Chagall in his studio

Chagall in his studio

Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris

October 18, 2011 - January 15, 2012


The Art Gallery of Ontario is bringing the magic, whimsy and wonder of Marc Chagall to Toronto with a major exhibition organized by the Centre Pompidou. Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, features the lush, colourful, and dreamlike art of Marc Chagall alongside the visionaries of Russian modernism, including Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Sonia Delaunay, and Vladimir Tatlin.

The exhibition examines how Chagall’s Russian heritage influenced and informed his artistic practice, illustrating how he at turns embraced and rejected broader movements in art history as he developed his widely beloved style.

Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde comprises 118 works from a broad array of media, including painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography, and film. The artwork is drawn entirely from the collection of the Centre Pompidou and features 32 works by Chagall and eight works by Kandinsky.

Creating a New World: An intro to Chagall and the Russian Avant Garde

By: David Wistow, Interpretive Planner, AGO
Duration: 51:00


This talk is a personal look at the life of Marc Chagall and his art during a time of enormous social and political upheaval – World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The talk offers a glimpse into Chagall's youth and Jewish upbringing, his search for a powerful new language of expression, his obsession with the village of his childhood and six decades of creative activity in exile. It also explores Chagall's friends and rivals – the Constructivists – who created radical forms of art to capture their vision of a new, idealized world of social equality.


Chagall Double Portrait with Wine

Marc Chagall Russian, 1887‐1985 Double Portrait with Wine Glass (Le double portrait au verre de vin), 1917‐18 oil on canvas 235.0 x 137.0 cm Collection of the MNAM, Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Adagp/Centre Pompidou, Mnam–CCi / Dist.RMN. © SODRAC 2011 and ADAGP 2011, Chagall ®

Chagall's “Double Portrait with Wine Glass”

“I had only to open my window, and blue air, love and flowers entered with her. She seemed to float over my canvases, guiding my art.” — Marc Chagall

In 1914 Chagall returned to his hometown of Vitebsk to marry his sweetheart, the beautiful, educated Bella Rosenfeld. This large painting commemorates their wedding day. Despite a backdrop of war and revolution, Chagall infused the work with unbounded joy, sensuality and optimism for a life together with his beloved. 

Wedding portraits are common in the history of art. But never before had an artist chosen to depict the groom balancing on the shoulders of his bride. This unique solution/pose may refer to the Jewish wedding rite when the couple is carried and thrown into the air by their guests. Or does it more explicitly represent the key role that Bella played in her husband’s life as both muse and support?

“Only you – you are with me,” Chagall wrote in his memoirs. “When I gaze earnestly at you, it seems to me that you are my work… Guide my hand. Take the paintbrush and, like the leader of an orchestra, carry me off to far and unknown regions.”

Bella floats over Vitebsk and the Dvina River which bisects it. Chagall smiles and raises his glass to toast their new life, happily married and freed by the Revolution from czarist restrictions placed upon all Jewish people. Above them hovers an angel, a reference to their baby daughter Ida.

Bella brought enormous security and tranquility into Chagall’s life. When she died in 1944, he was devastated. His vital link to Jewish Russia was gone. 

“I have lost,” he wrote, “the one who was everything to me – my eyes and my soul.”


Chagall Blue Circus

Marc Chagall Russian, 1887-1985 Blue Circus (Le cirque bleu), 1950–52 Oil on canvas 232.5 x 175.8 cm Collection of the MNAM, Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Adagp/Centre Pompidou, Mnam–CCi / Dist.RMN. © SODRAC 2011 and ADAGP 2011, Chagall ®

Chagall's “Blue Circus”

“For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.”

“I can still see in Vitebsk, my hometown, in a poor street with only three or four spectators, a man
performing with a little boy and a little girl. Clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made
themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their makeup and their grimaces?
With them I can move toward new horizons. Lured by their colours and makeup, I dream of
painting new psychic distortions. Alas, in my lifetime I have seen a grotesque circus: a man [Hitler] roared to terrify the world.”

“A revolution that does not lead to its ideal is, perhaps, a circus too.”

“I wish I could hide all these troubling thoughts and feelings in the opulent tail of a circus horse
and run after it, like a clown, begging for mercy, begging to chase the sadness from the world.”

— Marc Chagall, 1966


In the early 1900s, against a backdrop of social change, war and revolution, a generation of Russian artists sought to make a new kind of art that was powerful, authentic and modern. While some turned to peasant subjects and folk art for inspiration, Marc Chagall made paintings that evoked his Jewish roots, his family and his inner life.

This exhibition explores for the first time the relationship between Chagall and his Russian contemporaries, tracing their paths from Russia to France and Germany and back again. It highlights their shared sources of inspiration, the way they embraced new artistic directions before and during World War I, and how, fuelled by the Russian Revolution of 1917, many turned to art as an engine of radical social change. The exhibition also reveals how the artists forged unique contributions to modern art, as their paths diverged.

Russia: In Search of Roots

Prior to 1910, many young Russian artists sought a new and stronger language of expression. They were inspired by rural life and authentically Russian traditions, such as icons, folk art, wood prints, store signs, toys and embroideries, with their bold patterns, colours and forms. These artists eagerly absorbed the ideas in the avant-garde paintings of Western European artists like Paul Gauguin (then on view in Moscow and St. Petersburg), finding a similar vibrancy and expressive power in their work. Goncharova and Larionov developed these ideas in Moscow, while Kandinsky and Jawlensky brought these discoveries to Munich.

Artistic Advances in Paris and Russia, 1911–1914

“The sun of art shone only in Paris,” Chagall once said. He moved there in 1911, settling in La Ruche (French for “the beehive”), a complex of more than 100 studios. There he lived alongside many immigrant Russian artists including Archipenko, Zadkine and Lipchitz, whose works are also featured in this gallery. Chagall immediately sought out the work of Paris’s most radical French painters such as Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. Full of excitement, Chagall solidified a new artistic language of vivid colour, distorted space and geometric forms. Yet his paintings remained rooted in the human figure and his beloved Vitebsk. His approach differed from the more radical experimentation of his Russian contemporaries (back home and in Paris), whose works became increasingly abstract.

Return to Russia

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 prompted many Russian artists to return home from abroad. “Vitebsk – I came back to it with emotion. I painted everything I saw,” Chagall wrote. Despite the war, these were perhaps the happiest and most productive years of his career. Newly married and soon to be a father, he revelled in his young family, the rituals of his Jewish community and, following the Revolution in 1917, new freedom and hope.

Vasily Kandinsky, also returned to Russia from Europe with his wife. The couple settled on a cousin’s idyllic country estate near Moscow, which offered a wealth of pastoral subjects. His homecoming rekindled his focus on Russian scenery and landscape while he continued to explore abstract painting.

Art and Revolution

“Build a new world!” cried the young artists. Liberated by Russia’s Revolution of 1917, they began to transform a dream of social equality into reality. For those dedicated to the Constructivist movement, art was no longer a bourgeois luxury but rather a political tool meant for the street, the factory, the worker and the masses.

The Soviet state harnessed the energies of painters, sculptors, photographers and architects to carry its message of equality and freedom to its citizens. The Constructivists no longer found themselves at the periphery of society. In 1918 Chagall became Arts Commissar for the province of Vitebsk and founded the Vitebsk People’s Art College, but soon his personal subjects seemed out of step with the radical new world of politics, industry and geometric abstraction.

Chagall's World of the Theatre and the Circus

“It is a magic word, circus, a timeless dancing game of tears and smiles.” Since childhood, Chagall had been fascinated by the circus and theatre. Jewish theatre production had been forbidden before the 1917 revolution. In the early 1920s, however, with the founding of Moscow’s Jewish Chamber Theatre, Chagall designed costumes, sets and murals that expressed Russia’s new social, political and religious freedoms. In subsequent decades he returned repeatedly to the theme of the circus for inspiration. “For me, a circus is a magic show, disturbing, profound. I have always looked upon clowns, acrobats and actors as beings with a tragic humanity.” Yet Chagall’s circus animals and figures seem to mirror life’s sorrows and its joys, as they float in a fantastical world of colours that glow like stained glass.

Marc Chagall


From the drab surroundings of the Jewish quarter (or “shtetl”) in the city of Vitebsk in Belarus, Marc Chagall created a highly personal style of modern art. Yet his themes of love, loss, joy, memory and family are universal. Chagall combined real and dream worlds into richly coloured fantasies where people fly and animals cavort. Over a long life spent mostly in exile in France, Chagall continually expressed deep longing for the Russia and Vitebsk of his childhood. Until his death at age 97, he sustained an almost mystical union with this special place and time.

1887: born in Vitebsk, Russia (now Belarus), the eldest of nine children. His father was a fishmonger

1890s: attends a traditional Jewish school before entering the local Russian high school at age 11

1907: arrives in St. Petersburg illegally, as Jews were forbidden to reside there without a permit – spends three years studying painting, and encounters modern French art

1911: settles in Paris at a studio complex called La Ruche (French for “the beehive”) along with fellow Russians Archipenko, Zadkine and Lipchitz. Absorbs the latest developments in French art

1912: exhibits at the Paris Salon d’Automne and Salon des Independants (again in 1914)

1913–1914: exhibits work in Berlin that helps launch his international reputation

1914: returns to Vitebsk

1915: marries Bella Rosenfeld who gives birth to their daughter Ida – begins a series of fifty paintings documenting life in Vitebsk, including the famous Double Portrait with Wine Glass on view in this exhibition – sells thirty works to one Jewish collector for a future Jewish art museum

1917–1918: Russian Revolution breaks out. Jews are granted full status as Russian citizens – appointed Commissar for the Arts in Vitebsk – founds the Vitebsk Art School which he directs from

1919 to 1920. Invites fellow Russians Ivan Puni, El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich to teach there

1920: leaves for Moscow where he designs sets for the new Jewish Chamber Theatre

1922–1923: Chagall and his family immigrate to Paris

1941: seeks asylum in the United States during World War II

1944: His wife Bella dies in New York

1948: returns to France

1950s and 1960s: takes up new media such as stained glass, ceramics, sculpture and large-scale mural painting – concentrates on the themes of the circus and theatre

1985: dies at age 97


Alexander Archipenko

Alexander Archipenko

(born Kiev, Ukraine, 1887; died New York City, United States, 1964)
The sculptor Archipenko studied in Kiev (1902–1905) before moving to Moscow. By 1909 he was living in Paris in the same studio complex as Marc Chagall. Archipenko was a dedicated teacher who opened art schools first in Berlin and, after World War II, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.


Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné

(born Kherson, Ukraine, 1888; died Auschwitz, Poland, 1944)
The painter Baranov-Rossiné studied art in Odessa (1903–1908). He participated both in Jewish and contemporary art exhibitions in several cities including Moscow, Kiev, St. Petersburg and Paris. In 1925 he immigrated to France. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and died in Auschwitz the following year.


Natalia Goncharova

(born Negaevo, Russia, 1881; died Paris, France, 1962)
Goncharova was a painter, stage designer, printmaker and illustrator who did much to revive Russian folk art. She began studying art in Moscow where she met painter Mikhail Larionov, whom she later married. Both were central figures in the Russian avant-garde art movement. They immigrated to France in 1919.


Alexei Jawlensky

(born Torzhok, Russia, 1864; died Wiesbaden, Germany, 1941)
After studying at a Moscow military academy, Jawlensky entered art school in St. Petersburg. He settled in Munich in 1896, but continued to exhibit in Russia. In 1906 his works were shown in Paris, where he met Henri Matisse. He spent several summers in Germany with Vasily Kandinsky. In 1921 Jawlensky settled permanently in Wiesbaden.

Vasily Kandinsky

Vasily Kandinsky

(born Moscow, Russia, 1866; died Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, 1944)
Kandinsky was a central figure in the development of 20th-century abstract painting. After studying economics and law, he turned to painting and moved to Munich. The war forced him back home to Russia in 1914, but he would return to Germany in 1921. Kandinsky became a leading source of inspiration for younger generations of abstract artists during the mid-1900s.

Ivan Koudriachov

Ivan Koudriachov

(born Kaluga, Russia, 1896; died Moscow, Russia, 1972)
Koudriachov studied art in Moscow from 1912 to 1917. Settling in the Ural Mountains in 1918, he returned to Moscow in 1921 where he became a set designer for the theatre and exhibited abstract paintings. Koudriachov survived the Stalinist period, and near the end of his life he created variations of his work from the 1920s.

 Mikhail Larionov

Mikhail Larionov

(born Tiraspol, Moldova, 1881; died Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1964)
Painter and stage designer Mikhail Larionov was a leader of the Russian avant-garde before World War I, founding the movement known as Rayonism. In 1907 he began collecting icons and children’s art. He left Russia in 1915 with his wife, painter Natalia Goncharova. By 1919 they had settled in Paris where Larionov worked as a set designer.

Jacques Lipchitz

Jacques Lipchitz

(born Druskininkai, Lithuania, 1891 died Capri, Italy, 1973)
Jacques Lipchitz studied commerce before travelling to Paris in 1909. There he attended art school and made regular visits to the Louvre. He became friends with fellow Russians Marc Chagall, Ossip Zadkine and Alexander Archipenko, and rented a studio at La Ruche, a renowned artist's residence in Montparnasse. Lipchitz continued to work in France until 1941, when he immigrated to the United States and gained recognition as one of the century's outstanding sculptors.

El Lissitzkyy

El Lissitzky

(born Pochinok, Russia, 1890; died Moscow, Russia, 1941)
Refused entry to the art academy in St. Petersburg because of his Jewish background, El Lissitzky instead studied in Germany and Moscow. He illustrated Yiddish books and organized exhibitions of Jewish art. In 1919 Marc Chagall invited him to teach in Vitebsk. As a graphic designer and painter of abstract works known as Prouns, El Lissitzky played a key role in the Constructivist movement.

Kazimir Malevich

Kazimir Malevich

(born Kiev, Ukraine, 1878; died Leningrad, Russia, 1935)
Malevich studied art in Kiev and Moscow. In 1919 he began teaching at the Vitebsk People’s Art College, which was directed by Marc Chagall. Malevich was a central figure in the Russian avant-garde movement. He pursued a pure geometric abstraction (with no reference to any recognizable form) known as Suprematism, which influenced much 20th-century art.

 Pavel Mansouroff

Pavel Mansouroff

(born St. Petersburg, Russia, 1896; died Nice, France, 1983)
Mansouroff began studying art in St. Petersburg in 1909. During World War I he trained in the air force, where he became interested in the aesthetics of airplanes. In 1918 he exhibited abstract paintings in the Winter Palace, former residence of the czars. Mansouroff’s radical art began to attract criticism from the State after 1925, and in 1929 he settled in Paris.

 Antoine Pevsner

Antoine Pevsner

(born Klimovichi, Belarus, 1884; died Paris, France, 1962)
Painter and sculptor Antoine Pevsner was the son of an industrialist. He studied art in Kiev and St. Petersburg before he travelled to Munich and spent three years in Paris beginning in 1911. In 1917 he returned to Russia and soon began to make precise geometric abstract paintings. In 1923 he and his wife settled permanently in Paris.

Ivan Puni

Ivan Puni

(born Repino, Russia, 1892; died Paris, France, 1956)
Puni was a painter, illustrator and designer. In 1910 he studied in Paris, but returned to St. Petersburg by 1912 and became a key innovator in the avant-garde movement. His abstract three-dimensional paintings were shown together with the first Suprematist works in 1915. Four years later, at the invitation of Marc Chagall, he taught at the Vitebsk People’s Art College. He settled permanently in France in 1924.

Alexander Rodchenko

Alexander Rodchenko

(born St. Petersburg, Russia, 1891; died Moscow, Russia, 1956)
Rodchenko’s work spanned painting, sculpture, design and photography. He became deeply involved in revolutionary politics and played a central role in the Russian Constructivist movement. In 1919 he became a master of photomontage (cutting and reassembling photographs), creating many emblematic revolutionary images. In the 1930s Rodchenko designed costumes and sets for theatre and film.

Vladimir Stenberg & Georgii Stenberg

Vladimir Stenberg & Georgii Stenberg

(born and died Moscow, Russia, 1899–1982) & (born and died Moscow, Russia, 1900–1933)
The Stenberg brothers were sculptors as well as graphic and set designers who studied art in Moscow from 1912 to 1917. They worked together on decorations for the 1918 commemoration of the Russian Revolution, and organized an exhibition of Constructivist art in 1922. George’s accidental death in 1933 ended their collaboration.

Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov

(born Białystok, Poland, 1896; died Moscow, Russia, 1954)
David Kaufman (pseudonym Dziga Vertov) was a pioneer of early documentary film. In 1920 he joined the October Revolution propaganda train to record its journey. After his bold approach was rejected by Russian officials, he turned to studios in Ukraine for support. His masterpiece is this experimental film Man with a Movie Camera.

 Ossip Zadkine

Ossip Zadkine

(born Vitebsk, Biélorussie, 1890; died Paris, France, 1967)
The sculptor Zadkine was born in the same town as Marc Chagall. His father was Jewish (but converted to Russian orthodoxy) and his mother was of Scottish descent. After studying art in England, Zadkine settled in Paris in 1909, living in the same studio complex as Chagall. He never returned to Russia.



These essays address the wide range of themes and stylistic approaches in Chagall's paintings, sculptures and drawings. Particular attention is paid to the development of the Russian avant-garde, from neo-primitism to Constructivism, on Chagall, its influence on Chagall, as well his status as a lone wolf among his Russian counterparts. The essays originally appeared in Chagall et l'avant-garde Russe, edited by Angela Lampe, and published by the Centre Pompidou. The complete French catalogue is available for purchase at shopAGO.

Chagall in Dialogue with the Russian Avant-Garde

Translated by: Wyley Powell

When Wassily Kandinsky turned 60 years old on December 4, 1926, he received the following letter from Marc Chagall:

“Dear Vassily Vassilievich, it is with joy and pleasure (emotions I rarely experience outside the homeland) that I send you my greetings, for you are one of a handful of Russians who have gained their artistic freedom and are taking advantage of it even from afar. At the present time, you are the only Russian artist who is thoroughly respected and loved. Live your life and pursue your work: you belong to that category of people for whom the age of sixty is really just three times twenty.

Cordial greetings to your wife.

Devotedly yours, M. Chagall”1

This seemingly banal congratulatory letter, part of the Kandinsky Archives that were bequeathed to the Centre Pompidou by the artist’s widow in 1981, is interesting on two accounts. In the first place, it reveals a personal bond between two artists who, in spite of a similar journey – they began their careers in Western Europe, returned to Russia, held positions in art education following the October Revolution, isolated themselves from the new movements and trends, and eventually emigrated – were never particularly close.

Their works nevertheless adorned the same gallery walls. In 1918, Herwarth Walden mounted a joint Chagall-Kandinsky exhibition, in the absence of the artists, at his Berlin gallery Der Sturm, supplementing it with sculptures by William Wauer.2 The following year, both artists were co-participants – along with Malevich, Exter, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and others – in the First National Exhibition of Paintings by Local and Moscow Artists at the Borokhov Club in Vitebsk. In spite of these encounters, however, the two Russians kept their distance from each other. The explanation for Chagall’s sending this warm birthday letter may lie in the fact that he was a member of the Bauhaus Circle of Friends, a support committee established in 1924 in the wake of budget cuts imposed by the City of Weimar.3

There is also another reason why this letter is surprising. Within these few lines, Chagall twice links the master of Bauhaus, who was on the verge of becoming a German citizen, to his national roots in Russia. Such insistence would appear to rule out a perfunctory stock expression of congratulations for the occasion. What mattered for Chagall was the fact that the great Kandinsky was his compatriot, and the result was an ambiguous letter containing compliments that can be read as a bitter acknowledgement of his own situation as an émigré. The only way in which Chagall could construct and define himself was in terms of his origins, writing in 1936 with great clarity: “Although the world views me as an ‘international’ [artist] and the French consider me to be one of their own, I think of myself as a Russian artist and take pleasure in doing so.”4

A number of studies have examined the links that Chagall maintained with the arts and literature, and his reflections on the country of his birth. The first such study was Jean-Claude Marcadé’s initial analysis, published in 1984.5 This same author also focused more specifically on the relationship between Chagall and the Russian avant-garde.6 These comparisons did not, however, have any effect on how the exhibitions were conceived and, much like the major travelling exhibition of the mid-1990s titled Marc Chagall: The Russian Years, 1907–1922, they were limited exclusively to Chagall’s work.

It is true that a few of his paintings have occasionally been included in such collective events as the Maeght Foundation’s La Russie et les avant-gardes7 (Russia and the Avant-Gardes) in 2003, or the 2005 project in Brussels entitled Russian Avant-Garde: 1900–1935.”8 Nevertheless, this modest presence did not result in a revealing dialogue among the various protagonists. In general, the exhibitions devoted to Chagall have emphasized the singularity of his genius, which followed no rules other than those of its own poetic necessity.

However, it would be difficult to deny the fact that Chagall did fit into the context of contemporary creation – at least until his final departure from Russia in 1922. The child of Vitebsk was not an artist living in his isolation from his peers. His paintings kept company with the neo-primitive works of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, who were proclaiming an authentic new Russian art as early as 1907. In Paris, his neighbours at the La Ruche studio were Ossip Zadkine, Alexander Archipenko and Jacques Lipchitz – Russian artists who, like Chagall, were seeking to assimilate the latest French trends. As director of the Vitebsk People’s Art College from 1919 to 1920, Chagall also came face to face with Ivan Puni, El Lissitzky and the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, all proponents of a new non-objective type of art that was the polar opposite of Chagall’s figurative painting. With the advent of the Constructivist movement, which called for utilitarian art for the community, Chagall turned to stage art. These diverse areas of art were rich in contacts and encounters that left their mark on him in varying degrees – sometimes in a positive sense and sometimes with his back turned away from the current trends.

During an interview in 1973 with Russian historian Alexander Kamenski, Chagall himself stated: “It would be strange to have the works I painted in Russia exhibited next to those of European painters. Instead, they should find their place in museums dedicated to early 20th-century Russian art.”9 Thanks to the rich collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, we can now exhibit Chagall side by side with his compatriots and, for the first time, present this fertile dialogue that the painter had wished for. This groundbreaking project originated in the outstanding Chagall collection, which was acquired through the generosity of the artist and his heirs and came directly from his studio.

Among the first significant gifts made to the Musée National d’Art Moderne when it opened in 1947 was the magnificent Double Portrait with Wine Glass (1917–1918), which would later be enhanced by the famous Chagall by Chagall pieces. These works remained in the artist’s possession until his death in 1985 and became part of the collections three years later through a gift to the French State. Alongside nearly 500 drawings and gouaches are forty-five major paintings which include such major works as The Dead Man (1908), which Chagall’s biographer Franz Meyer characterizes as the “first summit” of his work; Studio (1910), which reveals the influence of Matisse and was probably one of the first paintings that Chagall completed after arriving in Paris in May 1911; and, most notably, The Wedding (1911–1912), a remarkable fusion between the poetic universe of the shtetl and the formal inventions that grew out of Cubism. Nor should we forget the second version of The Cattle Dealer (1922–1923), which Chagall painted to replace the 1912 version that he left behind in Berlin following his departure for Russia in 1914.

His theme – the world of the peasantry – reveals an affinity with the neo-primitive paintings of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, which drew on popular “imagery” to create a new so-called “leftist” vernacular art. In 1995, the French public had an opportunity to discover the scope of the collections of these two artists housed at the Musée National d’Art Moderne.10 Following its first acquisitions of the 1930s and the post-war period, the museum built its collections primarily through a major donation from the Soviet Union in 1988 following the death of Larionov’s widow, Alexandra Tomilina-Larionov.

Today it includes nearly 340 works in various media by Goncharova and approximately 80 works by Larionov. A few of these, such as Goncharova’s Still Life with Lobster, Woodcutters and Harvest series, and Larionov’s Soldier’s Head, all of which were featured in the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) exhibitions, came from Kandinsky’s personal collection and entered the museum through Nina Kandinsky’s exceptional bequest in 1981. Together with Malevich’s solemn Study of a Peasant, presented in 1912 in the second Blaue Reiter exhibition at the Hans Goltz Kunsthandlung in Munich, this collection provides an illustration of the close bonds and community of spirit that existed just prior to the Great War between the Russian avant-garde and Munich Expressionism.

Kandinsky’s Improvisation III, one of his major early paintings, was exhibited next to works by David Burliuk, Larionov and Goncharova at the Izdebski Salon in Odessa in 1910–1911. Their common sources of inspiration were the popular arts, notably the famous lubki – wood engravings sold in Russian markets – or small icons such as those which Kandinsky was fond of collecting and keeping in his studio. His archive included a good ten or more of these objects and folk prints.

Chagall maintained fairly close contact with this neo-primitive universe that came into being during his training years in St. Petersburg, as can be seen in his chromatic expressiveness, his terse stylistic effects and his reverse perspectives. However, he distanced himself from it as soon as the movement evolved in the direction of abstract art. Initially, a certain parallel was established as Cubism was being assimilated both by the Russian émigré artists in Paris and by the Cubo-Futurist painters in Russia. Besides Chagall, the first Paris School is quite well represented in the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, notably by the works of sculptor Jacques Lipchitz – thanks to a generous donation from the Jacques and Yulla Lipchitz Foundation in 197611 – and by the representative sculpture ensembles of Ossip Zadkine and Alexander Archipenko. This juxtaposition of two methods employed by Russian artists to appropriate the Cubist idiom for themselves came to an end with Larionov’s invention of Rayonism in 1912. From that point on, Russian avant-garde art would merge with abstraction.

When Chagall returned to Russia in 1914, he arrived in a country where The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10, the original manifestation of Suprematism, was mounted in Petrograd the following year. Kseniya Boguslavskaya, the widow of Ivan Puni (known in France as Jean Pougny), made a gift to the French State in 1966 of 53 of her husband’s works. Such generosity made it possible for the Musée National d’Art Moderne to present a group of works that appeared in the legendary exhibition organized by Puni and Boguslavskaya: the pictorial relief The White Ball, the illogical painting The Hairdresser and three abstract reliefs reflecting Tatlin’s research.

This ensemble was crowned by Malevich’s masterpiece (Black) Cross, which, as shown by the only existing photograph taken at the 0.10 exhibition, hung on the wall to the right of the first Black Square on a White Background, which was positioned like an icon in the upper right corner of the room. This historic painting became part of the collections in 1980 thanks to a gift from the Scaler Foundation and the Georges Pompidou Art and Culture Foundation.12

It is unlikely that Chagall attended the Petrograd exhibition. Following his arrival in Vitebsk, he married Bella Rosenfeld and began painting what he would call “documents” – some fifty or so canvases of people around him, of his conjugal life, family, neighbours and hometown, using an almost naturalist style.13 Moreover, these works represent a surprising parallel with a certain number of figurative pieces painted by Kandinsky, also after his return to Russia. It wasn’t until 1917, the year of the Revolution, that Chagall would be caught up in a new creative impulse, an impulse that can be seen in a series of major paintings – Double Portrait with Wine Glass, Cemetery Gates and the magnificent drawings Forward, Forward and Chaga. After becoming a free citizen, the Jewish artist entered politics and became the arts commissar for the Vitebsk region in August 1918.

In Moscow, Kandinsky was appointed to various revolutionary committees involved in art education and museum administration. During these heady times, though his pictorial production decreased, he created the masterpiece In the Grey, which he would later come to see as the end of the “dramatic period” that had begun in Munich.14

For his part, Chagall received authorization to establish the Vitebsk People’s Art College (it would change names a number of times15), which he opened on January 28, 1919. He fully subscribed to the idea that the avant-garde was a driving force in the new society and sought to bring all of the artistic trends together irrespective of their aesthetic qualities. Puni was asked to be in charge of graphic propaganda while his wife was responsible for the applied arts. But the couple left the school six months after it opened.

El Lissitzky, a close friend of Chagall’s for many years, arrived that summer and would direct the department of architecture and graphic art. It was he who extended an invitation to the charismatic Malevich, and as soon as Malevich arrived in November 1919 he stole the limelight from Chagall, transforming his school into the headquarters for Suprematism and UNOVIS (a movement of the champions and founders of what is new in art). Chagall’s figurative painting no longer seemed aligned with the demands of this new revolutionary era. Disillusioned, he left his hometown for Moscow.

There is a surprising painting in the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, atypical of Chagall, which seems to be a commentary on this troubled period in Vitebsk – Cubist Landscape. By inserting his signature several times and in various languages, as well as a small figurative scene – a man (Chagall himself?) strolling with a green umbrella in front of the white building of the Vitebsk People’s Art College – he imbued this composition, characterized by fragmentation and marshmallow-toned surfaces, with an aspect of parody. There is even the suggestion of a settling of scores with the advocates of non-objectivity who, in December 1919, transformed the building of the Vitebsk Committee for the Struggle against Unemployment, known as the White Barracks, into an enormous Suprematist painting.

Chagall, with his impish and mischievous wit, played with abstract motifs from Cubism or Suprematism in his figurative narrations. He juggled with these codes in the way an acrobat would have done – and indeed the acrobat happened to be one of the themes he so enjoyed painting. This playful way of appropriating new trends for his own purposes became evident in his projects for the new National Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow. Between 1920 and 1922, Chagall designed a whole series of stage sets and costumes; many of these came into the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne through the 1988 donation.

It is probably because of his involvement with the theatre that connections can be established between Chagall and the collective ideals of the emerging new Constructivism even though his pictorial work was different, both esthetically and formally. The museum’s collections bring together a group of interesting works, in a variety of media, revolving around this movement. The multidisciplinary exhibition Paris-Moscow 1900–1930, with its groundbreaking presentation of 2,500 works and documents in 1979, was particularly beneficial in establishing this collection. Thanks to this exhibition, we have reconstructions of such emblematic works as the famous Model of the Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin and the Workers’ Club produced by Alexander Rodchenko for the 1925 Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.

This exceptional event, which would be presented in Moscow in 1981 at the Pushkin Museum, was the result of a close collaboration with the Soviet partners. It also created a favourable climate for gift solicitation and laid the groundwork for subsequent acquisitions and bequests, thanks to the contacts established during the long years of preparation. In particular, this exhibition reinforced the ties with Alexandra Tomilina-Larionov and Nina Kandinsky, who would later agree to make a number of extraordinary bequests and donations.16 The Malevich collection also comes to mind, enriched in spectacular fashion in 1978 through an anonymous gift that included two late paintings and, of particular interest, 800 plaster elements, which enabled the reconstruction of five “Architectons.” The family of Alexander Rodchenko also donated a number of photographs to the Museum in 1981.

This collection of Russian avant-garde works has never been exhibited in its entirety – perhaps because of a genuine fear that it would not be possible to present it as a meaningful whole. Indeed there are gaps in the collection; for example, missing are works by Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova and the Burliuk Brothers, paintings by Alexandra Exter, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Tatlin and Ivan Klioune, as well as architectural models and films. The challenge we faced in this exhibition was to put forth a cross-cultural perspective of this collection while juxtaposing it with the works of Chagall at various significant times to show both the similarities and differences between him and his compatriots. With this groundbreaking dialogue, we hope to not only present Chagall’s works in a new light but also to reveal the high quality of this collection in all of its richness and variety.

  1. Handwritten letter from Marc Chagall to Wassily Kandinsky, November 15, 1926, Boulogne, Wassily Kandinsky Collection, Russian Correspondence, R 30, Kandinsky Library.
    « Дорогой Василий Васильевич, Радостно, удовольствие (столь редкое вне первой родины) приветствовать мне Вас. Вас, редкого русского овладевшего свободой в искусстве и пользующагося ею даже вдали. Вы единственный русский художник которого сегодня уважаешь и любишь до конца. Живите и рaботайте : Вы из тех кому не 60 лет а три раза по 20. Сердечный привет жене. Ваш преданный М. Шагалл »
    My thanks to Olga Makhroff and Marina Lewisch for the translation.
  2. The exhibition Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, William Wauer included 38 paintings by Chagall, 28 by Kandinsky and 7 sculptures by Wauer.
  3. Other members of this circle included Albert Einstein, Oskar Kokoschka and Arnold Schoenberg. We should also point out that the fourth portfolio of the Bauhaus Italienische und russische Künstler editions (1922) included a Chagall engraving titled Self-Portrait with Woman.
  4. Letter from Marc Chagall to Pavel Ettinger, October 1936, published in English in Benjamin Harshav’s Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 451.
  5. Jean-Claude Marcadé, “Le contexte russe de l’oeuvre de Chagall,” in Chagall, 1984, pp. 18–25.
  6. Jean-Claude Marcadé, “Chagall et l’avant-garde russe,” in Chagall, 1995a, pp. 47–51, and also “Quelques aspects des liens de Chagall avec le monde russien,” Chagall connu et inconnu, Paris, RMN, 2003, pp. 57–61. For his relationship with Malevich, see Alexandra Schatskich’s “Chagall und Malevich in Witebsk,” in Chagall, 1991b, pp. 62–65.
  7. See La Russie et les Avant-gardes, Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, 2003.
  8. See Evguénia Pétrova and Jean-Claude Marcadé (ed.), La Russie à l’avant-garde: 1900–1935, Brussels, Palais des beaux-arts, Europalia International / Éditions Fonds Mercator, 2005. Chagall is represented by a single work, The Red Jew, painted in 1915, in a section entitled “L’art figuratif.”
  9. Alexander Kamenski, 1988, p. 365.
  10. See Boissel, 1995.
  11. See Brigitte Léal (ed.), Jacques Lipchitz dans les collections du Centre Pompidou–Musée national d’art moderne et du Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy, Paris, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2004.
  12. See Martin, 1980.
  13. Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, Paris, Flammarion, 1995, p. 107.
  14. See Christian Derouet’s analysis, pp. 118–119.
  15. See Shatskikh, 2001, p. 27.
  16. See Germain Viatte, “Sur la constitution du fonds Larionov-Goncharova,” in Boissel, 1995, op. cit., p. 8.


Artistic Connections Between the Russian Empire and Europe in the Early 20th Century

Transated by: Rose B. Champagne

In 1900, the most important event in the French-Russian artistic relationship was the Paris International Exhibition, where Russia enjoyed an unprecedented place of prominence. Russia was represented by a total of five buildings, of which the Siberian Palace alone measured 4,900 square metres.1 The realism in the paintings of travelling artists was highly successful, particularly those of Apollinari and Viktor Vasnetsov, Isaac Lévitan and Léonide Pasternak. The most original contribution to the new art stemmed from the applied arts, the koustari (artisans), organized by the painter Maria Yakunchikova.2

Between 1906 and 1917, a whole host of artists and personalities linked Russia to Europe. Thanks to the inspirational work of Sergei Diaghilev, Europe discovered dance, music and the audacious paintings from Russia. The retrospective fall show that he organized in 1906, which encompassed 750 paintings representing Russian art from the 15th to the 20th century, exhibited the work of young painters such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Alexei Jawlensky, Pavel Kuznetsov and Léon Bakst, as well as “tapestries (naboïka) and carpets, the handiwork of Russian peasants.”3

The Russian artists were familiar with the most modern currents in modern European art thanks to exhibitions in the big cities of the Russian Empire and interactions with their European contemporaries on several occasions. In early 1909, the second Salon exhibit in Moscow called La Toison d’Or (Golden Fleece) displayed works from Georges Braque, including the famous Standing Nude, André Derain, Kees Van Dongen, Henri Le Fauconnier, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault and Maurice de Vlaminck alongside works from Goncharova, Larionov and Martiros Sarian. The first Izdebski Salon, which opened in Odessa in 1909 and then travelled throughout the Russian Empire, highlighted Russian artists such as Nathan Altman, Aristarkh Lentulov, Ilia Machkov, Mikhail Matiouchine and Alexandra Exter, in addition to “Russians from Munich” like Marianne von Werefkin, Wassily Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky and some European artists, namely Pierre Bonnard, Giacomo Balla, Edouard Vuillard, Albert Gleizes, Maurice Denis, Jean Metzinger, Henri Rousseau and Paul Signac.

First-class artists from the Russian Empire who moved to Paris or Munich to study art enriched the heritage of international art: in Paris, Marc Chagall, Alexander Archipenko, Ossip Zadkine, Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné, Léopold Survage; and in Munich, Kandinsky, von Werefkin, Jawlensky, Vladimir Bekhterev and Moise Kogan. Several of them made connections between Paris and St. Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev – Marie Vassilieff, baroness of Oettingen (alias François Angiboult), Sergei Yastrebtsov (alias Serge Férat), Sara Stern (alias Sonia Delaunay) and Jean Lébédeff – or brought back with them Parisian artistic novelties (cubist and futurist) – Exter, Yakulov, Altman, Lyubov Popova, Nadejda Oudaltsova and Véra Pestel in particular.

The renaissance of Russian art began to transition early in the 20th century into popular art, especially Slavic, one of the most varied and polymorphic in the world. Rare were the works from avant-garde Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Armenian or Georgian painters in the context of the Russian Empire, but then came Soviet Russia, which wasn’t exempt from the Primitivist movement and also encompassed Fauvist, Cubo-Futurist and Constructivist works.

In contrast to the refinement of symbolism, to the eclecticism of the modern style (which Russians called Art Nouveau), and to the realism of the travelling artists, what began to appear around 1907 – at the Stephanos4 Exhibition in Moscow – were forms and themes that were consciously and deliberately primitive, even vulgar, on the canvases of Larionov, Goncharova and the Burliuk brothers, David and Vladimir. Referred to as Neo-primitivism, this style of art drew its inspiration from children’s drawings, pastry tins, plates, stoneware squares, embroidery, secular and religious imagery, Izba wood sculptures, and elements that revitalized all concepts of art – laconism, non-conformism to scientific perspectives or to proportions, total freedom of drawing, the deconstruction of objects according to multiple points of view, simultaneity, an emphasis on expressiveness and humour, and on trivial and crude themes. The return to the “collective tradition” and the “national myth” started at the end of the 19th century, when they started studying the “treasures of popular creation sown in the depths of the Russian countryside.”5

It was in December 1909, at the third Salon exhibition of the Symbolist La Toison d’Or, where the Neo-primitivism of Larionov and Goncharova received a tremendous reception, amid popular works such as lace designs, lubki, Russian icons and Arabesque cakes. At that same time, Nikolai Koulbine was comparing the beauty in the art of prehistoric children and men to the creations of nature (flowers and crystals). That year Bakst, who had been Chagall’s teacher in St. Petersburg, also attracted attention with children’s drawings. Referring to the “new taste”, he observed that it “shows a primitive, uncommon form…a gross style, lapidary, the country table…a big chunk of bread seasoned with salt.”6 Children’s drawings were presented among works of art at the Izdebski Salon, which opened in Odessa in 1909, and would travel through numerous cities of the Russian Empire.

In 1912, Kandinsky organized the first lubki exhibition in Munich, at the Hanz Goltz Gallery.7 Presenting reprints of eight ancient xylographies (wood engravings) from his collection, he wrote: “These designs were made in Moscow, mainly in the first half of the 19th century (of course the origin of this tradition goes way back). Transient booksellers sold them even in remote villages. We can see them today on farms, even though they were often superseded by lithographs, chromolithographs, etc…”8Der Blaue Reiter’s almanac shows a lot of children’s art and popular images from around the world – Russian, Bavarian, German, Chinese, African, Japanese, Brazilian, pre-Columbian, Egyptian, Polynesian. Kandinsky was very impressed with its discovery in 1888–1889, and how it reflected the artistic beauty of the Russian countryside and the Christian-pagan folklore of the Vologda region.9

It is therefore no coincidence that the author of Du Spirituel dans l’art (Spiritualism in Art), who resided in Moscow in the second half of 1910 and had contacts with the leaders of the art revival in Russia – and was also featured with German and Russian artists of the Munich Neue Künstlervereinigung at the first two Valet de Carreau (Jack of Diamonds) exhibitions in 1910 and 1912, asked David Burliuk to write an article for the Der Blaue Reiter almanac. The article would be titled “Die Wilden Russlands” (The Wild Beasts of Russia), in which Burliuk declared: “The law that Russian artists have recently discovered is only the re-establishment of a tradition that originates in the ‘barbaric’ works of art: those of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Scythians, etc… This rediscovered tradition is the two-edged sword that broke the chains of academic convention and set art free.”10

It was therefore logical that, following the publication of this article in Der Blaue Reiter, certain members of neo-primitivism would be invited to the second exhibition at the Goltz Gallery in Munich, held from February to April 1912. Invitees included the likes of Goncharova, Larionov and Malevich, members of a group of painters known as Donkey’s Tail who were becoming very successful in Moscow at that time thanks to an exhibition of their works. Some of these works of art ended up in the Kandinsky collection and can be found today in Paris at the Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM): the gouache Lumberjacks (1911) of Goncharova, Larionov’s Soldier’s Head (1911) and Malevich’s Study of Countrymen (1911), as well as Goncharova’s charcoal drawings of The Grape Harvest. These works are typical of the Russian neo-primitivism style in their over-simplicity of expression and their basic structure, borrowed from the lubok tradition rather than from “civilized” works. The Donkey’s Tail exhibition in Moscow11 was the first to feature a Chagall work – La Mort (The Dead Man) – in an avant-garde context. It was also in 1912 that Chagall’s work was exhibited at the Autumn Salon, and Yakov Tugendhold, a writer for the modernist publication St. Petersburg Apollon12, praised the young Chagall, saying his works are filled with “rich fire colours like the Russian countryside images, expressed to the grotesque, fantastic, to the limits of the irrational.”

It is thus not surprising that, in 1913, the Autumn Salon welcomed “Russian Popular Art in the image, the toy and the spice bread, an exhibition organized by Miss Nathalie Ehrenbourg.” These objects came mainly from the collections of members of the art world (Ivan Bilibine, Sergei Soudieikine, Nikolai Roerich, Sergei Tchekhonine), but also from the collections of avant-garde artists such as Koulbine, Exter and primarily Larionov. The catalogue cover for this exhibit was written by Tugendhold himself, reaffirming that “the contemporary cult of the primitive is different from the one of the romantic era and the orientalism era…. This archaic art, strong, expressive, forever young, brings hope of renewal, ‘rejuvenation’ to use Paul Gauguin’s word.”13

That same year Larionov organized an impressive exhibition of popular icons and images of Moscow. I. Ehrenburg (Ilia Lazarevich, a cousin of future Soviet author Ilya Grigoryevich Ehrenburg) quoted in a Paris-based Russian newspaper an article written by Alexandre Benois, which maintained that, to understand cubism, one must experience Russian icons and to understand the icons, one must experience cubism. He adds: “Our young Russian painters are not pure cubists. They have a lot of lubok and icon in them.”14

Thus, in the very early stages of the 20th century, primitivism made an indelible mark on Fauvism, Cézannism and Cubo-Futurism. The picturesque scenes of small-town life or religious rituals are transformed by conciseness, freshness, liveliness and the energy of age-old secular popular art. Chagall is particularly concerned by this. Tugendhold demonstrated in 1915 the importance of primitive art in Russia in his writings: “Chagall senses the imperceptible but terrible mystique of life. Those are the images of Vitebsk – a sullen, dull province, a modest hair salon, a lovers’ rendezvous a bit awkward under a misty moon and street sweepers, a dusty illusion of life on the streets of small villages. Chagall creates beautiful legends by capturing glimpses of the simple and common life.”15

  1. Exposition Universelle: Russia at the 1900 World Fair. Parijskaya gaziéta 9, 17 (4) (April 1900), 3.
  2. The Koustari of the Russian Section. Parijskaya gaziéta 10 (1900), 2–3.
  3. The Autumn Salon: Russian Art Exhibition. Exh. cat. with texts by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexandre Benois (Paris, 1906).
  4. The exhibition title was in Greek and referred to a collection of poems by Valéri Brioussov, also in Greek.
  5. Yakov Tugendhold, preface to Russian Popular Art in the image, the toy and the spice bread, an exhibition organized by Miss Nathalie Ehrenbourg. Autumn Salon 1913, exh. cat. (Paris: Kugelmann), 310.
  6. Léon Bakst, The Paths of Classicism in Art (Apollon 3, 1909).
  7. Lubok: Der russische Volksbilderbogen 1900–1930, exh. cat. (Munich: Münchner Stadtmuseum, 1985), 6–7.
  8. Cited in Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (The Blue Rider Almanac) with notes by Klaus Lankheit (Paris: Klincksieck, 1981).
  9. See the original work, despite some extrapolations and minor errors, by Pegg Weiss, Kandinsky and Old Russia, The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995).
  10. David Burliuk, The Russian Fauvists (1912), reproduced in Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (The Blue Rider Almanac), 105–106.
  11. It consists of the cubist version of the painting The Dead Man (La Mort). Chagall’s first initial is erroneous in the exhibition catalogue (I.), which shows that the Vitebsk artist was not yet well known.
  12. Apollon 1, 1913.
  13. Yakov Tugendhold, preface to Popular Russian Art, 308.
  14. I. Ehrenburg, “Popular Russian Art in Paris,” The Parisian Messenger 20 (May 17, 1913).
  15. Yakov Tugendhold, “A New Talent,” The New Russians (Moscow, March 29, 1915), also cited in Marc Chagall, The Russian Years 1907–1922 (Paris: MAMVP, 1995), 242.


The Origins of Neo-primitivism in Chagall's Work

Transated by: Rose B. Champagne

It was in the summer of 1908 that Chagall began to draw and paint in a primitive and childlike fashion that would soon evolve into the fantastical, the style that would become his trademark, particular in later years when he would choose a vivid colour palette. It is often said that Chagall was influenced by Neo-primitivism which was very prevalent among avant-garde Russian artists of the time such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and David Burliuk. However, being a Russian Jew of modest origins and a St. Petersburg student at the start of his career, Chagall would follow his own personal course, much different from that of his colleagues.

In June 1908, courses came to an end at the School of Imperial Society for the Fostering of Fine Arts, but Chagall remained in St. Petersburg to avoid being drafted in the czar’s army. Desperate letters to his patron, Baron David Ginzburg, and to his professor, Nikolai Roerich, demonstrate how much he dreaded this possibility, not only as an artist who would be obliged to end his studies but also as a Russian Jew whose life was threatened. Despite this fear, Chagall wished to leave the city and go home to Vitebsk, where “the sun calls me to the virgin scenery to draw” and where he wanted to “immerse himself in a sea of grass and in the bliss of the skies.”1 These metaphors, while specifically linked to his own personal situation, also express the notion that Russian artists and writers at the time wanted to differentiate themselves from symbolism and rediscover the values of nature and life in the countryside as sources of a new primitivism. In using these metaphors, Chagall proved that he was aligned with the prevailing currents of thought at the time.

In 1906, two articles titled “Colours and Words” and “Timeless” were published in Moscow’s glossy art review magazine La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece). In them, Alexander Blok, the famous Russian symbolist author whom Chagall knew well and whose writing the artist admired2, encouraged artists and writers to turn to childlike art, Russian nature and its people as a new source of creativity, because modern man had turned away from nature and had fallen into a mechanical lifestyle.3 This new attitude reached its highest peak in Blok’s 1908 article called “Three Questions” in which he insists on the importance of blending art and life.4 He asks artists to combine “the soul of a beautiful butterfly and the body of a useful camel” to show people “a new kind of free necessity [and] a conscious devotion to give words meaning and make the artist a man.”5

Such ideas certainly provoked debate at the School of Imperial Society, where Chagall had studied since 1907. A year earlier, painter Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947) was named director of the school and attempted to bring radical reform to the curriculum. He introduced art history, organized outings in the old Russian cities and put together workshops in decorative arts and crafts – ceramics, wood carvings, printing, weaving, glass painting, church paintings and later music and singing.6 He also invited sculptors, architects, critics and art historians, who were knowledgeable in the world of art and well informed with regards to developments in Moscow’s artistic scene, to teach his student artists. Therefore, Chagall’s teachers turned their attention towards Russian national heritage and modern influences. Russian symbolists such as Mikhail Vroubel and Viktor Borissov-Moussatov were among these influences, as was Japanese art and the work of Paul Gauguin.7

Roerich, a close acquaintance of Gauguin (whom he had met through Alexandre Benois while he was in Paris in 1901), had already experimented with this type of painting. He projected his admiration onto Chagall, who would find his own personal way of integrating Gauguin’s influence.8 As a result, he took an active role in the interaction between Russia and the French painter, especially after the Gauguin exhibit of 1906, which ran during the exact same time as the Russian exhibition organized by Sergei Diaghilev at the Autumn Salon in Paris. Furthermore, between 1908 and 1909, Nikolai Riabouchinski and his magazine La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece) presented Gauguin’s paintings in the major French-Russian exhibitions that he organized in Moscow. The French artist’s work was well represented in some of the most famous art collections in Moscow, such as the Chtchoukine and Morozov families. Consequently, the Moscow group “Goloubaïa Rosa” (The Blue Rose), which included artists Pavel Kuznetsov, Martiros Sarian, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, appeared to be opening up their artwork to Gauguin’s influence as early as 1907–1908.9

Two of Chagall’s paintings around that time clearly demonstrate Gauguin’s influence: his Autoportrait au masque rouge (Self-Portrait in a Red Mask) and a painting that pictures his youngest sister titled Jeune fille au divan (Mariaska)” (Young Girl on a Sofa [Mariaska]) from 1907. Chagall’s own self-portrait is often compared to the works of Gauguin, such as his Autoportrait à l’idole (Idol Self-Portrait) of 1891, or his 1889 portrait, which was owned by the famous art collector Sergei Chtchoukine. Chagall at that time did not have a mustache or a beard; instead it seems as if these masculine symbols in his painting were influenced by the French painter. His irregular application of colours on a raw canvas, a technique used by Gauguin, shows how much Chagall identified with the wild French artist.

Moreover, his Young Girl on a Sofa recalls Gauguin’s Te Tiare Farani (Flowers of France) of 1891.10 The positioning of the subject on the left, in front of a flower vase painted against a flat wall, recalls Gauguin’s composition, while the person wearing a hat in the latter painting may have prompted Chagall to depict his sister with very short hair wearing an artist’s beret. Te Tiare Farani was shown at the 1906 Gauguin retrospective in Paris and bought in 1908 by Ivan Morozov.11 It is not known with complete certainty that Chagall went to Moscow to view the French-Russian exhibitions or private collections, but the modern teachings of his school allow us to speculate that the students may have visited the city as well as its collections and exhibitions while on an organized visit.12 Nevertheless, Chagall’s work reveals without a doubt that he had intimate knowledge of Gauguin, most likely passed on by Roerich, possibly by means of photographs.

However, in the two paintings mentioned above, a number of other influences are palpable which, in 1908, played an important role in the development of Chagall’s primitivist style. The most important ones stem from avant-garde theatre and childlike art. The red mask that Chagall removes from his face in his self-portrait recalls creations from some artists of the World of Art, such as Konstantin Somov, containing visual references to the commedia dell’arte revival, to street theatre and to the flourishing political satire in St. Petersburg after 1905. Alexander Blok is one of the first to use the theme of the “commedia dell’arte” in his Balagantchik (The Booth at the Fair), a play adapted from his 1905 poem. The famous director Vsevolod Meyerhold produced it in St. Petersburg in 1906 and again in 1908, in the imperial theatres where it met with great success.

Chagall is certainly aware of Somov’s coverage of the works that Blok published in 1908.13 In his self-portrait, Chagall turns his head to the right (where a frivolous woman is seen on Somov’s cover), has a red mask (which matches the woman’s dress) and portrays himself with curls on his forehead looking like horns, a slightly hooked nose, a mustache with a goatee and a pointed ear. Here he seems to be identifying himself in a devilish manner or as a Pan-like character – typical of the renewed theatre. Again, the work seems to recall Gauguin’s (as well as Nietzsche’s) appeals to abandon modern civilization and return to his roots, in other words to leave St. Petersburg and return to Vitebsk where he could free himself from the old art forms saturated with western traditions, both classical and Christian, and to adopt the new primitive art form rooted in the Jewish folklore of the countryside.

Young Girl on a Sofa seems to be the first example where Chagall applies his new artistic orientation and is one of numerous intimate portraits that Chagall made of his family. By representing his youngest sister in a clumsy, childish style, he already gives a glimpse of the free and fresh direction he is about to take. The influence of the theatre, as well as Gauguin, seem to play a crucial role by means of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird.14 Some important aspects of this play, first written as a children’s story, reinforce Chagall’s decision to develop his new style. The play introduces a fantastical universe of imagination and a new way to look at the world, which Chagall produces in an equally new fashion – Mariaska’s proportions are distorted, and her limbs are flat and surrounded by a thick dark outline, like a child’s drawing which she could have made herself.

In April of 1908, Léon Bakst, member of the World of Art and future teacher to Chagall at the prestigious Zvantséva School, remarked on the importance of primitive and childlike art at a conference called “Paintings of the Future and its Relationship to Antique Art” at St. Petersburg’s Theatre Club.15 In May of 1907, Bakst and the painter Valentin Sérov travelled to Greece where they discovered Greek archaic art which influenced them deeply and prompted Bakst to question and rethink his impression of classical art. The new ideas he generated on this trip prompted Bakst to contemplate the “art of the future” as seen in children’s paintings:spontaneous, filled with colours and emotions.

For Bakst, there were common traits in popular and archaic art, but also in the works of Gauguin, Matisse and Denis.16 He praised the symbolic qualities of these art forms which elevated daily objects to a symbolic or abstract level, in the same way as childlike and primitive art. However, he proposed formal ways to get there: future artists would have to become bold, simple, impolite and primitive. The art of the future must develop “a rough style because new art cannot include refinement…. Art of the future must stem from the deepest grossness.”17 Chagall must have attended this conference and been seduced by the modernist theme of his talk. It was probably for this reason that Chagall contacted Bakst later that same year and decided to study with him at the Zvantséva School.

In addition to his theoretical debates, concrete examples also encouraged Chagall to develop his new childlike style. In the spring of 1908, an article was published in the weekly magazine Theatre and Art by the critic Alexandre Rostislavov titled “Children and Adult Art.” He mentions the childlike art exhibit from the New Society of Artists alongside an exhibition of works from artists of the World of Art (namely Benois, Yevgeny Lanceray, Mstislav Dobujinski, Boris Kustodiev and Alexandre Golovine). Rostislavov saw a form of primitive art that was lacking technique but revealed a “wonderful side, mysterious, magical [artistic] creation…. Children’s art, even with its total absence of technique, excites us, we laugh at its innocence, we even envy it.”18 This may have been the time that Chagall began collecting drawings by Mariaska to study and use as a source of inspiration. In his 1909–1910 sketch pad, there appears a simple child’s drawing, a stick man which, according to Chagall’s notes, was made by his sister Mariaska.19

Chagall already felt free to use this type of childlike art and to start applying it to serious subjects, as well as to illustrate, in the detached manner of children, the complex and often painful reality of the lives of Russian Jews in the early 20th century. Thus, he used this style to deal with problems such as the family life of Jews divided between the traditional and modern lifestyle (The Dining Room and The Room on Gorokhova Street, both from 1910), love and marriage, in which strict religious rules are questioned (The Ball of 1908, The Wedding of 1908–1909, The Couple at the Table of 1909, The Aunt’s Wedding of 1909–1910, and The Mikveh of 1910), and death which is often a consequence of anti-Semitic attacks, persecution and pogroms (The Village Fair of 1908, The Dead Man of 1908–1909, and The Event of 1908–1909). In this way, Chagall combines the social consciousness of his first teacher, Yéhouda Pen (and other Russian and Polish Jewish artists from whom he discovered Realist and Impressionist art in Vitebsk in 1906–190720) and his new primitivism style. To this art, which often deals with traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe, he added the modernist style that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Starting in the fall of 1908, he integrated into this modern style numerous elements of Yiddish popular culture which drew from detailed studies by intellectuals involved in the revival of the Jewish culture. Their work centred around the activities of historical and ethnic Jewish society, created by the Russian Jewish ethnographer and author Semyon Anski (born Shlomo Rappoport) who was born in Vitebsk. Thanks to this society, which collected Jewish religious objects, published proverbs, lullabies and Hasidic stories, and described Jewish traditions and customs in the cycle of life, Chagall understood the importance of this material and became more aware of his role in the Yiddish popular tradition and culture, which he knew well.21

The Dead Man is a good example of a work that fuses several worlds on different levels while amazing the spectator with its primitive and crude quality. Several authors found influences in the theatre, the childlike imagination, the Yiddish traditions and the harsh realities of Russian-Jewish history. However, we may recall the comments expressed by Maximilian Syrkine, a Russian-Jewish art critic who first commented in 1916 on certain unusual aspects of The Dead Man, namely the presence of the violinist sitting on the roof. Calling this painting “fantastical-humorous,” he saw in the violinist “the soul” of the dead, dressed in a worn jacket and cap, happy to be free from his Jewish destiny and his transitional existence.”22 In his own 1908 article, Blok asked Chagall to demonstrate to the world “a new kind of free necessity [and] a conscious devotion to give words meaning and make the artist a man.”23 He added that popular art and folklore songs do exactly that by combining beauty and usefulness, art and work by means of rhythm.24 Therefore, this essential musical element becomes a unifying element. In adding the image of a violinist – a Jewish klezmer – to his painting, Chagall invites us to imagine his music and introduces the unifying element that connects the complex worlds to which he belongs.25

While summarizing Chagall’s artistic evolution, The Dead Man also introduces a novelty: the yellow-green colour of the sky, indicating new influences that he acquired from Bakst’s teachings. According to Iulia Léonidovna Obolenskaia, a former student at the Zvantséva School where Chagall began to study in 1909, Bakst explained that the source of all composition stems from the relationship between colours.26 He encouraged this new art form with his students and taught them to appreciate Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Maurice Denis. Bakst also expressed his ideas in public conferences and in his writings, and in the fall of 1909, Apollon magazine published his conference “Painting of the Future and its Relationship to Antique Art,” which was held in April 1908, and was likely the main impetus for Chagall to study with Bakst. The author admired the elementary forms of childlike drawings, but above all he valued their bright and strong colours. In his view, pure and strong colours are totally natural since they exist in the animal world – particularly birds and butterflies – and in flowers. As such, he felt it was absolutely natural that young children or archaic and popular artists not influenced by rules of “good taste” would use such colours.27 In recommending the use of bold colours and sustained tones, Bakst hoped to encourage his students toward a new path.

Likewise, Chagall may have discovered the Fauvists in Moscow. In January or February 1909, he may have seen, in the French section of the exhibition of La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece), works from Derain, Vlaminck, Friesz, Marquet, Matisse, Van Dongen or Braque, whose pre-Fauvist, Fauvist and pre-Cubist paintings were on display.28 This exhibition, like the previous one29, would bring in thousands of art enthusiasts30 and, while Chagall was still studying with Roerich at the time, he probably travelled to Moscow with his class and had the opportunity afterwards to view the Chtchoukine collection. He may have also viewed some of Matisse’s Fauvist paintings, in particular La Desserte rouge (The Dessert: Harmony in Red [The Red Room]) from 1908.31

According to Obolenskaia’s memoires, one of Chagall’s first paintings in accordance with Bakst’s teachings, was a “study in pink on green background,” a title that describes the subject as a combination of colours, which the teacher might have appreciated.32 His first painting to be exhibited with bold colours appeared in the “Petit Salon” in 1909. It would take some time for him to accept this novelty, but starting in 1911 colour would become one of the main elements of his paintings. We conclude this analysis with The Father (or Bearded Man) of 1911, in which Chagall depicts his father as a traditional Russian Jew, bearded and posing in an autumn landscape. In this work, Chagall combines multiple sources that encompass his Primitivist style: the raw characteristics of childlike art, his small-town Jewish roots, his love of nature and his colour combinations which were strongly influenced by Fauvism.

  1. Letter to Nikolai Roerich from Marc Chagall, in Chagall 1995a, 238; Marc Chagall and Kh. Firin, “A Suffering Painter Can Understand Me,” in Peterbourgskie gody M. Z. Chagala (Chagall’s Petersburg Years), Iskousstvo Léningrada 8 (1990), letters 3 and 6, 107–108.
  2. On Chagall’s admiration for the poet, see Franz Meyer, Chagall, Life and Work (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1963) 243, or the French Edition (Paris: Flammarion, [1964] 1995).
  3. Alexandre Blok, “Colours and Words,” in Zolotoie rouno (The Golden Fleece) 1 (1906), 98–103; “Timeless,” in Zolotoie rouno (The Golden Fleece) 11–12, 107–114 [Alexandre Blok, Sobranié sotchinenii (Works) (Moscow-Leningrad, 1960), vol. 5, 19–24, 66–82].
  4. Alexandre Blok, “Three Questions,” in Zolotoie rouno (The Golden Fleece) 2 (1908), 55–59. Analysis of this essay and the ones from 1906 are found in William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo and Russian Modernism: 1905-1910 (Ann Arbor, 1986), 106–109.
  5. William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo, op. cit., 111.
  6. Jacqueline Decter and Nicholas Roerich, The Life and Art of a Russian Master (London: Park Street Press, 1989), 67.
  7. Ibid., 38–39.
  8. On the importance of Gauguin for Chagall, see Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 14 and 71.
  9. Concerning Gauguin’s influence on these artists, see Marina Bessonova, “Paul Gauguin and Russian Avant-Garde Art,” exh. cat. (Ferrare: Palazzo dei Diamanti, 1 April – 2 July 1995), 259–277.
  10. See Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 73, and Bessonova, Russian Avant-Garde Art, op. cit., 67.
  11. Ibid., 66.
  12. In his autobiography, Chagall – during a conversation with a French lady travelling by train in 1914 while he is returning to Russia – states: “Personally, I have only seen Petrograd, Moscow, the small suburb of Lyozna and Vitebsk.” Marc Chagall, My Life, translated by Bella Chagall, Paris [1923], Stock 2003, 166. As far as residing in Paris between 1911 and 1914, here he alludes to his life in Russia before moving to France.
  13. Spencer Golub, Evreinov: The Theatre of Paradox and Transformation (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984), 2, no. 4. Somov created the cover for Alexandre Blok’s work, “Lyrical Drama, The Fair Stand, The King in the Square, The Stranger”, St. Petersburg Theatre Series, 1908.
  14. Chagall most likely attended this play in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1908, performed by the Kaminski Company which was made up of the Warsaw Yiddish Theatre. See also I. Turkow Goldberg, Di Mame Ester Rachel (Warsaw, 1953), 194–220 (in Yiddish).
  15. Irina Pruzhan and Léon Bakst, Set and Costume Design, Book Illustrations (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), 220. The conference paper was published in November 1909, in Léon Bakst “The Paths of Classicism in Art,” Apollon 2, 63–78, and Apollon 3, 46–62.
  16. Léon Bakst, “Pouti Klassitsizma v iskousstve,” cited in Apollon 3, 54–61.
  17. Ibid., 60–61.
  18. Alexandre Rotislavov, “Children and Adult Art,” Teatr i iskusstvo (Theatre and Art) 9 (1908) 170–171.
  19. I wish to thank Mrs. Miriam Cendrars for giving me permission to view, in the fall of 1995, Chagall’s 1909–1910 sketching book, which is part of her collection.
  20. Among these artists are Isaak Asknazy, Moses Maimon, Samuel Hirszenberg and Léonide Pasternak.
  21. Ziva Amishai-Maisels, “Chagall and the Jewish Revival: Center of Periphery?” in Ruth Apter-Gabriel, ed., Tradition and Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art, 1912–1928 (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, June 1987), 71–100, and Mirjam Rajner, “A Parokhet as a Picture: Chagall’s 1908–1909 Prayer Desk,” in Studia Rosenthaliana 37 (2004), 193–222.
  22. Maximilian Syrkine, “Marc Chagall,” in Evreïskaïa nedelia (The Jewish Week) 20 (15 May 1916), 44.
  23. See note 5 of this text.
  24. William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo 27, 111.
  25. Mirjam Rajner, “Chagall’s Fiddler,” in Ars Judaica, The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art, vol. 1 (2005), 117–132.
  26. Iulia Léonidovna Obolenskaia, V chkole Zvantsevoi pod rukovodstvom L. Baksta i M. Dobouzjinskovo, 1906–1910 (At the Zvantséva School, Directed by L. Bakst and M. Doboujinski, 1906–1910) (Moscow: Trétiakov National Gallery Department of Manuscripts, fonds 5, stock 75, sheet 15). Some parts of this text were translated into English and used by Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 59–60, and I. Pruzhan, Bakst, op. cit., 16, 219.
  27. Léon Bakst, “Pouti klassitsizma v iskousstve,” cited in Apollon 3, 54–56.
  28. William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo, op. cit., 144–146; Zolotoie rouno 1 (1909), 15–18, and Zolotoie rouno 2–3 (1909), 3–30. The January and February/March issues of this magazine contained reproductions of his works in black and white.
  29. The French-Russian exhibition in Moscow organized by La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece) in 1908.
  30. Zolotoie rouno 2–3 (1909), 116.
  31. Chtchoukine bought all these paintings over the course of the year 1908, and by early 1909 they were part of his collection. See Albert Kostenevich and Natalia Semenova, Matisse v Rossii (Matisse in Russia) (Moscow, 1993), 73, 77, 162. See also A. Izerghina, Henri Matisse, Painting and Sculptures in Soviet Museums (Leningrad: Aurora Art, 1978), 138–139.
  32. Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 60.


Goncharova, Larionov and the Limits of Cubism

In the autumn of 1913, a period of increasing social unrest and political turmoil, the prominent avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova issued a surprising challenge to her critics. In a draft of what became the catalogue essay for her mammoth 1913 Moscow retrospective, she rejected the subjectivist aesthetics that so many associated with an alienated modernism. Opposing “the trivialized and decadent sermons of individualism,” she declared her readiness to use “all contemporary accomplishments and discoveries in the realm of art,” particularly Rayonism (“a new form of art and life” and “the pure doctrine of painting”) promoted by her companion, painter and avant-garde impresario Mikhail Larionov. Yet practically in the same breath, she proclaimed her unique proclivity as an artist to absorb all impressions and types of experience – even the most banal. For Goncharova, subjectivity is shaped by the society that nurtures it, and motivation found in the “bright, unpretentious reception of all that surrounds me, and a specific attitude to all things. That is, having studied the views circulating in society and winnowed through upbringing, I am free.” She concluded that the era of art theory and debate had ended – it was time “to appeal directly to the streets, to the popular masses in general.”1

These were the paradoxical conditions of modernist art in Russia during the decade when Chagall was working in a different centre, namely Paris. In their most fruitful phases, the careers of both Goncharova and Chagall pitched between Moscow, St. Petersburg and Paris, obliterating the centre-periphery hierarchy. During this time, their open orientation to diverse cultures prevented critics from settling comfortably on either historical period or personal style to represent their art. Indeed, Goncharova’s Cubism and Futurism was nearly as questionable as Chagall’s – if we limit ourselves to a particular kind of formalist interpretation. It is even more difficult to speak of Cubism in Larionov’s progression, despite his careful reading of its history. Yet all three were engaged in exploration of the material-formal principles associated with Cubism and, especially in Larionov and Goncharova’s case, Futurism. Their tangential approach to style as a marker of identity and creative purpose distinguished their projects from what became the mainstream of Modernist art, both Russian and Parisian.

Though Chagall was not an active player in the Moscow groups that formed and dissolved around Goncharova and Larionov, few artists’ oeuvres evolved so naturally from the principle advanced in their most radical public pronouncements – that art obtained value in life’s circulation. Chagall would act on this perceived unity partly by accident, partly by design. The responsive character of their progression as artists should be linked to their lived experiences. Like Goncharova, Chagall was the quintessential outsider at the centre. Jewish artists, as with most women, were marginalized from the moment they sought entry into the art world: the academies had a quota system, and successful completion of any course of study required a negotiated “exceptionalism.” Of course, Jewish artists had the additional burden of arranging legal registration beyond the Pale of Settlement. Women typically encountered other barriers arising from notions of an essentialized femininity. As a provincial newcomer to Moscow, Larionov also experienced stereotyping. Born and raised in Tiraspol, a town that was home to orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish “nationalities” on the southern fringes of the empire, Larionov drew on this diversity for his provincial genre scenes. These are the works echoed in Chagall’s shtetl images – and explains the latter’s contribution to the Donkey’s Tail exhibition in Moscow (possibly with the second version of The Dead Man).

The Donkey’s Tail exhibition (March 11–April 8, 1912) marked a turning point in the oeuvres and exhibiting activities of Goncharova and Larionov. Having announced their defection from the Jack of Diamonds group – which Larionov had co-founded with other students in 1910 upon exiting the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture – they orchestrated the Donkey’s Tail exhibition to promote an aggressively anti-institutional series of projects. This was the year that exposure to Cubism and Futurism had brought together poets and painters in collaborative creative and publishing ventures – later characterized as “Cubo-Futurist.” If these terms, examined independently, designated multiple orientations to artistic media, to faktura in painting and to “the self-oriented word” in poetry, the hyphenated branding of the group – which included poets Velemir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, David and Vladimir Burliuk, Aleksei Kruchenykh (who were also active as painters) as well as painters Olga Rozanova, Kazimir Malevich, Goncharova and Larionov among others – is even more difficult to parse.2 The extent to which a work might be understood as Cubist, Futurist, or “Cubo-Futurist” depended on a complex network of formal, promotional and social associations. 3

Key works identified by Goncharova aposteriori as Cubist, or Cubist-inspired, such as Planting Potatoes (Posadka kartofel’ia, 1908–1909) had entered public discourse three years earlier (it was exhibited at the third Golden Fleece exhibition in winter–spring of 1909–1910).4 Some Russian artists had seen Cubist painting first-hand in Sergei Shchukin’s Moscow home during the course of 1909; at the end of 1910, paintings by Henri Le Fauconnier and Albert Gleizes were included in the first Jack of Diamonds exhibition and hung together with Russian works. Though Goncharova first claimed an alliance with “the Cubists” in a press statement in the spring of 1910, Cubist art and theory had greater impact the following year when she was creating her major primitivist works: her religious compositions and the nine-part Harvest (Zhatva) and Grape Gathering (Sbor Vinograda) series.5 Paintings exhibited in the Donkey’s Tail exhibition (and listed in the catalogue) revealed a concern to “bare devices,” to make explicit what had been implicitly structured into the earlier canvases. By the spring of 1912, important French and Italian theoretical and historical texts had been translated and assimilated by the Russians.6 Goncharova’s commitment to using colour as an essential component of her Cubist play with signifying systems became self-conscious in this year, demonstrated by its prominence (and her use of explanatory subtitles) in particular paintings. Indeed, the painting that Nikolia Kul’bin cited as exemplifying Cubist painting in Russia, Spring in the City (1909–1910; State Russian Museum), was the focus of press attention, praised for its highly structured colouristic juxtapositions. It was this event that spurred Goncharova to rebut Kul’bin’s purpose – linking her effort with that of the Jack of Diamonds artists. In her response, published in the press, she acknowledged Picasso’s prominence, but cast her own work painted in a Cubist manner as derived from other “Russian” sources, and as equal in historical significance to his. 7

For all three artists, a devotion to Matisse’s expression of form through colour trumped the conceptual work of Cubist passage and scaffolding. Goncharova’s spectacular work, Still Life with Lobster, given to Kandinsky by the artist and valued highly by him, exemplifies this preference. Painted in 1909–1910, at the height of debate over Cubism, Goncharova’s painting turns away from the self-referential to initiate other dialogues. She explores form as mediated by cultural traditions – East and West, popular and elite. Here saturated colour and white highlights project the objects depicted forward into our space as in commercial billboards and icons. They are drawn further into material relief by dark crimson and black contour lines, mimicking the effect of popular prints (narodnye kartinki). Unlike Matisse, Goncharova’s expressive brushwork doubles over the language of mass culture to imbue even a still life with a new type of public address.

Goncharova’s Cubist works demonstrate the same inclusive rhetoric. As in her primitivist works, her predilection for contrasting hues in parallel planes creates tensions rather than ambiguities in our reading of pictorial space – distinguishing their painted effects from that of Cubist passage in France.8 She remained indifferent to the representational play implied in the elision of difference in adjacent planar forms – a key element of Picasso’s Cubism. At about the same time as the “orphic” Cubists, especially Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, she drew on the expressive acuity of colouristic dissonance, which could be used – and would be received – as the embodiment of social conflict.9 Goncharova tested the model proposed by Picasso and Braque in a few images in 1908. In Planting Potatoes, the shard-like fragmentation of form that complicates our perception of sky, ground and peasant dress contrasts with the graphic clarity of the contour lines and monumental legibility of the figures themselves. Instead of dissolving mass into an atmospheric flickering of surface, affirming the painting as fiction (representation), Goncharova’s paintings impress the viewer with the material culture – and presence – of the peasantry. Goncharova abandoned her “Cubist” mode of surface articulation in her painting over the course of 1910, a good year or two before she defended it theoretically in her writing.

The year 1912 witnessed the thorough assimilation of Futurist art and theory, which Goncharova had described that February as “a mixture of impressionism and emotionalism.”10 By the end of that year both she and Larionov had shifted focus, from mastering the theoretical tenets of Futurist manifestos to promoting the only “style” originally conceived by both artists – Rayonism. Neither created works resembling those of their Italian counterparts. Their primary concern was to identify the facture of painted pigment with the materiality of light, refracted as “rays” and as an inherent property of matter. Facture would no longer be significant as a surface effect (or as a marker of style) but would instead share in the authenticity of the world from which it materially derived, as faktura.11 This idea informed Malevich’s search and conviction that picture making – as form-creation – is a source of life, not self-objectifying but an open system generating (and sometimes predicting) new social and political conditions. “Coloured mass and texture” are motivated by life when divorced from their mimetic function. Any picture consists of a coloured surface and texture (the state of this coloured surface is its timbre) and of the sensation that arises from these two things…. Now it is necessary to find the point at which – having concrete life as a stimulant – painting would remain itself while its adopted forms would be transformed and its outlook broadened.12

This purpose was repeatedly, and eclectically, represented in the content of their exhibitions. For even as Larionov and Goncharova launched Rayonism in the Target exhibition and No. 4 (Futurists, Rayists, Primitive) of the spring of 1913 and 1914 respectively, they included all types of work. In the latter exhibition, the Futurist-inspired Woman with a Hat (Dama s shliapoi) and Electric Lamp (Elektricheskaia lampa) shared wall space with Electrical Ornament (four versions). Larionov presented work that pushed the boundaries of Futurism/Rayonism to embrace the primitive; in addition to Sunlit Day, he exhibited Boulevard Venus (Progulka [Bul’varnaia Venera] 1912–1913) which illustrates the figure in chaotic motion, as material as she is transparent – we see through her to the empty canvas. Despite the obvious debt to Italian Futurism, the painting as titled suggests that it might also be an addition to the series of Primitivist “Venus” canvases that Larionov had painted in 1911–1912 and shown in the Target exhibition. In Larionov’s Sunlit Day: Pneumo-rayist-painterly Structure (Solnechnyi Den’ [pnevmo-luchistaia-krasochnaia struktura]), a preoccupation with transparency gives way to material density as thick impasto is coated over other substances, papier-maché, plaster dust and sand, used liberally by Liubov Popova in her “Cubo-Futurist” reliefs a year later. He deemed this painting to be of such importance that he gave the work to poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire within the year.13

Yet such presentations did not simply demonstrate range as historical argument. Both Larionov’s and Goncharova’s writings revealed a thoughtful redirection of formal strategies associated with both Cubism and Futurism toward other pseudo-scientific and conceptual pictorial interests. Rayonism began with an exploration of medium as material, alluding both to the phenomenal world and our metaphysical contemplation of it. In the end, at its best, it proposed an opening up of formal concerns – linking art to lived experience. These works question the stability of the world we think we know while also affirming its substance. In Sunlit Day, the interaction of space and matter is manifest in the overlapping lines, colours and material textures, but the image is so fragmented that it becomes abstract – a representation not of things, but of the multiple (social and sensory) consequences of looking.

This approach to painting gave way to an emphasis on organization in the work of both artists. Larionov simply titled his last Russian works (shown in No. 4) Structured Constructions (Strukturnye postroeniia). By this time Goncharova had abandoned the brush-directed facture and fragmented compositions of her Rayonist work in favor of structure derived from ornament. She had argued in 1912–1913 that ornamental detail motivates the unique, national expressivity of traditional art forms, distinguishing the “deep cultures” of the East from the civilizing concerns of the West.14 The techniques she developed in Harvest (Feet Pressing Grapes) (Zhatva [nogi zhmushchie vina]) to animate the surface –  channeling in the present the effects of tempera in icons, or pigment saturated into fresco medium – reappeared in her post-Futurist images, “constructions based on facture” (Postroeniia osnovannye na razlichnykh fakturakh). In 1913–1914, at the height of their Russian careers, when both artists theorized Vsechestvo (Everythingism), their most radically inclusive approach to painting – and retrospective justification of all that had preceded – we see a process that, as in Chagall’s art, is motivated by dialogues across cultures, and by life’s tangential course.

  1. Natalia Goncharova, “Tvorcheskoe Kredo,” manuscript signed in the author’s hand, Russian Archives of Literature and the Arts, Moscow: Fond 740/1/4. For an English translation, see Jane A. Sharp, Russian Modernism between East and West: Natal’ia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde, 19051914 (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 276. All Russian exhibition dates cited in this essay conform with the old (Julian) calendar (13 days behind our current (Gregorian) calendar).
  2. “Cubo-Futurism” retroactively and uniquely designates Russian art and poetry created from 1910 to 1913 by artists associated with the Union of Youth, Jack of Diamonds and Donkey’s Tail exhibitions, and as a result of the collaborative activities of avant-garde poets who published under the imprint Hylea and who had assimilated the theories and visual examples of a wide range of (French) Cubist and (Italian) Futurist art. Nikolai Khardzhiev’s writings on the early career of painter-poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, now in English translation, clarified some of these early collaborations and poetic techniques. Dmitrii Sarabianov attributes the elaboration of a period style to him.
  3. As Charlotte Douglas pointed out in the 1970s, part of the difficulty in using temporal perimeters to designate Cubism and Futurism in Russia as period styles lies in the legacy of earlier theoretical interest in the writings of Henri Bergson and other formative texts to which Russian artists and writers had access in French and Russian: “New Russian Art and Italian Futurism,” Art Journal 34, no. 3 (Spring 1975): 229–239.
  4. Important French works were shown in the first two Golden Fleece shows (Moscow, 1908 and 1909); major pre-Cubist and Cubist works were shown in the first and second Jack of Diamonds exhibition in Moscow (December–January 1910; and January–February 1912). The second exhibition (which Larionov and Goncharova boycotted) included Le Fauconnier’s study for L’Abondance, and work by Léger, Friez, Derain and Robert Delaunay.
  5. Anonymous, “Beseda s N.S. Goncharova,” Stolichnaia Molva, no. 115 (April 5, 1910), p. 3.
  6. The second issue of the journal Soiuz molodezhi (June 1912) contained a translation of the Manifesto of Futurist Painters (February 1910) as well as texts by Le Fauconnier and Van Dongen. Gleizes and Metzinger’s Du Cubisme was discussed and partially translated by Mikhail Matiushin in the third issue (March 1913). Details on the dates of translations may be found in Charlotte Douglas, Swans of Other Worlds: Kazimir Malevich and the Origins of Abstraction in Russia (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1976), and Russkii futurizm: theoriia, praktika, kritika, vospominaniia, ed. V.N. Terekhina and A.P. Zimenkov (Moscow: IMLI RAN, 2000).
  7. For a summary of the debate, see Sharp, Russian Modernism from East to West, 134–135. Goncharova’s “Letter to the Editor of Russkoe Slovo” is translated into English on p. 272.
  8. Russian texts on Cubism (often published after they were delivered as public lectures) tend to translate “passage” as “sdvig” which implies contradiction and dynamic movement of forms – though a discussion of its meanings and applications is beyond the scope of this essay. Among the first analyses published by an artist was David Burliuk’s “Cubism (Surface – Plane)” of 1912 (Kubizm: Pokhverkhnost’ – ploskost’).
  9. The critical reception of Goncharova’s work abounds with such associations; for Alexandre Benois, though redemptive, reading the distorted forms of her Cubist and Futurist paintings “required suffering,” while for others – Valentin Songaillo epitomizing the most hostile responses – her work heralded revolution. See Sharp, Russian Modernism, pp. 232–238 for reviews by both critics of Goncharova’s 1913 Moscow retrospective.
  10. N.S. Goncharova, “Letter to the Editor of Russkoe Slovo,” Sharp, p. 272.
  11. Based on a comparison of the artists’ writings, it is likely that Goncharova co-authored the Rayonist manifestos, though they are attributed to Larionov. In particular, the essay entitled “Rayonist Painting” (Luchistaia zhivopis’) published in the miscellany of Oslinyi khvostiI mishen’ (Moscow, July 1913), details the characteristics of painting that Rayonism seeks to exploit. See Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism, pp. 93–100.
  12. From its first appearance in avant-garde texts by David Burliuk (1912), but especially in the writings of Vladimir Markov (Waldemar Matveijs) (1912–1914), the term faktura is distinguished from its use in Europe in that it signifies the material character of the work – the indexical nature of texture itself rather than the individuality of the author.
  13. The reverse of the painting bears a dedication to Apollinaire inscribed in Larionov’s hand. See Nathalie Gontcharova, Michel Larionov, ed. Jessica Boissel (Exhibition Catalogue, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1995), p. 92. The painting appears as cat. no. 95 in the exhibition No. 4 (Futurists, Rayists, Primitive) in Moscow (March–April 1914).
  14. Natalia Goncharova, “The Hindu and Persian Broadsheet” (Induskii i persidskii lubok) translated in Sharp, Russian Modernism between East and West, p. 273.


Return to Russia: Chagall and Vitebsk (1914–1920)

Transated by: Wyley Powell

Following a highly productive stay in Paris from 1911 to 1914, Chagall returned to Russia when World War I broke out, remaining there for eight years until 1922. During this period, his home city of Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, played a key role in his life and work. It was there, in July 1915, that he married Bella Rosenfeld, who came from a middle-class Vitebsk family, and it was there also that his daughter Ida was born three years later. This was a happy period – even an exhilarating one – and in 1914–15, Vitebsk became a favourite subject for Chagall, as evidenced by the series of watercolours in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, the works on paper Shop in Vitebsk (St. Petersburg Museum, National Russian Museum) and Barber Shop (Tretyakov Gallery), the eight Above Vitebsk works (St. Petersburg, private collection), View from Window (Tretyakov Gallery), House in Liozno, The Clock (The Time), and the famous Above the Town (Tretyakov Gallery) and Newspaper Seller.

Sixty-two works created in Vitebsk were exhibited in April 1916 at the Artistic Bureau of Nadezhda Dobychina in St. Petersburg, followed by 45 works in November at the Jack of Diamonds in Moscow under the title Works from the Series Executed in Russia (Vitebsk 1914–1915).1 Malevich presented 59 works at this exhibition under the title Suprematism of Painting. This was very likely the first “contact” between Chagall and Malevich.

Following the October Revolution, Chagall and Bella settled in Vitebsk. The city and its surroundings, together with its inhabitants and the artist’s family, formed the subjects of paintings that are now famous: The Cemetery (1917), The Cemetery Gates (1917), Double Portrait with Wine Glass (1917–1918) and The Promenade (National Russian Museum).

On September 12, 1918, Chagall was appointed to serve as the Commissar of Plastic Arts for Vitebsk, a position aimed at developing the city’s artistic life. His mandate was to “organize art schools, museums, exhibitions, courses and lectures on art and any other artistic undertaking within the city limits of Vitebsk and the entire Province of Vitebsk.”2 To mark the one-year anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7, 1918, Chagall worked on embellishing all of Vitebsk “with 450 large posters, flags, grandstands and arches.”3 A youth team was brought into service and Chagall himself made propaganda posters which Alexander Romm, his painter friend and art critic, described in these terms: “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.”4 Examples of this work are the watercolours War on Palaces and Horseman with Trumpet (Tretyakov Gallery).

This activity in the field of urban design was the root of the future Vitebsk People’s Art College (Narodnoy Khudozhestvennoye Uchilische), which Chagall founded in 1918. The following year was spent setting up community studios for the production of paintings, sculptures, signs and posters. Not only were “artists of the people” recruited; Chagall also planned to bring in teachers from Moscow and Petrograd, following the model of the Free Studios (Svomas) that had been created in Petrograd on September 5, 1918, to replace the old art schools and academies throughout the former Russian Empire. No longer subject to the previous bureaucratic rules, these studios encouraged students to set out on the road to experimentation.

The Vitebsk People’s Art College officially opened on January 28, 1919, with representation of every movement, from the “itinerant” realism of the Vitebsk painter Yehuda Pen, who had trained Chagall and Lissitzky in the very early part of the century, to the Suprematism of Malevich, who arrived in the Belarusian city in November of that year. By April 1919, Chagall had taken over from Mstislav Dobujinski, an eminent representative of the St. Petersburg journal World of Art (Mir Iskousstva) and a former drawing teacher at the Elizaveta Zvantseva School of Art in St. Petersburg, where Chagall himself had studied in 1909. Other teachers included Kseniya Boguslavskaya (applied arts) and her husband Ivan Puni (a.k.a. Jean Pougny) (painting), Alexander Romm (art history), Vera Yermolayeva (painting), Nikolai Radlov and El Lissitzky (graphic arts) and Ivan Tilberg (sculpture). The January 21, 1919, edition of the Vitebsky Newsletter (Vitebskiy listok) published the school program: “1) theoretical study of contemporary leftist art methods; 2) composition of drawings for the applied arts: wallpaper, embroidery, bookbinding, wood painting; 3) practical courses.”5

Nearly 200 students would attend the Vitebsk People’s Art College. Chagall put all of his energies into this undertaking, producing numerous articles, debates and lectures.6 In a “Letter from Vitebsk” published in the Art of the Commune (Iskousstvo Kommouny), the Futurist communist newspaper, he emphasized the upheavals that had occurred: “The City of Vitebsk has changed. This used to be a provincial ‘backwater’ of some one hundred thousand inhabitants where, not long ago, Yuri Klever (an academic landscape painter) could be seen rotting away and where itinerant art ended its pathetic existence. And, thanks to the October Revolution, it was here that revolutionary art with its colossal and multiple dimensions was set into motion.”7

Chagall thought of himself as a “leftist” artist – in other words, an artist of the avant-garde. In a 1919 article entitled “Revolution in Art,” he rose up against art for art’s sake, but at the same time asserted that “proletarian art” did not consist of depicting the lives of workers and peasants. “Proletarian art will be the form of art which, with wise simplicity, will manage to make the break, both inwardly and outwardly, with what we can only call literature.”8 The legend that Chagall and Malevich were personal enemies, and that Malevich attributed intrigues to Chagall in a bid to oust him does not stand up to scrutiny now that the facts are fairly well known. The peaceful coexistence of the various aesthetic trends can be observed in the photograph of 1919–1920, where one can see all of the teachers side by side, as well as in the formal agreements signed by Chagall and Malevich.9 In April 1920, Chagall informed art critic Pavel Ettinger that there were two groups: “1) The young people around Malevich and 2) the young people around me. Both of us are making our way to the circle of leftist art, doing so in the very same way but viewing the objectives and means of this art in a different manner.”10

In September 1919, before Malevich arrived, a dispute had already broken out between Chagall and the members of the College, including some who were his friends. He reported on this in his memoirs with some bitterness.11 On several occasions he contemplated leaving Vitebsk because of the bureaucratic harassments and additional shortages. The fall of 1919 brought with it the First National Exhibition of Paintings by Local and Moscow Artists. Featuring an exhibition catalogue with a preface by Alexander Romm, the 41 participating artists included the leading avant-garde players – Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodchenko, Alexandra Exter, inter alia – as well as Chagall and his students (Wechsler, Zevin, Kunin, Lissitzky, Tsiperson, Yudovin). In 1915, Malevich had founded Suprematism, a new form of art that relinquished all references to the visible and carnal world; his authority was immediately acknowledged. No aesthetic, picturology or poetics could possibly have stood in greater contrast to Chagall’s world, which represented a Hasidic hymn to everything he created.

The young artists of Vitebsk were attracted to Malevich’s total commitment and inspired words, as reported by the famous poetologist, historian and art philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his oral memoirs12, and by his messianic and prophetic way of speaking. These young people turned away from Chagall and towards the UNOVIS (a movement of the champions and founders of what is new in art), created very early in 1920 as the “party of economic Suprematists in art.”13 On May 23, 1920, all of Chagall’s students went over to Malevich’s studio. Chagall officially resigned in June, and that fall he was already in Moscow producing stage sets and costumes for three short plays by Sholem Aleichem that were being presented at Alexei Granovsky’s Jewish Chamber Theatre.

Chagall would never return to Vitebsk. All the same, we can assert that this city would never abandon him and would continue to haunt his creations until the end of his life. There could be no better way of summarizing its recurring presence in Chagall’s enormous œuvre than by rereading his poem “You Have Filled My Hands.” Here is the first verse:

“I am your son on earth walking with difficulty you have filled my hands with colours and brushes I know not how to paint you.” 14

  1. See G.G. Pospiélov, Boubnovyi valiet. Primitiv i gorodskoï folklor v moskovskoï jivopissi 1910-kh godov (Jack of Diamonds: Primitive and Urban Folklore in Moscow Painting in the 1910s). (Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik, 1990), 266–267.
  2. The agreement, housed in the Vitebsk Regional Archives, was signed by art critic Nikolai Punin, who was head of the IZO (Plastic Arts Section) of the NarKomPros (People’s Education Commission) at the time.
  3. Marc Chagall, “Pis’mo iz Vitebska” (“Letter from Vitebsk”), Iskousstvo kommouny (Art of the Commune), no. 3 (December 22, 1918), 2.
  4. Quoted by Aleksandra Shatskikh, “Raznyïé roli Marka Chagalla iz vospominaniï Alexandra Romma” (“Marc Chagall’s Various Roles Based on the Memoirs of Alexander Romm”), Niézavissimaya gaziéta (Independent Gazette) (December 30, 1992).
  5. Quoted by Claire Le Foll, L’École artistique de Vitebsk (1897–1923). Éveil et rayonnement autour de Pen, Chagall et Malévitch (The Vitebsk Art School, 1897–1923: The Influence around Pen, Chagall and Malevich) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002), 107.
  6. Ibid., p. 106; in Russian: Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebsk. Jizn’ iskousstva. 1917–1922 (Vitebsk: The Life of Art: 1917–1922) (Moscow, 2001).
  7. “Letter from Vitebsk,” op. cit.
  8. Quoted in Le Foll, op. cit., 256.
  9. See I.A. Vakar, T.N. Mikhnienko, Malevich. Malevich o sebié. Sovremmienniki o Malévitché. Pis’ma. Dokoumenty. Vospominaniya. Kritika (Malevich: Malevich in His Own Words. Malevich As Seen by His Contemporaries. Letters. Documents. Memoirs. Criticism) (Moscow: “RA,” 2004), vol. 1, p. 442 – “Report on the Activity of the Vitebsk People’s Art College during the Months of February and March 1920,” jointly signed by Chagall and Malevich on March 20, 1920.
  10. Letter from Chagall to Pavel Ettinger, April 2, 1920.
  11. Marc Chagall, My Life (1922) (Paris: Stock, 1993), 199–200, 205–206.
  12. M.M. Bakhtin, Biésiédy s N.D. Douvakinem (Conversations with N.D. Duvakinem) (Moscow: Soglassiyé, 2002), 154–159.
  13. For details, see Valabrègue 1994, 156.
  14. Chagall, Poetry (Geneva: Gérald Cramer, 1968).


Forms and Light: Chagall in Paris, 1911 – 1914

Transated by: Wyley Powell

“Before I arrived in Paris, my life was flat and colourless.”1

During his stay in Paris from 1911 to 1914, Chagall created a sizable body of works of unrivalled originality that set him apart from his contemporaries. For the young artist, this period was all the more productive because his eclectic training in Vitebsk and later in St. Petersburg – working with Léon Bakst in particular – had prepared him for the aesthetic upheavals that were taking place in the French capital. His first paintings, with their powerful images – such as The Dead Man (1908–1909), The Couple, also known as The Holy Family (1909, MNAM), and The Holy Family (1910, Zurich, Kunsthaus) – had some elements in common with Neoprimitivism. Introduced by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova to the young generation of Russian painters, this movement effected a synthesis among the European avant-gardes and the popular national imagery which was rooted in everyday life.

Despite his meagre resources, which were partially offset by a scholarship from Maxim Vinaver, a deputy and one of his patrons, Chagall decided to go to Paris, a city that was then in full artistic effervescence, to see how his own art stacked up against that of his contemporaries. In My Life, a book he wrote in 1922 confirming his early penchant for autobiography, he calls to mind the three years he spent in Paris, placing his arrival in France in 1910 rather than in the spring of 1911, which was when he actually arrived.2 This information came to light only recently3 and is important because it allows us to accurately date certain Chagall works from 1911, rather than 1910 as inscribed on the canvases of these paintings.

Such is the case with The Wedding, a painting in which the organization of coloured space alludes to the work undertaken by Robert Delaunay in his Cubist-inspired Cities, where the Eiffel Tower makes its first appearance. In the same way, Studio owes a great deal to Matisse, who was actively pursuing this theme and whose Pink Studio Chagall had probably seen at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (Exhibition of Independent Artists), an exhibition he attended as soon as he arrived in Paris. This painting, set in the living room studio on the Impasse du Maine in the heart of Montparnasse, where the painter lived at the beginning of his stay, also reveals the influence of Van Gogh and the attraction that Expressionism held for Chagall.

During the winter of 1912, he settled in at La Ruche, located at 2 Rue de Dantzig, remaining there until he returned to Russia in May 1914. He took up residence on the second floor in the famous rotunda of this complex with its 140 studios where artists could live and work cheaply. Many yet-to-be-known artists lived at or frequented La Ruche at that time, including Fernand Léger, Henri Laurens, Alexander Archipenko, Ossip Zadkine, Jacques Lipchitz, Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné, Amadeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Moses Kisling. Russians and Poles were the first to arrive, mostly Jews who had been driven out of their home countries by the pogroms.

In the midst of what he called “the artistic Bohemia of all countries,” Chagall preferred isolation. He was intensely active, devoting a part of his nights to his work and undertaking numerous studies for his paintings. He set a goal for himself: “I was fervently preparing for the Salon exhibitions.”4 In the months that followed his arrival, Chagall, together with his friend Alexander Romm, also a former student of Léon Bakst, attended the Académie de La Palette where Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger taught. They also frequented the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where they were able to paint from models. Chagall took advantage of these opportunities to experiment with Fauvism and Cubism, which he was discovering at the time, and produced a remarkable group of gouache nudes, including Nude with Fan (1911). However, it was through his exposure to the works he saw during his visits to the Louvre, to the Bernheim, Durand-Ruel and Vollard galleries, as well as the Salon exhibitions that he truly learned his craft: “No academy could have given me everything I discovered through my fixation on the exhibitions, showcases and museums in Paris.”5 He became aware of how French painting, regardless of the period, differed from his own artistic heritage. This difference was even more pronounced in contemporary art.6

Chagall was present at the inaugural gathering of Cubist artists, who made their first appearance at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, where works by Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Léger, Le Fauconnier and Metzinger were displayed in the same room. A few months later, he attended the Salon d’Automne (Fall Exhibition). At that time, he took stock of the distance between his own art and this revolutionary aesthetic, and although he dismissed the principle of deconstruction-reconstruction, which caused the subject to disappear, he did adopt some of the processes such as the geometrization of forms or the techniques of transparency. Over the course of his three years in Paris, Chagall would manage to merge two elements which, at first glance, seem contradictory: on the one hand, there was his Jewish and Russian culture steeped in tradition; on the other hand, he had come face to face with Cubism and its offshoots, which were the embodiment of modernity at the time. “And so, a type of dualism took shape in me. One part of me was filled with enthusiasm for these ingenious examples of formal art (…) but, in spite of everything, my soul sank into a certain sadness and longed to find a way out.”7

The distance from his native Russia rekindled his memories and intensely fed his imagination while, at the same time, he appropriated the various passing styles of the day with astonishing speed and eclecticism, though never fully subscribing to them. A perfect demonstration of this phenomenon can be found in his reinterpretation of certain subjects which he had first explored in Russia and then took up again in Paris, such as Birth. The first version (Zurich, Kunsthaus), painted in 1910, was naturalistic, while the second (Munich, private collection), made the following year, was painted in a Fauvist style. Meanwhile, the third version (The Art Institute of Chicago), also dating from 1911, offered a Cubist vision.

For Chagall, Cubism was a framework that provided formal and chromatic potentialities which he could use by turns without relinquishing his aspirations. Adam and Eve (1912, St. Louis Art Museum) is one of his most Cubist works, with its two major characters formed of cubes and hemispheres that fit into one another; it recalls Léger’s Wedding (1911) and belongs without question to the universe of the painter from Vitebsk. In this work, Chagall also blended both naturalistic elements (the apple tree and its fruit) and animals that took on bizarre appearances because of their reduced size. When Chagall, following the example of Delaunay, used the vivid and contrasting colours of Orphism, he did so with a totally different purpose in mind. For him, it was not a matter of exploring “pure painting” but of combining animated scenes with ranges of colour (contained in circles and other geometric shapes) in order to better highlight the symbolism. We can see this in such works as The Wedding (1911–1912), Russian Village under the Moon (1911–1912; Munich, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst) and Golgotha (1912, New York, MoMA). Using a language congruent with his time, Chagall was able to tackle all the themes close to his heart, including those that had fallen out of currency, such as his amorous passion or his firm belief in religion.

His encounter with Cendrars was one of the most crucial meetings that Chagall was to have during his years in Paris. The two of them apparently met in late 1912 or early 1913.8 Cendrars had lived in Russia and was fluent in Russian, and both shared a love for that country along with feelings of rootlessness. Cendrars celebrated their friendship in some of his poetry, notably in “Elastic Poem 4.” Another similarity between them can be seen in their respective creative approaches through image associations.9 Cendrars translated Chagall’s thoughts and provided the definitive titles for five of his best paintings executed in Paris: To Russia, Donkeys and Others (1911, MNAM), I and the Village (1911, New York, MoMA), Dedicated to My Fiancée (1911, Bern, Kunstmuseum), The Poet, or Half Past Three (1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection) and The Holy Coachman (1911–1912, private collection).

Cendrars also brought his friend into contact with the Delaunay couple, who often entertained a large number of artists. Another person who took an interest in Chagall was the Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo, who was a friend of both Cendrars and Apollinaire, the art critic and founder of Montjoie!, a publication that considered itself to be the journal of all the avant-gardes. Canudo organized a one-day exhibition of Chagall’s drawings on the premises of where the journal was printed. Among those in attendance were Gleizes, Metzinger, Roger de La Fresnaye, Léger, André Lhote, André Dunoyer de Segonzad and “so many others”10 whom Chagall saw on a regular basis at Canudo’s Monday gatherings.

Within this artistic and literary circle, Apollinaire played a leading role by way of his many acquaintances and through his role as an art critic (he had been writing for the journal L’Intransigeant since 1910). Chagall was happy to attract Apollinaire’s attention via Cendrars, though he knew that the author of Alcools, who was also an advocate and friend of Delaunay and the Cubists, did not fully subscribe to his art. These affinities with men of letters illustrate that the latter were the first to recognize the painter’s pictorial language, and also showed the greatest sensitivity to his ambivalent situation as an artist divided between two cultures.11 Yet Chagall’s universe of fiction and metaphors, while derived from reality, was too complex and “supernatural,” to use Apollinaire’s term, to convince the followers of Cubism and, more generally, the critics and artists: they were left perplexed by this uncategorizable painter.

In titling one of his paintings Homage to Apollinaire (1911–1913, Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum), a work that the critic admired greatly, Chagall demonstrated his friendship and gratitude to Apollinaire as well as to Cendrars, Canudo and Herwarth Walden, whose names he wrote on the canvas around a heart. Gradually won over by Chagall’s uniqueness, Apollinaire introduced the artist to Walden in March 1913. Walden then invited Chagall to participate in three exhibitions in his Der Sturm gallery in Berlin and organized the first solo exhibition of his work in June 1914, presenting 34 paintings and approximately 120 watercolours and drawings from the Paris period. This event, hailed by critics, brought attention to Chagall in Germany and led to a greater appreciation of him in France and Russia.

During his three years in Paris, Chagall painted some major works – works that had a fundamental creative influence on his art until the mid-1920s. While drawing on his memories, beliefs and dreams, these paintings were nonetheless open to the world. Yet without pretending to transform the world, he invites us to look at things in a different way, thanks to his juxtapositions of the fantastic and the real, his introduction of tragicomic situations and his bringing together of people and events in time and space.

Painted in 1913, Paris through the Window (New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) illustrates the artist’s evolution during his brief time in Paris and is evidence of his attachment to the city. All of Paris belonged to him; Vitebsk had disappeared from his architectural structures. The colours of the French flag are seen alongside the Eiffel Tower and the polychromatic grid pattern of the window attests to the fact that Chagall had adopted the style of his contemporaries. He remained, however, deeply attached to his native Russia, with the two-faced head symbolizing his dual affiliation.

  1. Marc Chagall, quoted in Lassaigne 1957, 22.
  2. This work is more informative in terms of the artist’s impressions and reflections than it is with respect to specific temporal facts. For a detailed biography of Chagall, see Wullschlager 2008.
  3. Jakov Bruk, “Marc Chagall, 1887–1922,” in Chagall connu et inconnu, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 2003), 22.
  4. Marc Chagall, Ma vie, translated from the Russian by Bella Chagall [1923] (Paris: Stock, 2003), 153.
  5. Ibid., 144.
  6. A difference all the more striking because Russian and French artists did not exhibit their works in the same rooms – particularly not at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants.
  7. Quoted in Marc Chagall, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris, 1959), 11.
  8. See Élisabeth Pacoud-Rème, “États d’âme, Cendrars et Chagall, de l’amitié au doute,” in Dis-moi, Blaise. Léger, Chagall, Picasso et Blaise Cendrars, exhibition catalogue (Biot: Musée national Fernand Léger; Nice: Musée national Marc Chagall; Vallauris: Musée national Pablo Picasso, 2009), 69–75.
  9. See James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (New York: MoMA, 1946; republished by Arno Press, 1969), 16.
  10. Marc Chagall, Ma vie, op. cit., 155.
  11. See Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, “Nul n’est prophète dans son pays?” L’internationalisation de la peinture des avant-gardes parisiennes, 1855–1914 (Paris: Musée d’Orsay/Nicolas Chaudun, 2009), 182–198.
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