Dear fellow travellers
Friday 5 June marks the centenary of a defining moment in European art history. On 5 June 1920, a Saturday, the artist Marc Chagall left his home city of Vitebsk. He was never to return.
Chagall was 32 years old at that time. He had already spent substantial periods away from Vitebsk, notably a four-year spell in Paris from 1910, where he lived a simple life in the artist colony known as La Ruche. Although he met many of the leading figures of Bohemian Paris – Guillaume Apollinaire and others – Chagall was reclusive, and was not one to frequent the bars of Montmartre or the salons of Montparnasse.
Vitebsk is a provincial city. St Petersburg is about 500 km away to the north. Moscow, just slighter closer, is due east of Vitebsk. It lies today in the territory of the Republic of Belarus. In the run up to and after the Russian Revolution, Vitebsk developed into a bold hub of artistic energy and innovation – in good part due to the influence of Marc Chagall.
Chagall was a leading exponent of the avant-garde. In spring 1920, though, it became very evident that he wasn’t avant-garde enough for some of his colleagues at the city’s People’s Art College. Following the Revolution, Chagall was appointed to the prestigious position of Arts Commissar for his home city. He was a leading light in the intellectual life of a place which saw itself as being at the very heart of a Judeo-Russian cultural revival. Chagall fostered a range of new institutions – among them a museum and the People’s Art College. When it came to celebrating the first anniversary of the October Revolution, the Vitebsk authorities – ably coordinated by Chagall - put on a magnificent display of street art. There were monumental murals, banners and posters.
During 1919, the People’s Art College flourished under Chagall’s leadership. But with the snows of winter, clouds were gathering. Chagall’s studio still remained the preferred locus of study for new students, but now he had challengers. Suprematist artists were in the ascendant. In May 1920, Chagall went on a short business trip to Moscow. When he returned, a huge banner was strung across the facade of the People’s Art College, declaring that this was now ‘The Suprematist Academy’.
Later in his life Chagall was to reflect on how his work hadn’t always struck the right note with the authorities. They had queried why he painted cows green, and what horses and humans flying above the Vitebsk skyline had to do with Marx and Lenin. But in those heady days in late May 1920, Chagall had no opportunity for sober reflection. He was a promising young artist, and he had responsibilities. In 1915, he had married Bella in Vitebsk; the couple had a young daughter, Ida, who turned four in May 1920. Chagall, reluctantly, made the decision to leave Vitebsk.
He left his home city, featured in so many of his paintings, on 5 June 1920. He never saw Vitebsk again. Chagall travelled by train to Moscow. In a cruel stroke of irony, over 30 of his former colleagues and students from the People’s Art College were on the very same train, bound for Moscow to present a new radical manifesto for revolutionary art in Soviet Russia.
The Chagall family spent much of the rest of their lives in France. Marc Chagall died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1985. The events of spring and summer 1920 in Vitebsk were to have reverberations across Russia and beyond. In Issue 61 of hidden europe magazine, which will be published on 11 July 2020, we take a closer look at that tumultuous period in Vitebsk.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)