Stranded in Russia by the First World War, Chagall turned a generation of boys into artists
In 1914, Marc Chagall returned to Russia from Paris on what was supposed to be a brief visit. When the First World War broke out, he found himself stranded and soon became swept up in the upheaval that followed, embracing the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and assuming the post of Art Commissar in his native Vitebsk the following year. Along with his teacher Yehuda Pen, and like-minded masters Kazimir Malevich and Lazar Lissitzky, Chagall transformed Vitebsk from a languishing shtetl into a flourishing art center.
This unexpected proximity to pioneering contemporary ideas in art also made artists of a generation of Vitebsk’s Jewish boys, including my grandfather, Chaim Livchitz, who was five years old when Chagall moved back into his family’s house across the street. Chagall’s longtime friend Viktor Mekler—also a student of Pen—brought some of my grandfather’s drawings to Chagall, who praised them and offered his encouragement. My grandfather then studied with Pen himself before leaving for the Academy of Arts in Leningrad, knowingly following Chagall’s own path from obscurity.
Chagall had always extolled children’s art—one of the distinct sources for his own dreamlike and often fanciful work—and in 1920, when a personal conflict forced him to leave Vitebsk, he moved to Moscow and taught at a Jewish boys’ colony in nearby Malakhovka.
Last month, Moscow’s Ulei gallery mounted a show of children’s drawings from the colony, which date back to the years of Chagall’s tenure and had been preserved by artist Mikhail Fedorov-Roshal. There is barely a whiff of innocence in the twenty works shown at Ulei. The colony housed children who had fled pogroms in Ukraine, and the drawings show a thoughtful engagement with religious stories and scenes of daily life. The favored materials are color pencils and watercolor, with occasional Yiddish inscriptions. The subject matter ranges from illustrations to stories by Sholom Aleichem to drawings of decorative carpet patterns, from landscapes to portraits. One bears a postscript on the back: “I drew how the Bolsheviks entered town.”
While Chagall’s role in the making of these drawings is unclear, their historical interest is transformed by association; the artist’s presence hovers in the background, a marker of an emerging tradition in Jewish modern art. My grandfather’s attachment to Chagall is similarly elusive: Forced to toe the official line during most of his artistic career in Soviet Russia, his life was framed and haunted by his childhood encounters with the artist in Vitebsk. My favorite piece of his may be the earliest one that has survived, a linoleum cut from 1928. Its irreverent tone and animated contours are a tribute to Chagall, who steered and encouraged the young as much as he drew on their insights himself.