Our new contributor, Dr. Peter Lowe, ponders over the fate of the People’s Art School in Vitebsk and the UNOVIS and discusses the artistic relationship between Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich while strolling through Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. We also invite you to think about the place of personal artistic utopias within the great political and ideological utopia that was the Russian Revolution and the new Soviet state.
Amidst the artworks on display in the Centre Pompidou’s exhibition charting the brief life of the Vitebsk Art School, there is a small handwritten sheet of paper from 1920. It is a letter written by Kazimir Malevich, in which he suggests to Marc Chagall that, as Chagall’s students seem to have questions about painting that are not currently being answered in his classes, it might be useful for Malevich to come in and address them himself. There is a level of faux ‘collegiality’ there that some academics may find very familiar, but the subtext was clear enough and Chagall left the School soon afterwards. As the exhibition reminds its visitors, though, those who believed themselves successful in the struggle for control of the School’s life found that victory ultimately fell short of their expectations. Around the time of Malevich’s letter the School had also seen a staging of the 1913 Suprematist opera Victory Over the Sun that was more muted than victorious on account of there not being enough money to hire musicians to accompany the visual tableaux. It was a portentous piece of budgetary restriction for so daring a vision of the future.
Malevich had arrived at the People’s Art School in 1919 at the invitation of El Lissitzky, who was busy running the printing, graphic design, and architecture aspects of the curriculum while Chagall and his allies focused on painting. Already famous for his Suprematist works, Malevich was painting less and theorising more in his time at the school, drawing around him a group of like-minded faculty and students who soon assumed the collective title UNOVIS (‘Affirmers of the New Art’) and took to promoting Suprematist abstraction inside the studio and outside on the city’s streets where their designs featured as décor for holiday celebrations. Like Lissitzky’s Prouns their interplay of colour and form, lacking a sense of a world external to their own construction, was visually striking and offered a form of painting liberated from even the barest concession to realism. For his part, Lissitzky had produced the famous poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge in 1920 to exhort the Red Guard to heroic deeds in the Civil War, and his art was similarly conducting raids on the last vestiges of pre-Revolutionary realism. Faced with the appeal of artists who called for the overhaul of all forms of art other than their own, Chagall found himself with empty seats at lectures and the sense of having been declared redundant in his own School. Malevich’s offer to ‘help’ was a reminder of how Chagall’s own students no longer believed that he had anything to teach them.
As the early rooms of the exhibition remind us it had been very different. Chagall had been chosen as the Commissar for the Arts in Vitebsk in September 1918 in a gesture by the new Bolshevik state recognising the role that he had played, since the Revolution, in supporting and promoting those artists in the city, far removed from the metropolitan centres of Petrograd or Moscow. Relishing the freedoms that 1917 seemed to offer, Chagall was keen to structure an art school like the new Soviet state – open to all and freed from the economic constraints of tuition costs. Having benefited from the state’s willingness to correct the official racial and religious discrimination that had prevented him from being considered a full Russian citizen under the old order he embraced the optimism of the early Revolutionary period. In 1918, newly installed in his post and tasked with organising a show for the first anniversary of the Bolshevik takeover he and his students designed artworks that could be reproduced on 3 metre panels and hung in the streets. The paper designs for these, with the grids that would permit their scaling up into full-size works still visible, are gathered together in the exhibition. One, entitled Onward, Onward, captures a man leaping across a blue sky as though to leave the present time and place and reach the future sooner. With the roofs of the town visible at the bottom of the image the human figure spans the sheet of paper from left to right with legs stretched to their limits and an extended arm cut off by the right-hand side of the design, as though the energy released in this leap were too much for the paper upon which it is captured. In another, Peace to Huts, War on Palaces a giant red-shirted peasant appears over the brow of a hill, a grand palace carried above his head as though he is preparing to dash it – and its reactionary occupants – to the ground. For a work a century old, the similarities with Jeremy Deller’s 2013 Venice Biennale work We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold (in which a giant William Morris prepares to pitch Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the sea) are startling.
Occupying the first rooms in the Centre Pompidou’s display alongside Chagall’s more personal works, like the soaring Over the Town of 1918, these designs for street art manifest the initial enthusiasm of the Revolutionary years and Chagall’s personal investment in seeing the Revolution succeed in all spheres of Russian life. Having used his art as a means of articulating his own emotional and religious experience, he was ready to put it at the service of a state that promised so much freedom. His was an art that had always relied on a personal, psychological reality as much as fidelity to the material world, but Chagall believed that his worldview and that of the times were coming increasingly into a closer harmony. In this, he was to be proved wrong.
Suprematism saw itself as a collective endeavour, replacing the figure of the artist with a group product and drawing upon a non-representational language to convey ideas. Like Lissitzky’s Prouns (their name derived from ‘Project for the Affirmation of the New in Art’) the combination of shapes hinted in places at a more architectural reality, but refused to see the pictorial space as ‘representational’ in any conventional way. Often bright, bold, and perfectly suited to large-scale reproduction in a way that Chagall’s 1918 banners, however brilliant their designs, often were not, these works captured the students’ attention, and as Malevich withdrew from painting more into a world of theoretical speculation while at Vitebsk there was no shortage of students keen to listen to his oracular pronouncements or to follow Lissitzky towards the Constructivist camp where artworks would, it was hoped, regain a relationship with their means of production. Designs for the decoration of theatres, for speakers’ podiums, for the sides of tramcars would all put Suprematist motifs into Soviet life. Compared to them, Chagall’s images were censured as the indulgence of a man who had forgotten his debt to the state. The classroom boycott to which Malevich so helpfully refers was enough to convince the School’s initial Principal, by June 1920, that it was time to move on.
The Suprematist victory proved to be brief, however. Finding the output of abstract art to be of little direct service to a state focused on post-Civil War restructuring, the subsidies to the School were cut by the local government, and students and faculty looked for opportunities elsewhere as the money, and the food supply dried up. By 1922, Lissitzky was already in Germany and Malevich was making plans to return to Petrograd. 1922 saw the first graduating class from the School, and it was also the last. Even as Malevich was working on his Architektons, a series of pristine white models that would attempt to render something of the Proun in three dimensions, like miniature models of the structures it was assumed the Soviet state would build when time and funds permitted, that same state was taking a closer interest in the aesthetic sphere and looking to curtail just these visions of a future that it was in no position to encourage. The Suprematist utopia was of very short duration, as its most ardent supporters soon found out.
The final Chagall works in the exhibition include designs he prepared for the Kamerny State Jewish Theatre, after his move to Moscow: a return to the Jewish roots that had always been so important to him and that he had hoped, in the heady days of 1918, the Soviet state would happily absorb into its more inclusive vision. Having been told that his painting failed to address the most urgent issues of the time, he stepped aside and left the School to those whose voices were, in the moment, the more compelling. He would, eventually leave Russia altogether, settling first in France and then in the United States and surviving the worst that the Twentieth Century had in store for his home and his community. To see his works today is to be conscious that the Jewish culture they celebrate did not find a home in the Soviet Union. But then, neither did the abstractions of those who sought to replace him and forge their own Suprematist path to the future in Vitebsk. The Centre Pompidou’s exhibition reminds us that there were many utopian visions in the years that followed the Revolution but that eventually, with no sign of utopia being reached, it would be the state itself that would, as Malevich once presumed to do, tell the artists where they had been going wrong and offer to ‘help’ them improve to serve it better.
‘Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: L’Avant-Garde Russe à Vitebsk 1918-1922’ is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 16th July 2018.