The period of the Russian avant garde – roughly 1905 to 1930 – was possibly the most chaotic of any art movement in history.
In this it reflected the situation in Russia at large. Following disastrous defeat in the war against Japan, the country was in ferment. A potent mix of authoritarian government, rural poverty, industrial expansion and national humiliation was set to explode.
When a huge demonstration in St Petersburg was violently suppressed on January 9th 1905, the whole country collapsed into revolutionary chaos.
The revolution of 1905 spawned a snakepit of contending political ideologies – Tsarists, democratic constitutionalists, protofascist and marxist movements and peasant parties, to name but a few.
At the same time, the artistic community was engaging in its own arm waving contest – admittedly of a less violent kind. Over the next ten years there was an eyewatering upsurge of artistic movements: Suprematism, Cubo-futurism, Russian futurism, Zaum, Neo-primitism. The list goes on and on. When it comes to the artists, the list is even longer and more confusing: Kazimir Malevich, Alexandra Ekster, Vladimir Tatlin, Wassily Kandinsky, David Burliuk, Alexander Archipenko, to name but some.
In a sense, the title of the exhibition to be shown at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco between July 6 and September 12 is misleading. Linking the names of Chagall and Malevich, suggests that they were both equally fundamental members of an intrinsically Russian avant garde movement. In fact, in terms of his influences and his later success, Chagall is best thought of as a French artist, rather than a Russian one.
It is true that Chagall was born in Vitebsk in Belarus (1887); also true that he was active in Russia in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution, of which he was initially an enthusiastic supporter. However, he also spent an important period in Paris (1910 – 1914) where he came under the influence of Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism. When he returned to Russia in 1914 to marry his fiance, he found himself cut off by the outbreak of the First World War. He settled in Vitebsk where he continued to develop his unique form of poetic humanism.
By this time, following successful exhibitions in Paris and Berlin, Chagall was already an established artist. Accordingly, he was appointed Commissar for Art in Vitebsk with the responsibility for spreading artistic knowledge and appreciation in the working classes. He threw himself into this with great enthusiasm, providing posters and agit prop material in support of the revolution.
Enter Kazimir Malevitch. It would be difficult to imagine two contemporary painters whose artistic leanings were more contrasting: Chagall the poetic humanist and Malevich the revolutionary abstractionist.
In the years leading up to the revolution, Malevitch had been abandoning his earlier cubist influences for something he called Suprematism. He also philosophised copiously about his theories, sometimes in ways that did little to illuminate them.
Briefly, Malevitch was interested in an exploration of geometric forms – squares, triangles, circles – in a way that transcended subject matter. Malevtich, along with many of the avant garde saw himself as a standard bearer of modernity – of the new world of the radio, telegraph, flying machines and the internal combustion engine. For him, colour should reign ‘supreme’ over image and narrative. “Academic naturalism, the naturalism of the Impressionists, Cezannism, Cubism etc, all these, in a way, are nothing more than dialectic methods which, as such, in no sense determine the value of an art work”.
The resulting clash beteeen the two was as bitter as it was predictable. The art college established by Chagall in 1918 included a wide variety of artistic protagonists, each promoting their own ideas. However, by 1920, Malevich’s Suprematist ideas – forcefully promoted by Malevitch’s untiring oratory – were gaining ground. Increasingly students and their teachers were turning away from Chagall’s compassionate humanism, with its roots in folklore. By 1922, Chagall felt he had no option but to resign. He left for Moscow, where he worked mainly in theatre design, before returning to France.
Effectively, Chagall remained a French painter. He escaped to New York in 1941, but returned to the south of France after the liberation, where remained until his death in 1985, at the age of ninety eight. Today, Chagall is regarded as one of the most successful painters of the 20th century.