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Flying High

June 26, 2008 By:
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Vitebsk. If the name has a familiar ring, it might be because this was the Byelorussian town where Marc Chagall was born and raised, and that provided him with a magical landscape for much of his art. You may particularly recall the sight of a couple, dressed in their provincial, bohemian finery, flying "Over the Town," as the painting was so appropriately titled. The piece has become one of Chagall's signature images, and that is Vitebsk that the young couple is drifting above in such a placid, dreamy state.

But what many people may not know is that, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Chagall returned to his hometown to become Art Commissar there and so helped to usher in a period of intense experimentation, which is the subject of a new art book from Yale University Press, produced with its customary attention to detail, and called, appropriately again, Vitebsk: The Life of Art. The author is Aleksandra Shatskikh, who is identified in the brief book-jacket bio as an art historian and a world authority on the Russian avant-garde. I don't know how to gauge such things, but I can say that her book is as enthralling as it is beautiful -- "Over the Town" graces its cover -- another of those Yale "coffee table"-shaped books that moves far beyond that limiting categorization.

Don't expect just to leaf through this volume and moon over its illustrative material, though you can surely do that. This is a serious study of a fervent period in artistic and political history, with all of the necessary documentation in place; yet in the hands of a less-sensitive publisher, this all might have taken a different form, something more along the lines of a textbook. But the format that Yale has chosen is far more conducive to understanding the ebb and flow of life in Vitebsk during this period, and the breadth of the art and ideas generated there.

The artists who were part of this five-year period of ferment -- that is, before they began quarreling among themselves, Moscow came to be suspicious of experimentation, and the revolution began turning on its adherents and devouring some of its brightest children -- included, along with Chagall, El Lissitzky, Yuri Pen (actually Yehuda Pen, whose named was Russified to Yuri Moiseevich, but who signed his work Yu. Pen; it was he, according to Shatskikh, who laid the foundation for the "Vitebsk School of Painting"), literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and the wildly inventive Kazimir Malevich, all discussed at length in the text. The author also examines Chagall's Academy of Art, its staff and students; the art group known as Unovis; Malevich's breathtaking architectural experiments; plus the music and theatrical performances that were part of the artistic breeding ground the city almost immediately became.

As the author points out: "During its thousand-year-old life the city experienced much adversity, yet its hardest times coincided with the Soviet era, as did those of the Russian state at large. At the same time, Vitebsk was fortunate enough to become the stage for the activity of some of the leading lights of the 20th century. The work of some was directly bound up with the life of the city, others borrowed new ideas from its soil, and yet others' activities only started here, bearing fruit in other places. The brief concentration of intellect and talent in one place gave birth to an atmosphere of great creative potential."

Because of its "geopolitical position," the author notes, the city was, quite literally, a "constant battleground." But for some reason, Vitebsk was left untouched by the first World War and the Russian Civil War. The author argues that this positioned it for the rich flowering of the arts which eventually took root there. (Such was not the case, she notes, during World War II, which "struck the city a death blow.")

Shatskikh doesn't quite identify it, but she says that something about Vitebsk "stirred the creative juices" of many artists, as the city was not only represented in the plastic arts. Many writers, among them Ivan Bunin and S. An-sky (author of the classic play "The Dybbuk"), portrayed the locale in prose as well. Writes Shatskikh: "The artist I.E. Repin called Vitebsk 'the Russian Toledo': like El Greco's celebrated Spanish city, the silhouette of Vitebsk was defined by the cathedrals, synagogues, churches, and bell towers that crowned the hilly banks of the Dvina River."

What greater compliment could you give to a small Byelorussian region than to connect it with such a towering center in European art history? Such was the mystique of Vitebsk -- and, similarly, this wide-ranging volume which succeeds in recreating the brief period of artistic license along with the excitement it instilled among its varied participants.

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