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After Decades of Neglecting Chagall, Vitebsk Uses Him As Tourist Attraction

March 9, 2004
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There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary surrealist.

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. An annual open-air music festival is dedicated to Chagall. And this July marks the 13th consecutive year of “Chagall Days,” a commemoration with exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings.

Then there’s the kitsch. No one’s yet produced a traditional Russian nesting doll of Chagall, but enterprising young artists sell ties and framed ceramic floor-tiles with Chagall imagery at some local hotels.

It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent and 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 1886 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, along the cobblestones of Pokrovskaja Street, in the Jewish quarter.

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, Shulman says, 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 twice, and now is missing once again — 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 once said his art “desired Paris as a tree desires water.” But he also 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.”

The irony, says Shulman, is that Chagall embraced Communist ideology. He reportedly was a longtime financial supporter of the French Communist Party.

But denying Chagall’s roots rankled David Simanovich. Now 71, Simanovich says he first stumbled upon Chagall’s Vitebsk connection in 1950 while leafing through a library book. He then wrote poems in the artist’s honor.

Over time, reference to Chagall as a “French artist” grated on Simanovich. He says he took it upon himself to do something about it.

“If not me, then who?” says Simanovich, his eyes shining. “Chagall had a great name and was from Vitebsk, yet nobody wanted to mention it. I thought, you don’t want to admit it? OK, I’ll do something to make you admit it.”

He began to lobby local officials. Chagall visited Moscow in 1973 but was denied permission to travel to Vitebsk, further fueling Simanovich’s flame. Ultimately, the breakthrough came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, six years after Chagall’s death.

Simanovich spearheaded the first Chagall Days, in 1991. It’s been going ever since.

Vitebsk today is a sprawling metropolis, five times the size it was in Chagall’s time. It’s also far more homogenized — though there are a few Chinese restaurants.

The Jewish population, meanwhile, has plummeted to roughly 3,500.

But it’s one of the most beautiful cities in a country practically razed during the Holocaust and rebuilt in bland, dreary socialist realist style. Vitebsk’s inner areas retain the quaint feel of a century ago: single-lane cobblestone streets; low-rise, red-brick buildings; pastel-colored, single-level family homes along tree-lined roads.

On a recent winter day so frigid that ink froze in pens and exposed fingers went numb, Shulman guided several visitors to the shul where Chagall’s father came to pray. It lies in snow-covered ruins, a victim of failed renovation efforts.

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 a few years ago.

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. If you’re not from here, you won’t recognize it. But I do.”

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.”

Chagall never got another chance to visit Vitebsk. He died in 1985.

But Simanovich suggests the artist would be pleased with the rehabilitation.

Belarus’ Jews are particularly proud. Chagall prints and posters can be found hanging throughout Jewish facilities and institutions.

The lone Jewish university in Belarus, opened in 1999 in Minsk, originally was named the Chagall International Institute for the Humanities. But the artist’s relatives in France balked and his name was dropped, though students still use “Chagall” as the nickname for the school, which recently lost its autonomy.

“Chagall was a great artist, a great Jew, a great son of Vitebsk,” Simanovich says. “And it’s always worth fighting for something great. For this, I think, Chagall would bless me.”

(The preceding story is part of a series of articles on Jewish life in Belarus. This special series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.)

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