The End of the Russian Avant-Garde

Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938)

The Last of the Avant-Garde

Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova were lucky to live out their lives peacefully. In the brutal period of Stalin’s Russia, artists were suppressed. Starting in the late 1920s, the mood of the government became less tolerant of avant-garde efforts and the turn towards the illustrative realism that would dominate from the late 1930s to the fall of the Berlin Wall began. The journey of the posters of Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938) was a case in point as they became less and less radical as the years passed. Like Rodchenko, Klutsis had an equally talented wife who was also an artist, Valentina Kulagina (1902-1987), and like Rodchenko, he used photomontage in a straightforward fashion for didactic purposes. Like Rodchenko, Klutsis reduced his palette to a few colors, red, gray, black and white, and these colors became identified with Russian avant-garde art during the revolution.

Gustav Klutsis. In Memory of Fallen Leaders (1927)

In Revolutionary Russia, there were certain iconic images: Lenin himself, the god-like deity of the Russians who was always elevated above those whom he ruled. The reader of the poster invariably saw Lenin, larger than life, and photographed from below. He strides the universe Klutsis made for him like a colossus, capable of everything and anything. The left arm of Lenin is frequently outstretched, a simple orator’s gesture that became a gesture towards the future—a sort of visual semiotics of moving forward. Like his speeches, Lenin’s messages were brief, identical, and repetitive, like an incessant drum beat, directed to the peasants and the workers of Moscow and Petrograd and beyond. The posters had to compliment the precision of the spoken words, and it is here that the difference between agitation, the practice of Lenin, and propaganda, which is a longer and more doctrinaire explanation of ideology, can be located—one is simple and emotional and the other is the province of intellectuals. Agitprop, in the talented hands of Klutsis, was simple and direct, focusing on the heroic figures of the Revolution, from Lenin himself to the worker and the peasants, soldiers in the Revolution. But it was Lenin who walked through the posters of Klutsis. The artist, a Latvian, was an ardent Communist who remained faithful to the Revolution. As if to follow the outstretched arm of Lenin, the basis of the style of Klutsis was the diagonal, leaning in, tilting forward, angling towards the future, marching to victory.

Gustav Klutsis. From NEP Russia Will Come Soviet Russia (1930)

Lenin was frequently depicted by Klutsis as a Gulliver, moving purposefully among his Lilliputian peoples, creating miracles in his wake. “From the Russia of the NEP, new economic policy period, there will arise a socialist Russia,” a quote from Russia inspired an exemplary poster by Klutsis, featuring a giant photomontaged Lenin, wearing his familiar cap, with his arm outstretched above the tiny workers toiling on industrial projects. Facing right, Lenin is silhouetted against a red triangular banner, bearing his own words. In a near flip of the earlier poster, a late work of 1931, used the same drop of a diagonal red shape reinforced by a flag pole carried by a photograph of a worker in overalls, facing left, urging on the workers of the world, who project from the red globe at the bottom of the poster. Beneath the elaborate and often delicate photomontage work in the posters of Klutsis are the shapes and the movement found in the Suprematist paintings of his colleague, Kazimir Malevich.

El Lissitzky. First Russia Exhibition poster (1922)

One could argue that the year 1922 was the last great year of artistic freedom for the Russian artists and the first year in which an international language for post-war art manifested itself emerged. Vladimir Tatlin and Malevich faced off, as it were, in the Van Diemen Gallery in Berlin near the Russian Embassy. The First Russian Art Exhibition showed off seven hundred works of almost two hundred artists who had developed a new art style, Constructivism, since the Russian Revolution. Malevich represented the pre-Revolutionary avant-garde styles, while Tatlin represented the new and strident anti-art idea of the artist as being an engineer who constructed objects for the Revolution. But in terms of basic composition, Constructivists artists absorbed the diagonals and the dynamism of Suprematism, which, in turn, had been inherited from Futurism. Whether with photomontages or actual constructions, such as Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, on view at the Van Diemen Gallery or with traditional paintings, the style of Malevich had become knitted into the post-war Revolutionary art of the Russians. The combination of Constructivism and Suprematism impacted the artists of Europe and the First Russian Art Exhibition traveled to Amsterdam in 1923, where it was favorably received by the Dutch artists. A post-war international style was born, bringing Russia, Germany, and Holland together in a visual vocabulary that expressed itself in architecture, agitprop posters, graphic design, and, for a short time, painting.

Joost Schmidt. Poster for the Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar (1923)

Walter Gropius, Director of the Bauhaus, was so impressed with the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1922, he returned to Weimar, the city of the first Bauhaus, with a new idea and a new slogan: “Art and Industry: A New Unity.” The following year, almost precisely a year later, the Bauhaus held an exhibition to show off the achievements of the new art school, its students, half of whom were female, and its distinguished faculty, many of whom were left-leaning. While the town of Weimar, suspicious of the Communist inspired imported philosophy of Constructivism, did not warm to the new non-traditional style, impacted by the diagonals of Theo van Doesburg and the Futurist-inspired dynamism of Suprematism, artists in Europe saw this new version of modern art reaffirmed. The poster for this exhibition by Joost Schmidt is not unlike that designed for the First Russian Art Exhibition by El Litisszky. The main difference is that the logo designed by El Litisszky is a straight vertical and the shape designed by Schmidt was set on a diagonal.

Vladimir Lenin. Sverdlov Square in Petrograd on May 5, 1920

The Germans were more fortunate than the Russians in that they had the opportunity to carry out their slogan and put art and design in the service of industry. The new Communist regimes had far fewer resources than Germany in the mid-twenties and the government, after the death of Lenin, were less favorable to the avant-garde artists and their ambitious ideas. Tatlin’s Monument was a mere scale model and most avant-garde architectural proposals remained dreams on paper. And yet with these designs, which resembled agitprop posters, the Russians had combined the structure of constructivism and its real-world purpose with the shapes seen in the paintings of Malevich. Beginning with a photograph, then composed like a Suprematist painting, rendered as a proposal for an architectural project, these hybrid posters evolved but were rarely manifested. For example, perhaps the most famous image of Lenin came from his speech Sverdlov Square in Petrograd on May 5, 1920, when was photographed from a variety of angles, one of which shows the tall lecture he climbed to rise above the crowd of soldiers—Petrograd Communists—leaving for the Polish front. Lenin’s speech ended, “Long live our Red Workers’ and Peasants’ Army!” In fact, this platform became so iconic that El Lissitzky built a drawing model of a Tribune for Lenin, in which the old-fashioned wooden platform was mechanized, multiplied so that each level could be hoisted in stages high over the crowd, depending on its size. In other words, as the span of the crowds increased, the leader could ascend to a higher platform via a striking red and black Eiffel Tower like structure which slants to the left. Designed in 1920, this photomontage of an imaginary piece of architecture was contemporaneous with Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International but was not made public at the time. El Lissitzky added a photograph of Lenin speaking from the highest platform with a signboard above stating a favorite theme, “Proletariat.” In 1924, this Tribune on paper became a model in which stairs were added on as a practical gesture. But by 1924, Lenin was dead and El Lissitzky’s Tribune became a de facto tribute.

El Lissitzky. Tribune for a Leninist (1927)

Meanwhile, Gustav Klutsis reimagined the concept of the Speech harnessed to propaganda to mass media through a series of narrative machines, from loudspeakers to kiosks. Time moved fast in revolutionary Russia and in 1921, Klutsis made posters that were muted in tone with sharp-edged drawings anchored with softened photomontages. In “Electrification for the Entire Country,” the poster seems closer to a print or an etching than the eye-catching red black white and gray posters that became the signature style of the artist. The famous electrification poster contained the ghost of the academic artist that Klutsis used to be but showed the devotion of the Latvian soldier who, according to legend, was among those in the 9th Regiment of the Latvian riflemen who escorted Lenin and the government from Petrograd to Moscow. After the Revolution, he was re-educated at the Higher state artistic and technical studios—spelled VKhUTEMAS—a Russian version of the Bauhaus where he later taught. Klutsis taught his students to be revolutionary artists who should be cognizant of “..all the contemporary achievements of science and technology.” To that end—to communicate with the masses—Klutsis designed a group of stationary objects that were the counterparts of the agitprop trains—machines for transmitting propagandistic speeches and kiosks for printed information. The designs were, once again, this dynamic and spare and dramatic translation of Suprematist painting into actual constructions which transformed Malevich’s abstractions into practical machines.

It is not well known that the Soviets were pioneers in developing radio. When they came to power in 1917, “radio” consisted of a Morse code transmission which was accepted by a receiving station whose job it was to decode the message which was then distributed in print. Recognizing the potential of mass communication, the new government threw its efforts into upgrading the capabilities of radio. By 1920, scientists had learned how to send the human voice via radio waves and in 1921, a real radio station was established to transmit news and propaganda or educational materials. The Spoken Newspaper of the Russian Telegraph Agency was heard with a radio receiver which individuals could not afford, and to solve the problem of communicating with large numbers of people, loudspeakers were installed in public sites and blared out the Bolshevik point of view. Lenin was quite fond of this new technology and in 1922 Moscow had the most powerful radio station in the world. In response to this new demand for public sites for listening, Klutsis created loudspeakers to amplify the voice and project the radio addresses. These structures were always red black and white or metal and were planned in posters or preliminary drawings and sometimes manifested in maquettes. These extraordinary designs were very complex and difficult to realize but Klutsis imagined a live speaker on a platform with his voice being projected while the same loudspeakers could be used for radio broadcasts. Some of these larger stands had screens for film projections. He even combined a set of screens with a kiosk for the fourth congress of the comintern and fifth anniversary of the October revolution in 1922. Only a few of his constructions seem to have been put to actual use.

Gustav Klutsis. Worker and the Worker woman all to elections! (1933)

The poster Worker and the Worker woman all to elections! of 1933 is composed of one hand, photomontaged in different sizes overlapping the large lead hand and contained on a black and white diagonal of photographs against a red background. The poster’s words were plain white with the words “Worker and “Woman” in bold for emphasis. In many of his graphics, the leitmotif is always the diagonal or the slant or the lean forward as in We Shall Pay Back Our Coal Debt to This Country. Photographs of miners, some with modern drilling equipment paired with an old-fashioned lamp and hammer, show the workers as heroes marching forward with grim determination. The artist tilted the miners to the left behind a simple and strong red background relieved only by the slogan above the heads of the stalwart miners. This posted was dated 1930 but also in that year, he designed a poster that might, in hindsight, signaled the beginning of trouble to come. Under the banner of Lenin for socialist construction is a very strange poster, almost spooky. Lenin has been dead six years and yet he appears as a disembodied head with a tender expression on his face as he views—from the grave?—construction sites. Looming behind him and obscured is the darkened face of Stalin, the new leader of the Soviets. Some scholars have suggested that this juxtaposition of overlapping faces meant that Klutsis was showing the transfer of power and the fate of Russia from Lenin to Stalin but the face of Lenin, whose visage is almost sweet, is full of light contrasting with Stalin who seems to be a negative force. From a formal point of view these colliding heads, silhouetted against the familiar red background, the dark and light provides a color or tone contrast, but from a historical perspective, Stalin, who was a mass murderer seems to be foreshadowed by an artist who may have had an intuition.

Gustav Klutsis. Under the Banner of Lenin for Socialist Construction (1930)

Indeed, by the next year, 1931, Klutsis was in trouble—he was expelled from the party because he had failed to pay his dues for many months. But he was also charged with something called “political illiteracy,” a phrase that was a catch all indicating displeasure. Was his attitude or his art? We shall never know, but Klutsis apologized and was reinstated. Although Klutsis had been a powerful artist, shifting from Lenin to Stalin, he was dedicated to Communism rather than to a specific leader, suggesting that he had no protection against one of Stalin’s many mad purges. Klutsis had given up his Latvian identity but when the Latvians became restive towards to the Soviet Union, he was swept up in the arrests. A victim of the Great Terror of 1934 to 1940, he was accused of being a member of what was termed “the fascist plot of Latvian nationalists.” The contributions of Kultsis, who had created a powerful and lasting visual vocabulary for the Russian Revolution and its leaders, meant nothing to the fanatics who were in charge of the nation at that point. The purges were well under way and in1938, Gustav Klutsis was executed in 1938. It could be said that the death of Klutsis served as a head on a pole or a warning to his colleagues, that no matter how important an artist, no matter how selflessly the artist worked, no matter how dedicated he or she was to the ideals of Communism, no one was safe. The avant-garde in Russia was over and the remaining artists assumed an even lower profile, hoping to survive. The striking avant-garde designs of Klutsis were expelled in favor of an illustrative style called Soviet Realism, considered more readable or more legible for the vast audience that needed to be educated into the cult of Stalinism.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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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