggling with the language of Futurism. In his article, “Carlo Carrà’s Conscience,” David Mather would describe the emotional and artistic crisis faced by Carrà.


Carlo Carrà. Atmospheric Envelope-Exploding Shell (1914)

Carrà, as was discussed in a previous post, worked closely with Marinetti. Along with Boccioni, these Futurists were enthusiastic supporters not just of entering the War but also of what Intervening meant–nationalism, the kind of nationalism that would become fascism. Indeed on the fifteenth the November of 1914, Carrà wrote about Mussolini, an individual in whom “resides the drama of our whole generation. We admire him if for nothing else, then certainly for the courage that he keeps demonstrating.” While the War and military service was, for Carrà, a theoretical prospect. Mather quoted from a letter the artist wrote to Ardengo Suffici at the end of 1914, in which he longed for “the real war–made of blood and heroism.” The collages he created for his book on war–his response as an artist–were also theoretical, a standpoint taken in his concluding essay, “War and Art,” which, as Mather said, “characterized war as an engine of new sensibilities closely allied with, and even emerging directly from the futurist movement.”


Carlo Carrà. Joffre’s Angle of Penetration Against Two German Cubes on the Marne (1915)

The Great War did not, of course, come from Futurism and Carrà would be confronted with the disconnect between the idea and the reality. This series of collages in Guerrapittura was not only a turn towards Cubism, also evident in the work of Severini, marked the end of Carrà’s time as a Futurist. Drafted in1917, he went to war, proved to be unfit for battle, and found himself in a hospital where he met Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), who was working in the military hospital at Ferrara. As with the other Futurists who served in the War, Carrà found the actuality of fighting in trenches disconcerting. After all, he was a nationalist and a revolutionary, not a soldier.


It is possible, as Mather suggested, that Carrà’s conversion to Metaphysical Painting was the result of the trauma of the War, but he continued to support nationalism, even though he knew the reality of combat, and retained his devotion to Mussolini. As for Sererini, he, too, moved away from Futurism and Cubism, and, like Carrà became part of the post-War “return to order,” which, for these artists, would be a new form of classicism. The arc of the Futurism of the founders was a short one, with the energy and ideals drained away by the Great War. But Futurism was not dead. As was noted in a previous post, during the War years, new members joined Futurism and would carry Futurism on into the rest of the twentieth century. The new phase of Futurism would focus on the new technological hero that emerged during the Great War, the airplane, the machine that could fly and give the women and men who flew it wings.

The Great War ended disastrously for Italy. The military suffered 2,197,000 casualties, of which 650,000 died–or so say the official figures. For a nation that went to war on the promise of booty, the recovery of territories considered “Italian,” these losses had to count for something. Although they had been on the winning side, their War ended in a “mutilated victory.” However, at the Treaty of Versailles in the spring of 1919, the other allied nations made it clear that, in their opinion, Italy had not done its fare share and and not fulfilled its promises as a military partner. The Italian delegation was treated with contempt by the British and the French, while the Americans wanted to give Italy as little as possible. The Italian government was supported by the nationalists only and the nationalists wanted what was promised in the Treat of London plus the Adriatic port city of Fiume. However, a new player was on the field, America, and President Woodrow Wilson represented the new approach to diplomacy, ethnic and self-determination as opposed to the system of spoils. The Italians considered the Treaty of London to be binding, the Allies considered the Treaty an obstacle to be overcome. To the consternation of Italy, a new nation, on its borders, was carved out the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia, including territories claimed by the Italians, especially the city of Fiume. In the end Italy was placated, possibly because British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour said, “The Italians must be mollified, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to humanity.” In the end, Italy received a seat on the League of Nations, a share of German reparations and the Tyrol. The nation of Italy was deeply angry at the way it had been slighted and, despite the warnings of the delegation that such disparaging treatment only incited radical political forces, such as the fasci di combattimenti. Their warnings went unheeded and it was at the Treaty in Paris that the seeds for Italian Fascism was planted and the foundation for the rise of Mussolini was laid. For the Fascists, the humiliation in Paris had to be avenged.

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

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

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The Futurists Go To War, Part Two

Futurism in Transition

From War to Fascism

Although in the histories of the Great War, Italy is usually written of as a “minor power,” or a minor player in the larger structure of the War. The nation was a latecomer to the conflict and had limited goals. Italy had not been invaded and there were no enemies rampaging through Italian fields and towns. Indeed, there seems to be little reason for Italy to enter into a war that, by 1915, was showing signs of being long and bloody and inconclusive. But, from the Italian point of view, there were against to be made. For decades during the nineteenth century, Italy had struggled to become an independent strong united nation and was thwarted at every point by the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had historically dominated and occupied northern Italy. When Italy finally unified–Italian Risorgimento–Italian unification–in 1861, far too much of ethnically Italian territory remained in the hands of the Austrians. The new nation had pried Lombardy from Austria and, eventually, was awarded Venice for siding with Prussia during the Seven Week’s War in 1866. Longing to retrieve the rest of its “lost” territories, Italy joined with Germany in the Triple Alliance on the hope that Austria would stop its attempt to grab land and that it would be protected from the Empire. In 1915, Italy entered into a secret agreement, the Treaty of London, in which it was agreed that it would enter the War on the side of the Entente Cordiale and receive in return Trento and the South Tyrol as far as the Brenner Pass, along with Trieste and the Austrian Littoral as well as northern Dalmatia, the so-called terre irredente (unredeemed lands), after the War was successfully included. The assignment given to Italy was to open an Eastern Front along the southern border of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The role Italy played in the defeat of Germany (and Austria) is often considered a side bar to the major action of the Western Front, but aside from confronting the enemy directly, one of the most important moves an adversary can make is to attack from the rear and force the enemy to open a new front. This new front, however, was complex. It was necessary for Italy to attack Austria, win quickly, and seize the advantage before Germany could react and come to the aid of its ally. There was another reason to move quickly–Futurists not withstanding most Italians were not entirely enthusiastic about going to war. The government could count on a brief burst or nationalism and patriotism but not on public patience for a long war. But geography in this alpine region was all but impossible. The border, disputed or not, between Italy and Austria, ran through the Dolomites and Carnic Alps, a nearly impassable mountain range unsuitable for modern warfare if one needed to make a quick breakthrough. There was only one place that seemed to be flat enough, the plain around the Isonzo River and it was here that the Italian high command chose to strike. In the early days, the commanders did not believe that their front lines would become stalemated, but they were wrong.

The Italians did not declare war on Germany right away, after all the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the main enemy and the prime goal was territorial. Therefore it was not until 1916 that Germany could intervene when Italy intervened and attacked Austria. From the beginning, Italy was on the offensive and the Austrians on the border were forced on the defensive, waiting for reinforcements. That said, the Austrians were dug in, with fortifications on the high ground, in the mountains above the river plain and the Italians mounted no less that twelve battles, all named the “Battle of Isonzo.” The commander in the region, the Italian Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna, initially made some advances but could not capitalize on any gains and the War on this front soon bogged down–literally for there were record rainfalls during those years–into trench warfare. In his book, The Italian Army of World War I, David Nicolle wrote, “Even though Cadorna soon realized that this was going to be a war of attrition, he continued to have faith in massed artillery and massed infantry attacks.” However it was not until the costly Battle of Caporetto (the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo) in 1917, with the loss of 300,000 casualties, that, as Nicolle continued, “The Italians were aware of the shortcomings which had exposed them to defeat at Caporetto, and the first half of 1918 was dedicated to changing the army’s outmoded tactics.” Although obscure today, the total casualties in relation to the many attacks and counter attacks at Isonzo were once legendary. The Italian high command had the supposed advantage of knowing how quickly the Western Front had stalemated due to the combination of old tactics and the defensive capabilities of new weapons against direct assaults, but they leaders did not learn the lessons and, like their counterparts in northern Europe, clung the Napoleonic strategies. John R. Schindler, author of Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, noted of the river, now in Slovenia,

The Isonzo’s tragic recent past has been all but totally forgotten. Earlier in the twentieth century, the name evoked horror and sorrow. Throughout Europe and North America, the name Isonzo stood alongside Verdun and the Somme in the collective memory of needless sacrifice of the First World War. The terrible bloodletting that scarred France and Flanders and shattered the lives of millions did not spare the Isonzo. From May 1915 to October 1817, the Italian Army attempted to break the Austro-Hungarian defensive line on the Isonzo and to advance deep into the Central European heartland..The cost was unprecedented. Twenty-nine months of fighting on the Isonzo cost Italy 1, 100,000 soldiers dead and wounded. The Austrians, desperately holding on to every inch of ground, lost 650,000. The Italians finally crossed the Isonzo in triumph only in November 1918, at the Great War’s end, following Austria-Hungary’s complete political collapse.

It is against this background of “bloodletting” that the paintings of hospital trains by Gino Severini (1883-1966) need to be understood. Unlike the other Futurist artists, Severini was not healthy–he had tuberculosis–enough to serve in the military and spent the War in Paris. While he was watching the unfolding of a disaster, the Futurists in Milan were demonstrating in public, demanding “intervention.” After a particularly spectacular event at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, during which they shouted “Viva la Francia”and “Viva la Guerra” and were subsequently arrested and sent to the San Vittore prison for a few days to cool off. In writing of this period in Marinetti’s life, Ernest Ialongo, stated that the poet and Futurist leader published “In This Futurist Year” “to court Italy’s university students, who had shown themselves receptive to Futurism and its nationalist message. He wrote that ‘our nationalism, which is ultra-violent, anticlerical, antisocialist and anti-traditionalist, is rooted in the inexhaustible vigor of Italian bold and is at war with the cult of ancestors which, far from welding the race together makes it anemic and causes it to rot away.'” Acting as the leader of the Futurist movement, Marinetti wrote to Severini in Paris on November 20th. By this time, late fall, the Western Front had already stalled and there had already been historic and devastating losses on the French side, and Marinetti was urging Severini, a witness to the actual costs of war, to, as Ialongo put it, “..even if it shaded into propaganda.” In his book, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: The Artist and His Politics, the author also quoted a passage from this letter:

This war will eventually take in the entire world..the world will be at war (even if there are breaks, armistice, treaties, diplomatic congress) that is, in an aggressive dynamic Futurist state for at least 10 years. Thus is imperative that Futurism no only collaborate directly in the splendor of this conflagration (and many of us have decided to commit our bodies energetically to it) but also become the plastic expression of this Futurist hour. I’m talking about a vast expression, not limited to a small circle of experts, but a truly strong and synthetic expression that affects the imagination and eyes of all or nearly all intelligent people.” Marinetti hoped Ialongo noted, “..we will have a new, bellicose, plastic dynamism..” and predicted that in the time of war, “significant artistic originality is possible.” The letter continued, with him suggesting that the painter should be interested “in the war and its repercussions in Paris pictorially. Try to live the war pictorially, studying it in all its marvelous mechanical forms (military trans, fortifications, the wounded, ambulances, hospitals, funeral processions). You have the fortune of being in Paris right now. Take absolute advantage, abandon yourself to the enormous military, anti-teutonic emotions that agitate France.”

In defense of this sheer cluelessness of this passage, it is unclear the extent to which Marinetti, the Futurists, even Severini could truly understand the actual destructive nature of this very modern war. That Marinetti would include funeral processions in his list of “mechanical forms” is so cold that one can only imagine that, at this point in time, he was uttering meaningless slogans unmoored from actual experience. While it would be anachronistic to call out the Futurist leader for not understanding the nature of the War at hand, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that Severini addressed the La grande guerra from a sanitized distance. In addition the artist was also attentive to his own career during the War. According to the Stieglitz and His Artists. Matisse to O’Keeffe, in 1915 he sent fourteen works to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where, along with the other Futurist artists, they were shown in a separate gallery and ignored by most critics. In the summer of 1916, Severini negotiated with Walter Pach and Marius de Zayas to arrange an exhibition at the New York gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, 291, an art dealer who disliked Futurism. The exhibition, which would be the last Stieglitz offered to a European artist, opened in March 1917, during which Stieglitz became somewhat mollified towards the style. Due to the War, Severini had to leave the art in New York and did not inquire about his paintings until 1921. It is not clear if they were ever returned and it is possible that they eventually were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a bequest from Stieglitz and the artist, who was still alive, was delighted to be included in the Museum’s collection. Among the donations were a rare diamond shaped work, entitled Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915) that is a combination of a spinning dancer, a swirling sea and a rotating propellor.


Gino Severini. Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915)

The more interesting work is a charcoal drawing, Flying over Reims (1915), probably a response to the German bombing of the Medieval cathedral in an action that would be termed a war crime today. The artist himself mentioned his limitations in saying, “I could not express my ideas of ‘war’ by painting battlefields littered with slaughtered bodies, streams of blood, and other such atrocities. My modern idea-image of war came from the concentration of a few objects or forms taken from reality and compressed into ‘essences’ into ‘pure notion.'” As shall be discussed presently, in order to create the idea-image, or a composite, Severini would have to move away from Futurism and move towards a Salon Cubism. The Reims drawing was a rare Futurist work during the War, showing movement and dramatic lines of force, foreshadowing the post-war Futurist fascination for all things aviation.


Gino Severini. Flying over Reims (1915)

Severini’s references to “slaughtered bodies” and “streams of blood” suggest that he did understand what the actual fighting was like, and it is known that he read the Parisian newspapers and used their imagery for his paintings. For example, the painting, Armored Train in Action (1915), was from an aerial photograph that appeared in a newspaper. In Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism, Christine Poggi explained that the image was

..a Belgium armored train, published in the bimonthly Album de la Guerre on 1 October 1915. In transforming the photographic source, Severini centered and righted the overhead view of the train, giving it a distinctly phallic shape. He also eliminated two soldiers observing the action, so that in the painting all five depicted men point rifles toward an unseen enemy at the left..If in the photograph the varied posters and individual features of the soldiers were visible, in the painting the logic of standardization takes over..the glowing red forms of the entire car at the top of the canvas intensify the erotic charge of the armored train, investing this instrument of death with simulacra life.


Gino Severini. Armored Train in Action (1915)

The next post on Futurism during the War will further examine the Futurists reaction to an actual War.

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

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