By Michael J. Jordan
VITEBSK, Belarus — There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary artist.
Shunned by the Soviet authorities for his leaving the “worker’s paradise” of the Soviet Union for the artistic incubator of Paris, Marc Chagall has undergone a remarkable posthumous rehabilitation in his Belarussian birthplace.
The charming provincial city of Vitebsk, an inspiration for much of the artist’s oeuvre — like his floating, dreamlike images of wood rooftops, barnyard animals and bearded fiddlers — is not only a must-see for Jewish tourists, it’s said to be a cornerstone of national tourism. Located 120 miles northeast of Minsk, the capital, Vitebsk draws German and Japanese tourists and countless foreign art students.
Hordes of schoolchildren tour the museum within the refurbished Chagall family homestead. The museum was opened in 1992 and has since been accompanied by annual “Chagall Days,” featuring music, exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent, and long banned from public discourse.
Chagall is now a symbol of another kind, says Vitebsk native Arkady Shulman, a Jewish journalist and amateur Chagall historian.
“Any person who emigrated was denounced as a traitor,” says Shulman, who helped establish the Chagall museum and is chief editor of Mishpoha magazine. “People didn’t know his pictures, but they knew his name, and that he was against the system. Today, more people know his art, but he’s become a symbol of a boy from a small town who became world famous.”
Chagall was born in 1887 as Mark Zakharovich Segal, the eldest of eight children. His father, Zakhar, sold herring; his mother, Felga-Ita, ran a dry-goods store out of the family compound on the cobblestones of Pokrovskaja Street in the Jewish quarter.
Half the Populace
Vitebsk was then the largest city in Belarus, its railroad a crossroads for travelers to destinations like Berlin, Warsaw, Odessa and Moscow. The city was a lively ethnic and cultural mix with Belarussians, Russians, Poles, Germans, Latvians, Muslim Tatars — even a smattering of Chinese.
And lots of Jews. A turn-of-the-century census put the figure at 34,000 Jews, or half the entire population. It was a big city, and Vitebskians quip that even the horses drawing wagons spoke Yiddish.
Chagall’s parents worked hard, had good business sense and earned a modest living, Shulman says. They sent the boy to a heder — a religious Jewish primary school — then to a four-year trade school. They wanted him to be an accountant or shop assistant.
But at 17, Chagall had other ideas. He was interested in art and tried to convince his parents. They were not supportive, Shulman says.
“Being a painter wasn’t considered a real profession,” he says. “All his relatives asked, ‘How will you live off that?’ They wanted him to do something closer to the ground, closer to real life.”
But his father relented and paid to send him to the studio of renowned local artist Yehuda Pen. After two months, Pen — whose bust in the Jewish cemetery has been stolen and returned several times — had seen something in Chagall and offered to teach him for free.
In 1907, Pen convinced Chagall to hone his art in St. Petersburg. Three years later, Chagall landed himself a patron, the Russian Jewish lawyer Maxim Vinaker. Vinaker reportedly offered him 125 francs a month for him to take his talents to Paris. Chagall thrived, and his first prominent exhibit came in 1914, in Berlin.
A month later, Chagall returned to Vitebsk to visit his fiancee, Bella Rosenfeld, whose father owned three jewelry shops. World War I broke out, and Chagall could not leave. He married her in 1915; they had a daughter, Ida, a year later.
Chagall would be swept up in the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Culture Ministry dubbed him Commissar of Art for the Vitebsk region, and he founded an art school.
The artist reportedly chafed at officials’ criticism of his teaching techniques, however. He moved to Moscow in 1920 and back to Paris in 1923.
But Vitebsk never left him. He wrote in My Life, his autobiography, “The soil that nourished the roots of my art was Vitebsk.”
Still, the Soviets branded him persona non grata.
While the world celebrated his genius, his name became taboo in his homeland. Whenever the authorities did mention Chagall by name — for example, when he created stained-glass windows in Israel in the early 1960s and was condemned as a Zionist — he was referred to only as a “French artist.”
Denying Chagall’s roots rankled a local named David Simanovich, who took it upon himself to lobby the local authorities to recognize the artist’s roots. Ultimately, the breakthrough came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, six years after Chagall’s 1985 death.
Vitebsk today is a sprawling metropolis, five times the size it was in Chagall’s day. But the Jewish population has plummeted to some 1,500.
A Bronze Statue
Chagall’s old home was destroyed during the war. But Shulman pointed to where original red bricks were mixed with new bricks in the restoration.
And down the icy street from where Chagall once lived, a majestic bronze statue of the artist dominates the square. He sits with a paint palette in his left hand, the right hand holding a brush to his forehead, dreaming of his beloved Bella as she floats above.
“These buildings, these streets, were more than geography to Chagall,” Shulman says. “They created a mood, and all his art were works of mood.”
Jewishness was also central to Chagall’s art and identity. When Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, commissioned Chagall four decades ago to create stained-glass windows for its hospital in Jerusalem, the artist reportedly said, “All the time I was working, I felt my father and my mother were looking over my shoulder, and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews of yesterday and a thousand years ago.”