Marc Chagall, 'Over the Town' (1918)
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A pair of lovers, fluttering like banners, soar over a cityscape of crooked wooden houses. Nearby, a dynamic play of yellow and black lines darts upwards from a grey half-oval. Chagall’s lyrical figurative “Over the Town” and Malevich’s lilting abstraction “Suprematism” are both buoyant, weightless, ethereal. Each is suffused with revolutionary élan — the dream of flight, turning the old order upside down — and a fervour to transcend earthly things. Chagall builds his figures from cubist shapes, Malevich pushes those forms into pure geometry. The works share a subtle white-grey tonality, evoking drab wartime Russia.

Today the similarities between these masterpieces are pronounced and poignant, but when they were made, their creators were mortal enemies. Rival teachers in Vitebsk, Chagall and Malevich fought a battle for opposing visions of art which imitated Russia’s political shift from liberation to repression. Against an evocative background of period films and recordings, the Centre Pompidou’s marvellous Chagall, Lissitzky, Malévitch: L’avant-garde russe à Vitebsk 1918-1922 unravels this intense chapter in Russian art for the first time.

We know Chagall’s native shtetl, razed by the Nazis in 1944, entirely from his images of it. In MoMA’s snowy “Over Vitebsk”, the blue-domed cathedral and white paths are luminous suprematist forms, even the tilting lamppost resembles a Malevich arrow, but the single monumental figure, roof-high, sack on back, is the legendary Wandering Jew, with whom Chagall inserts fantasy and folklore, individual identity and belonging, into modernist formalism.

In 1918 Chagall launched Vitebsk’s art school, in the white neoclassical mansion of a former banker, as a free-for-all. Professors included his own painstaking academic realist teacher Yuri Pen, whose 1922 “Self-portrait” as an ageing provincial could have been painted in 1854, the year of his birth, and without changing his style at all he was later accepted as a Socialist Realist. There was also cubo-futurist Ivan Puni, who compressed and abstracted the town’s industrial structures into stark parallelograms (“Railway Bridge”, “Railway Carriage”). Despite the range, Chagall’s sensibility was persuasive: the Pompidou’s earliest works by El Lissitzky, for example, are Chagallian emerald/pink drawings of goats and rabbis illustrating the Jewish fable “Chad Gadya” (1919).

Kazimir Malevich, 'Suprematism of the Spirit' (1919)

Months later Malevich arrived in Vitebsk, and immediately Lissitzky produced his celebrated Bolshevik propaganda design “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, a red triangle piercing a white circle. Malevich painted little in Vitebsk — materials were scarce, and he threw himself into organising and proselytising. However, you still feel in works such as “Suprematism of the Spirit” (1919), a white square superimposed on a black cross painted with great refinement on a rough panel, the mystic charge which electrified an idealistic generation.

Lissitzky called this painting “the crucified square”, declaring that “after the Old Testament there came the New, and after the New the Communist and after the Communist there follows finally the Testament of Suprematism.” Often here revolutionary experiment is staged around sacred or mythological imagery. In Ivan Kudriashov’s design for the “First Soviet Theatre in Orenburg”, red squares and diamonds stud multicoloured forms within an altarpiece and receding arches. For the opera “Victory over the Sun”, where revolutionary strongmen upend the cosmic order, pulling the sun from the sky, Vera Ermolaeva imitated Malevich’s blocky robotic figures and white panels.

El Lissitzky, 'Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge' (1919)

Rapidly, Chagall’s students, mostly teenage working-class Jewish boys, were spellbound by the charismatic Malevich. Ilya Chashnik developed floating geometric forms in kinetic tension on black backgrounds (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza’s striking “Suprematist Composition”). Lazar Khidekel (“Suprematist composition with blue square”) took Malevich’s black square as starting point for Utopian architectural grids. In May 1920 Chagall found his classroom empty and a placard across the school proclaiming “Suprematist Academy”. He fled the town, his farewell to Vitebsk the delicate “Cubist Landscape”, the white house framed by suprematist segments and semicircles in pale blue, deep rose, light yellow — a painterly challenge to hard-edged Malevich. Chagall never saw Vitebsk again.

The school survived him only briefly. Its first class of graduates in 1922 was its last; as Soviet attitudes tightened, Vitebsk, fleeting crucible of revolutionary art, became suspect as a formalist hotbed and was converted to a technical college. Malevich returned to Moscow and, denied medical help, died in 1935. The fates of other actors in this impassioned drama are microcosms of the randomness of Soviet life: Khidekel became a successful architect; Ermolaeva was shot in a Kazakhstan labour camp; Lissitzky died in the Leningrad siege.

Yuri Pen, a beloved local figure, alone remained in Vitebsk, where aged 83 he became the tragic victim of his famous pupil’s nostalgia. In 1937, at the height of Stalin’s terror, when foreign communication was strictly prohibited, Chagall, after a decade of silence in exile in Paris, sent his teacher a fond, sentimental letter. The day after receiving it, Pen was murdered in his bed.

Pompidou Centre, Paris, to July 16, centrepompidou.fr; Jewish Museum, New York, September 14-January 2, thejewishmuseum.org

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