Review: Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebsk: The Life of Art

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Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebsk: The Life of Art.  Trans. Katherine Foshko Tsan.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.  391 + xiv pp.

Aleksandra Shatskikh’s study of the flowering of the modernist arts in the Byelorussian provincial city of Vitebsk, which was richly researched and lovingly composed in the years surrounding the end of the Soviet Union, first strikes its reader as a powerfully valedictory work.  Treating an early Soviet context from the post-Soviet horizon, and a city whose cultural importance was sapped by its subordination to Minsk and whose intelligentsia was decimated by Stalinist repression and the Holocaust, such a book almost inevitably takes on the character of an elegy for a lost time.  In it, one reads vivid testimony of the last survivors of the heroic generation of the 1920s, in passages quoted from memoirs, diaries, letters, interviews, and the author’s own correspondence and conversations with the principals and their family members; and at the same time, one discerns amidst the book’s remarkable chronicle of figures and events, a shadow book of lost trails, of artworks that have disappeared or been deliberately destroyed, and of individuals whose lives were stopped short in such ominous years as 1937-38 or 1941-42, be it at the hands of the Soviet Cheka or the Nazi SS.  There are stories of the successful emigrations of key Vitebsk figures, such the theater director Rudolf Ungern, who productively lived out his life until 1944 in independent Latvia, or musician Nikolai Malko, who defected in 1928 and went on to be a major conductor in Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and the United States.  But there are also tales of difficult exile, such as the exclusion to faraway Kazahkstan of Russia’s greatest literary scholar of the 20th century, Mikhail Bakhtin; of unsuccessful flight, such as the musicians Erast and Sandra Belling, who are rumored to have died escaping across the desert in Iran; and of outright murder, as with the fate of the artist Abram Brazer, whose work and family were destroyed along with the artist himself in Minsk in 1942.  For all its valedictory tones, however, the book is also a memorial celebration of a swift, unexpected bursting into life of the arts in Vitebsk during the Civil War following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Shatskikh weaves a remarkable account of interrelated artistic biographies, the founding of institutions, the operations of schools, and other mobilizations of popular creative energy, which helps her readers understand the enigma of how that same provincial city that provided the dreamy, crooked cityscape over which Marc Chagall’s lovers, musicians, and animals float, could for a few short years become a thriving center of avant-garde art.

Shatskikh’s research is notable for the care with which she has sought to fill in names in the group portraits in key schools, theaters, intellectual circles, studios, and exhibitions.  One gets a palpable sense from her book of Vitebsk’s buzzing market square of new ideas, arguments, and works—with everyone debating everyone else, everybody talking at once, and the conversations going on and on, in a banquet of Bakhtinian dialogicity delighting in its own sheer inexhaustibility.  It is important to recognize how much of a protagonist for Shatskikh this culturally productive bustle and chatter is, this surge of discourse that spanned the gamut of early Soviet society, from deep in the proletarian strata up through the various elements of the newly upended privileged and educated classes.   With respect to the very special context of Vitebsk, it is this background that Shatskikh’s research has restored in an unprecedentedly individuated form, returning names and biographies and ouevres to forgotten artists who would otherwise have remained, perhaps forever, anonymous and disjoined from their works.  Morever, it is against this populous backdrop of students and teachers, friends and colleagues, residents and passers-through, that the stories of the major principals take on their full magnitude as epic expressions of Vitebsk’s “life of art.”  For the book revolves around three famous visual artists of genius, each with a pivotal role at the Vitebsk People’s Art School during the years 1917-1922—Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, and Lazar El Lissitzky—along with the gifted philosopher and philologist Mikhail Bakhtin, who during this period transplanted first to nearby Nevel and later to Vitebsk itself.  Without in any way diminishing their innovative individual creativity, Shatskikh manages to suggest the degree to which the “heroic” intellectual and artistic capabilities of these major figures were energized by popular, collective, and institutional forces in Vitebsk they were able to galvanize and channel.

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Of these four figures, the greatest spell exerted on the book is clearly that of Malevich and his UNOVIS movement (“Champions of the New Art”), which justly reflects the stamp that he placed on this extraordinary period in the cultural life of Vitebsk, and also the importance of the period and city for his own development, which saw enormous strides forward in the theoretical codification of his philosophy and system of art, the publication of several key texts, and the emergence of Suprematism as a national force in the arts across Soviet Russia.  In Vitebsk, Malevich expounded his ideas in countless lectures; his disciples printed his words and constructed works testing the applicability of his ideas in various domains.  Through the innovations of gifted followers such as El Lissitzky and the sculptor David Yakerson, Malevich’s Suprematism began to open out into new communicative and physical spaces, from sculpture and architectural models to posters, decorative design, and public propaganda works.  Through his personal charisma, he also exerted a rather cult-like fascination on the young artists of Vitebsk.  As one student, Lev Yudin reports in his diary, “when K.S. [Malevich] enters the room the entire atmosphere changes.  He creates an entirely new atmosphere around himself.  He’s a true leader” (quoted on 192).  Following his dictate to “Let the Overthrow of the Old World of Art Be Traced on Your Palms!” his acolytes sewed black squares to their cuffs, and as Shatskikh suggests, Lissitzky’s derivation of “El” from “Lazar” is a sort of Suprematism rebaptism, referring to a Malevich’s transrational zaum poem that became the esoteric “hymn” of the Unovis group: “U—EL—EL’—UL—TE—KA,” which appeared in Malevich’s “UNOM 1” manifesto in the Vitebsk-published Unovis Miscellany.  Malevich earned his students’ dedication, however, not just through the force of his mystical ideas and personality, but also through his appreciation of the creative possibilities of the Vitebsk situation and his inspiring capacity for tireless, selfless artistic labor: “I left Moscow for the city of Vitebsk in order to offer up all my knowledge and experience.  The Vitebsk studios are not simply standing still, like those in most provincial cities; they have taken a progressive stance, in spite of difficult conditions. . .  everyone is cooperating in the overcoming of obstacles and progressing farther and farther along the road toward the new science of painting.  I’m working around the clock, which the apprentices—there are about a hundred of them—are here to confirm” (Malevich, quoted on 185).

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Shatskikh’s book is nominally composed of three sections.  The first and longest, comprising more than two-thirds of the book, deals with the visual arts and the passage from the earlier dominant role of Marc Chagall to the later hegemony of Malevich.  It also offers extensive treatment of the Vitebsk period of El Lissitzky, whose work spans the Jewish Renaissance influence of Yuri Pen and Marc Chagall and the Suprematism of Malevich, and it discusses other major artists such as Pen, David Yakerson, Ivan Puni, Robert Falk (who was associated with the Moscow VKhUTEMAS workshops and came to Vitebsk in 1921), the art critic Aleksandr Romm, and the UNOVIS artist Ilya Chashnik.  In addition, other key figures of the Soviet avant-garde, including Vsevolod Meyerhold, Sergei Eisenstein, and Vladimir Tatlin make cameo appearances in the narrative of this section.  A second section is devoted to performing arts, primarily theater and musical performance.  It treats the upsurge in theatrical and musical activity in Vitebsk, supported in part by of the exodus of major figures from the capital cities to escape Civil War hardships there and in part by Bolshevik cultural policy during the Civil War, which subsidized new artistic institutions for the masses.  The third section describes the pedagogical and artistic engagements of the Bakhtin circle in Nevel and Vitebsk, with evocative descriptions of the activities not only of Bakhtin himself, but also his eccentric and gifted circle of friends: the esoterically initiated Rosacrucian poet Boris Zubakin; the tirelessly active cultural organizer and man of letters Pavel Medvedev; the humanist scholar Matvei Kagan, known to his friends as the “Marburg Philosopher”; the literary scholar Lev Pumpiansky, Bakhtin’s closest interlocutor, whose writings on Dostoyevsky and Gogol, Shatshikh suggests, genuinely adumbrate Bakhtin’s celebrated critical ideas and themes; and the musician, writer, and Rosacrucian follower of Zubakin, Valentin Voloshinov.

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It was, however, in the nature of the Vitebsk cultural scene that these three sections of the book, with their individual “media-specific” foci, must also be intricately interleaved.  This concentrated period in Vitebsk—and in the Soviet Union more generally—was one of all-sided expansion of creative possibilities and a fertile crossing of media, genres, styles, and registers of art.  Shatskikh’s scholarly treatment reflects this complex manifold of clashes and encounters not simply within individual arts, but between the various artistic and intellectual domains that were being reshaped in this special post-revolutionary context.  Thus, for example, she devotes significant attention in her treatment of visual arts to the designs by Chagall and David Yakerson of city decorations for the first anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution, to Malevich’s and El Lissitzky’s Suprematist decorations and theater panels, and to the 1920 Vitebsk staging of the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, which subsequently inspired Vera Ermolaeva’s engravings of 1920 and El Lissitzky’s 1923 lithographic portfolio.

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The theater chapter describes the popular practice of “stage trials,” in which historical or fictional characters were put on trial, and with audience participation, a judgment was reached; none other than Mikhail Bakhtin, we subsequently learn, often took part in these didactic participatory spectacles, serving as counsel for the defense.   Most stunning of all, we discover the unlikely appreciation of the conservative, learned, aristocratic Bakhtin for the messianic avant-garde visionary Malevich; these two unlikely colleagues were friends at the time, as were their spouses.

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At the end of her tour-de-force treatment of Vitebsk’s visual arts, performance arts, and the literary-philosophical activities of the Bakhtin circle, Shatskikh concludes with a long excerpt from a late interview with Bakhtin, in which he recalls Malevich in Vitebsk:

“He was really very interesting.  Interesting to talk to.  And yet at the same time he was totally, absolutely selfless.  He didn’t chase after money, fame, career, not even good food—he didn’t need any of it.  I guess you could call him an ascetic, in love with his ideas.  He had an almost religious conviction that he had discovered something totally new, that he had succeeded in uncovering and penetrating the depths of the universe that no one before him had succeeded in reaching” (315).

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In closing, Shatskikh invites her readers to imagine the unheard echo of these two singular voices in collegial dialogue, as they argued, expounded their thoughts, listened in ironic silence before each turn of the word.  In this jagged, complex, redoubling figure of voice, she rediscovers something of the vanished lineaments of Vitebsk’s cityscape itself.  Interwoven into a unified “chronotope” at the crossroads of Malevich and Bakhtin, the image of early Soviet Vitebsk thus hovers elusively beyond the book’s end, uniquely localizing this special post-revolutionary time and capturing an unrepeatable moment of radical newness that some of the century’s most important artists and thinkers once passed together in this place.

One response to “Review: Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebsk: The Life of Art

  1. Pingback: Marc Chagall: Between Paris and Vitebsk | pundit from another planet·

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