Vitebsk: The Life of Art

Yale University Press  2007

 

Aleksandra Shatskikh, art historian, studied untouched archives for this book about Vitebsk, a largely Jewish community, triangulated by Moscow, Warsaw, and Riga. It had an extraordinary life of art. Known as Chagall’s birthplace and focus of his work, it was central in the creation, exposition, and diffusion of avant-garde expression in Russia from 1917 to 1922.

Czar-free in 1917, Vitebsk became a magnet where all artistic directions were possible— flaming talents envisioned not only new, but limitless, horizons. Painters, sculptors, performers, and writer-philosophers created and embraced their own nomenclature— Unovis, Prouns, architectons, suprematism, futurism—to express their zeal for new ideals, in government-sanctioned and supported academies/institutes/schools for all ages.

Transliteration deals with typical barriers of Russian to English: a lot of consonants; but the translation allows steady reading. Replete with clear illustrations and plates, and well-formatted text, Vitebsk discusses nearly 150 people—Chagall, K. Malevich, El Lissitsky, Y. Pen, N. Malko, and Bakhtim, most prominently.

Then, discipline by discipline, Shatskikh records 1922, when sovietization began to solidify, funding ended, followed by years of disease, dispersion, demonizing, deportation, and death for many of its artists. “Citizens of Vitebsk have created a monument to their provincial city; the nature of this monument constitutes the main theme of this book,” she concludes. Sobering and edifying, it’s a remarkable reading experience. Abbreviations, appendices, bibliography, glossary, illustrations, index, maps, notes, plates.



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