(Lachrymose) Floating Jews and Other Black Squares (Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich)

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Lenin chagall

O Me O My, I’ve been lachrymose, this time at the Jewish Museum having seen Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922. The exhibit is super cool, showing art made by Chagall with these two masters of the Russian avant-garde and their students at the People’s Art School in the small town of Vitebsk in the heyday period in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Also included are works by their students, many of whom were Jewish working class local youth. We know how we are supposed to look upon this period, watching the dreamy and sentimental Chagall with his floating Jews, outpaced by the tough new avant-garde represented by Lissitzky and Malevich. “Poor Chagall,” or so it goes. But that too is part of the charm of the show, putting these two phenomena, floating Jews and floating circles and squares, into such tight juxtaposition at a time of the Revolution, when revolution was still thrilling.

That’s not the way I saw it. Malevich and Lissitzky actually looked dull, although I am willing to concede that this limited particular period and setting at Vitebsk after the Revolution is not necessarily the best place and time to showcase the powerful and even spiritual abstraction in the works of these two artists. One could just as well say that their geometric figures “float” in space no less than the famous flying figures by Chagall. Malevich’s famous Mystic Suprematism (Red Cross on Black Circle) is the most obvious case in point, but one could add as well Lissitzky’s moving tribute to Rosa Luxemburg. (For some reason, I didn’t feel like photographing his Had Gadya illustration).  Conversely, it could also be argued that, at Vitebsk, Chagall did some very, very interesting things under their influence. A bracing and geometric rigour situates his dreamy figures, including the Hebrew script of Yiddish that pokes in and out of this or that painting.

Having said all that, the vulnerability and comedy in the works by Chagall more than suggest that he was the only “human being” among the three. In comparison, Lissitzky and Malevich are super cold. Their circles and squares generate no heat. There are many wonderful things to look at, but something is terribly amiss. Even worse, the art takes on the appearance of regime propaganda. The architectural designs by Malevich look unlivable, soul-crushing to the point of sadism. Just what are we supposed to make of David Yakerson’s two robotic little figures?

More to the point, I am not sure what mood this was supposed to set, but the decision by the curators to screen at the entrance to the show footage of Lenin throws a cold political pallor over the entire phenomenon as it is represented by the exhibition, namely this curious moment in the history of the avant-garde and what Walter Benjamin referred to as the politicization of art. In 1922, the school is effectively shut down, strangled by the government. Chagall was already long gone. He moves to Moscow and then to Paris, Malevich to Petersburg, Lissitzky for Berlin, and that was soon that for the Russian Avant-Garde in the Soviet Union. Is the inclusion of Lenin supposed to provide what interpretive key? I’m sure I was only imagining the dread that seems to permeate the entirety of the works on display, Jews and revolution set before the edge of a great abyss.

Regarding Malevich and Lissitzky, what the Lenin tells us is that one can be moved by the art for the sake of art, even if one comes to the conclusion that l’art is incapable of scaling up to the political in ways that politically minded critics would like to have it.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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