About three Vitebsk landscapes by Marc Chagall
The image of a city ranks special among the number of constant images Chagall used in his creativity. In the so-called "Russian period" of the artist's creativity it was almost identical to the image of Vitebsk - the city of Chagall's childhood and youth, which the paintings of the great artist made wide world known. Unfortunately researches mostly do not pay due attention to Chagall's city landscapes.
Vitebsk artists, Chagall's contemporaries (I.Penn, S.Yudovin, E.Minin and others) referred to the city theme many times. Bound to particular ethnographic or documentary details and subjects most often they created not a generalized image of the city as it was, but a cognate in its naturalistic character image of Vitebsk. However neither of them coped to create such an elevated image as Marc Chagall did. The artist created a breath-taking in its depth and sincerity myth of Vitebsk turning it into an inexhaustible source of his creative inspiration at the same time.
During examination of Chagall's Vitebsk landscapes first of all the fact that the artist's object of representation is most often not the respectable city center famous nowadays thanks to numerous photos and postcards of the centuries' turning point but small wooden houses, ramshackle fences and curved streets of the suburbs. Outskirts of the city are the place where Chagall was born and grew up, where poor Jewish tradespeople and craftspeople - main characters of his works - live. Violin-players sit comfortably on steep roofs of tiny houses, animals and dreamers hover freely in the skies over the narrow streets. City outskirts landscape is the environment completely adequate to the life-style of Chagall's characters, that's why it enters all plot compositions and every-day sketches so naturally. At that Chagall's town under the influence of mythopoetic idea of "Jewish-being" is transformed into completely definite ethnic product, while architectural landscapes of the XX century Belarusian towns did not convey ethnic characteristics of their inhabitants in fact. Mythologized city landscape of Chagall acquires sacramental traits, turns into peculiar symbolic means of expressing spiritual essence of the Jewish people.
Chagall's landscapes of Vitebsk are remarkable for their significant documentary character. Town objects the artist painted are always recognizable. Moreover, not only socially significant buildings (the Governor's Palace, the Town Hall, the churches, etc.) but also ordinary buildings of Pokrovskaya and neighboring streets have the traits of documentary preciseness. The noted peculiarity of Chagall's town landscapes (now significantly lost) together with the knowledge of Vitebsk's historic appearance and town-planning condition of the period make interesting results. Below we'll try to trace the basic periods of Chagall's way in creation of his own town myth on the example of three artist's works made at different times.
In one of his earliest works "Look from the window in Vitebsk" (1908, Saint Petersburg, Z. Gordaeva's collection) the artist made the evening landscape which could be seen from the window of his father's house. As it is well known, the Chagalls owned one stone house (preserved till now) and three wooden houses located on one allotment in Pokrovskaya street in the 3rd district of Vitebsk. The view was seen from the window of one of the wooden houses situated in the allotment's interior. By the window we can see the high fence marking the border of the Chagalls' allotment, further - plain wooden houses and barns of the neighbors in Vygonnaya street and further - the silhouette of the stone orthodox Saviour church, which was situated on the other bank of Zapadnaya Dvina but due to the visual delusiveness of Vitebsk relief looked closer and inserted into the entire silhouette of the district. Thjis architectural landscape does not have specific Chagall's traits and rather reflects the artist's admiration of the town evening peace, soft plays of colours and chiaroscuros. However, it has the object-images Chagall would take with him to the artistic capital of Europe; two-three windows wooden houses, curved fences of the outskirts, the orthodox church dome with a cross above.
"View from the window. Vitebsk" (1914-1915, Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery) reflects a completely different approach to painting the same landscape. Having returned from Paris Chagall got a growing tendency towards a more natural vision of the world. The artist painted the same view from the same window, but diligently giving more attention to each detail, each smallest thing, trying to reflect the perspective of each architectural object with photographic preciseness, restraining his artistic fantasy from their dislocation. Due to such approach in the background of the painting appear the piece of the Savior cathedral, main two-towered façade overshadows the splay-roofed building of the neighboring theological seminary, the chimneys and building of the brewery made of red brick. With great diligence Chagall draws even the columns of the stone fencing of the Jewish cemetery known from XVII century which is located on the bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina by the Savior church. As is well known the integrity of such naturalistic town landscape itself is not a very fertile field for creating a myth. However, the artist coped to give a new sense to the realistic landscape and raise it to a principally new level.
The architectural landscape of the painting "Beloveds over the town" (1914-1918, Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery) is in fact the same "Look from the window" of the house in Pokrovskaya street. Attempting to enlarge the space, to accommodate more sense and emotion into the specific visual motif, the artist uses the highest viewpoint and reverse perspective, however the architectural landscape remains documentary and precise: the same wooden houses with 2 or 3 windows in Vygonnaya street, the same red brick building of the brewery, the same stone columns of the Jewish cemetery's fencing and the Savior church's silhouette. Thanks to the high viewpoint one can see fully recognizable new architectural objects (as lucky to be preserved till our days): the Governor's Palace, Lengelfield's house (where Chagall Art Center is located now) and the Alonovs' house (nowadays building No. 5 in Putna street). While every of the objects taken separately reserves the traits of concreteness and almost annoying documentary character (shut blinds on the windows of the yard facades, the ladder leaning against the garret, the gates closed with the crossbar, plain barns, lavatories, ribbons of fences, etc.), the architectural landscapes in general is deprived of realistic traits and turns into an image. The artist transforms historically accurate and for this reason transient facts into the category of eternity, creates the myth of a town, which exists out of time.
Having left Vitebsk forever, the artist coped to preserve its myth in his works till the end of his life. During the immigration period Chagall's town landscape lost its documentary character, but acquired higher quality - generalized image of metalanguage. In the course of time Chagall's image of a town absorbed the traits of not only Vitebsk, but also Paris, Chambon-sur-Lache, Vance, but forever preserved the significance of the place, where an amazing and eternal mystery of existence takes place.