A native of Vitebsk, Mikhail Kunin (1897 – 1972) received artist training from Yuri (Yehuda) Pen and then attended the People’s Art School from 1919 to 1921, taking classes with Marc Chagall and then Kazimir Malevich. Kunin painted this still life, with its colorful objects during Chagall’s class. Its title, Art of the Commune (1919), is inscribed on the lower left, along with the Russian words for ‘Futurists’ and ‘Leap into the future.’ Ambitious and involved, Kunin was a member of the School’s student executive committee and its Communist Counsel. Although he studied under Malevich, he continued to work in a figurative style, not hesitating to criticize Suprematism and its practitioners, notably for what he said were their nihilism and their tendency to destroy painterly culture.
El Lissitzky (1890 – 1941) created the poster Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge (1919 – 20) in Vitebsk (a city in northeast Belarus, known as the birthplace of Marc Chagall). It is an early example of agitprop (Soviet political propaganda) that uses abstraction. The work was produced during the Russian Civil War (1918 – 21) in support of the Red Army and the young Soviet government in their struggle against anti-Bolshevik White forces. In the middle of the composition, a revolutionary red triangle drives into a white circle on a black background. The symbolic significance of these forms — emphasized by the scattered Russian words for wedge, red, beat, and whites — would have been easily understood by the artist’s contemporaries.
This work, Cubist Landscape (1919) by Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985) illustrates the artist’s relationship to the Suprematist avant-garde at the time. Its disjointed geometrical shapes and use of heterogenous materials to create texture originated in Cubo-Futurism. One of the steps leading to Suprematism according to Kazimir Malevich’s theory of art, this style privileged movement, fragmented forms and bold colors. In the composition, geometric forms overtake a figure carrying an umbrella in front of Vitebsk School — perhaps a stand-in for the artist, protecting himself from the Suprematist storm. To the left of this figure, in a scene typical of Chagall’s shtetls (a small town with a large Jewish populations), a man with a goat makes a faint appearance. The artist repeats this name endlessly across the canvas, humorously illustrating the gulf between his painterly poetics and the stark Suprematist creations of his rival Malevich, who advocated collective art.
Photographed as Part of the Exhibit Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922, On View Through January 6th, 2019, at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.