Revolutionary Freedom

Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich at Jewish Museum

Cover Image - Lazar Khidekel, "Suprematist Composition with Blue Square" (detail), 1921. Ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper. Lazar Khidekel Family Archives and Art Collection. Header Image - Vera Ermolaeva, "Design for the opera 'Victory Over the Sun,'" 1920. Woodcut with watercolor additions. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Larry Aldrich Fund, 1977. Image provided by The Museum of Modern Art / licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York.

BY: Zach Wampler

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was possibly one of the most seismic moments in twentieth-century history, and Bolshevik ideals trickled down into every aspect of the culture. Notably, Jewish people residing in Russia finally received some legal protections, and most importantly, they could finally receive citizenship. Although less important than these crucial advances in human rights, the Russian Revolution also profoundly influenced art and design. At a new exhibition called Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922 at the Jewish Museum in New York, the intersections of artistic, ethnic, and religious freedoms is explored through the work produced at the People’s Art School.

Opened in 1918, the People’s Art School was a project conceived by the artist Marc Chagall in his hometown of Vitebsk. Motivated by his own post-revolution flourishing, he opened the school to educate students in the arts, especially his fellow Jews of little means. As a result, the People’s Art School led to a cornucopia of works from the Russian avant-garde. Major artists of the time came to the school to teach, including El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich as you might assume from the title of this exhibition. The main premise here is that all three artists were driven by the revolutionary freedom to develop a new art that captured the spirit and innovation of the time.

The glories of Russian art of this era have many canonized for many years now. With that in mind, an exhibition like this could have run the risk of being a slightly dry, academic show, but it avoids tropes through its well roundedness. Included are the works and ephemera of other teachers and students, some of whom went on to be successful artists themselves. The nuances in the various works on display show a frenetic dialogue between all of these artists and designers contained within the school. Chagall, Malevich, El Lissitzky, and their many colleagues and students were innovating with Suprematism, Constructivism, and various forms of abstraction at an almost break-neck speed. However, the 160 or so works gives a breadth to the show that tempers this energetic moment in Vitebsk.

Whether you’re dipping your toes for the first time into this subject, or have loved the work of Russian modernists for years, no one can deny that the Jewish Museum has put on an intelligent and approachable exhibition. It also highlights and celebrates the radical education and emergence of Russia and Eastern Europe’s long suppressed Jewish communities. With all that in mind, if you have yet to see Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich in person, it is certainly worth the trip.

 

Self-portrait with easel by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall, “Self-Portrait with Easel,” 1919. Gouache on paper. Private Collection. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

 

Proun 6 by El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky, “Proun 6,” 1919-20. Oil on canvas. Kulturstiftung Sachsen-Anhalt, Kunstmuseum Moritzburg, Halle (Saale), Germany. Photograph by Punctum/Bertram Kober.

 

Drawing by Ilya Chashnik - Suprematist Composition: Design for a Pictorial Relief
Ilya Chashnik, “Suprematist Composition: Design for a Pictorial Relief,” c. 1921. Pen and ink, graphite, and watercolor on paper. Vladimir Tsarenkov Collection, London.

 

Profile at the Window - Drawing by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall, “Profile at the Window,” 1918. Graphite, gouache and ink on cardboard. Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, donation in lieu of inheritance tax, 1988. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; image provided by CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York.

 

Painting by Yuri (Yehuda) Pen - Portrait of Marc Chagall
Yuri (Yehuda) Pen, “Portrait of Marc Chagall,” 1914. Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Belarus. National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk.

 

Mystic Suprematism Painting by Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich, “Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on Black Circle),” 1920-22. Oil on canvas. Stedelijk Museum Collection, Amsterdam. Ownership recognized by agreement with the estate of Kazimir Malevich, 2008.

 

Teacup by Kazimir Malevich and Ilya Chashnik
Kazimir Malevich and Ilya Chashnik, “Half Teacup,” 1923. Made by the State Porcelain Manufactory (former Imperial Manufactory), Petrograd, enameled, glazed and molded porcelain. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, The Henry and Ludmilla Shapiro Collection; partial gift and partial purchase through the Decorative Arts Association Acquisition and Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program Funds. Image provided by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / Art Resource, NY.

 

Lithograph by El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky, “Had Gadya Suite: Father Bought a Kid for Two Zuzim,” 1919. Lithograph on paper. The Jewish Museum, Gift of Leonard E. and Phyllis S. Greenberg, 1986-121c.

 

Lithograph by El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky, “Had Gadya Suite: Cover,” 1919. Lithograph on paper. The Jewish Museum, Gift of Leonard E. and Phyllis S. Greenberg, 1986-121a.

 

Double Portrait with Wine Glass Painting by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall, “Double Portrait with Wine Glass,” 1917–18. Oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou, Musee National de Art Moderne, Paris, gift of the artist, 1949. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; image provided by CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York.

 

Drawing by Lazar Khidekel
Lazar Khidekel, “Suprematist Composition with Blue Square,” 1921. Ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper. Lazar Khidekel Family Archives and Art Collection.

 

Woodcut by Vera Ermolaeva
Vera Ermolaeva, “Design for the opera ‘Victory Over the Sun,'” 1920. Woodcut with watercolor additions. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Larry Aldrich Fund, 1977. Image provided by The Museum of Modern Art / licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York.