The city of Vitebsk lies in the heart of the country of Belarus. Formerly a river harbor in the Russian Empire, Vitebsk has another claim to fame: it is the birthplace of world renown Russian-French modernist painter Marc Chagall.
Marc Chagall’s 1911, “I and the Village”
Chagall was arguably one of the most famous Belarusians of all times. Key to the development of 20th century Belarus art, Chagall is known around the world for his surrealist paintings. Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” Chagall, however, saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity.”
To celebrate their favorite son, the citizens of Vitebsk have dedicated two museums to his work.
Art-Center Marc Chagall Vitebsk
Created in 1992, the Art-Center organizes expositions of graphic works by Chagall (lithographs, xylographs, etchings, aquatints). The Museum’s collection owns the series of illustrations to Nicolai Gogol’c poem “Dead Souls” (1923–1925), the series of colour lithographs on the theme of the Bible, made in 1956 and 1960, the cycle of colour lithographs “The 12 Tribes of Israel” (1960) and other works by Marc Chagall.
House of Marc Chagall Vitebsk
In the house in Pokrovskaia street, the artist’s father built in the beginning of the 20th century, Marc Chagall spent his first youth. He tells about this period of his life in the autobiography “My Life.” Inaugurated in 1992, the Museum gathers articles of family life of the boundary of the 19th-20th centuries, as well as copies of archives documents and of works by Chagall, relating to the artist’s and his family’s life in Vitebsk.
Insights to the significance of Chagall’s work were shared in a review in the NY Times:
Chagall was and continues to be an anomaly. Although he drew heavily from early-20th-century avant-garde movements like Fauvism and Cubism, he later repudiated Cubism and rejected Suprematism and Surrealism. Instead of the urban scenes favored by many modern artists, he depicted Russian villages. And while his work is often exhibited alongside artists like Picasso and Matisse, he was, and still is, often viewed by critics and historians as too folksy or sentimental: an artist for the general public rather than the specialist.
Chagall was aware of his position within the art world. Born into a Hasidic family in Vitebsk, Belarus, the oldest of nine children — his father was a sales clerk in a herring shop — he studied in St. Petersburg before making his way to Paris in 1910. There he was friendly with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and attended the Cubist salons of Ricciotto Canudo (although his French wasn’t good enough to really participate, according to the museum’s catalog).
Back in Russia and Belarus for eight years, he was appointed commissar for the arts in Vitebsk after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and taught alongside artists like El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich — although, after clashing with Malevich, he left that post. He returned to France in 1922 and lived there for the rest of his life, although he spent 1941-48 in the United States after an arrest by occupying forces during World War II.
He hated being called a “mystic,” and yet, he argued in 1946, “Without a mystical element is there a single great picture, a single great poem or — even — a single great social movement?” After the war, according to an exhibition catalog from the Museum of Modern Art, he felt that “the good old times have passed when art nourished itself exclusively on the elements of the external world, the world of form, lines and color. We are interested in everything, not only in the external world, but also in the inner world of dream and imagination.”
To read more of the text from the review in the New York Times, click here.
Editor’s Note: Original World offers cultural immersion tours to Belarus, including the upcoming tour, The New Europe: Travel to Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, which departs twice in 2014 – May 13-June 3 and September 3-23.