Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde Movement at the Jewish Museum

Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922 is a fascinating and visually captivating new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York running through January 6, 2019. Nearly 160 objects, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, maquettes and documents tell a story of a time of great creativity.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985) “Study for Double portrait with Wine Glass,” 1917, Graphite and watercolor

Just after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Marc Chagall returned from France to his hometown, of Vitebsk (in current-day Belarus). He opened an art school that was meant to celebrate the new-found power of the people. Students flocked to the small town, as well as teachers, who were among the leading artists of the day. Three emerged prominently: Chagall, El Lissitzky, and Kazimir Malevich. The similar goals and different visions among these artists are interesting to see.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985) “The Moon-Painter,” 1916-17, Gouache, watercolor, and ink on paper

Malevich, founder of the Suprematist movement in painting was the most dedicated to philosophy and intellectual ideas. His imagery is limited largely to pure shape and limited colors – squares, circles, and crosses in red and black float on empty white backgrounds. Malevich was one of the early explorers of pure abstraction and believed that only through pure shape and the texture of paint on canvas could pure emotion be expressed.

Kazimir Malevich (1878 – 1935), From “Suprematism: 34 Drawings,” 1920, Lithograph

El Lissitzky took this abstract concept and infused it with a bit of whimsy and a human touch. A wall of playful harmonious pictures in even sizes line one wall with shapes resembling figures but abstracted to cones, and circles in limited colors. His linear and elegant forms dance across white surface in graceful harmonies. They form El Lissitzky’s “Album of Figurines for the Opera “Victory over the Sun,”” a series of lithographs from 1923. The artist’s idea was to create an opera with mechanized actors. It was never realized, but the lithographs create a delightful picture.

A standout among the paintings in the show is Ivan Puni’s “The Red Violin” it might have inspired Matisse’s paintings, as it utilizes the same tonality, sparse elements and flattened visual space.

Ivan Puni (1894 – 1956), “The Red Violin,” 1919, Paste paper on paper marouflaged onto canvas

Chagall’s, who was the founder of the school and the artistic heartbeat of the city shines in the exhibition. From his cubist landscape with soft patches and lines of spiraling colors reminiscent of Braque to his city-scape with figures flying over Vitebsk, his spirit infuses the exhibition. A composition with a goat is almost completely abstract – something a later painter, Hans Hoffman, might have done, except for the inclusion of the figure, which defines Chagall. “The Moon Painter,” Chagall’s beautiful figure arching backwards reminds me of Matisse’s “Dancers.” It’s all about light with a beautiful blue background, a sliver of fabric intricately painted completes the composition.

Chagall’s arching stretching floating dreamlike figures are metaphorical, expressing lightness of being in an imaginary space full of magic. His colors echo joyfulness, they’re Intimate and personal, and both abstract and figurative. Above all, vivid emotion is expressed. One of the final works in the show is a small collage by Chagall with few simple cutout shapes, and Hebrew letters on a page. It’s a beautiful ending to a show about how Chagall and other Russian artists painted their heritage and personal stories.

Photos by Marsha Solomon
Top: Marc Chagall (1887–1985), “Self-Portrait with Easel,” 1919, Gouache on paper

Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922
Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
212-423-3200