Issue 47 (2015)

Aleksandr Mitta: Chagall-Malevich (Shagal-Malevich, 2014)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2015

chagall-malevichMidway through Aleksandr Mitta’s historical drama Chagall-Malevich, a boisterous group of nude young men are washing themselves at a Vitebsk banya. “We destroyed objectivism, all that ordinary junk long ago!,” they shout out amidst the banya’s steam and skin. Several others respond, “And you’re Malevich’s trained poodles!” What ensues is a vigorous free-for-all between two factions of art students, a rambunctious, semi-serious fight at the very heart of Mitta’s film. Vividly dramatizing artistic disputes that occurred among two of Russia’s most prominent modernist painters and their respective students in 1919 and 1920, Mitta strips down the aesthetic debate and celebrates the artistic passions that arose at the time in Vitebsk. “Innovation always starts off with a fight,” quips a smiling Chagall, who watches the naked melee from the door with bemusement and a shrug of his naked shoulders.

In 1914 Marc Chagall (1887-1985), well on his way to becoming a pre-eminent Russian-Jewish painter, returned from Paris to his native city of Vitebsk (now part of Belarus) to marry Bella Rosenfeld. Soon after Chagall’s return to Vitebsk, however, World War I broke out, forcing the painter and Bella to remain in Russia. Then came the 1917 Revolution, immediately after which Chagall procured the title of Commissar of the Arts in Vitebsk. By 1918 he had succeeded in establishing in his hometown the People’s Art School, which quickly emerged as an artistic center in the former territory of the Pale of Settlement.  

chagall-malevichEnter Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), progenitor of The Black Square, who came to Vitebsk in 1919 on the invitation of fellow avant-gardist El Lissitsky. Having gained considerable notoriety several years earlier for his non-objective suprematist canvases, Malevich arrived as one of the country’s leading artistic innovators and as a passionate advocate of suprematism’s abstract, geometrical forms. In Vitebsk, within a matter of months, Malevich had implemented his suprematist vision as the preeminent style and ideology at the People’s Art School. For Malevich, revolutionary avant-garde art needed to pervade everyday Soviet life; suprematist work produced by Malevich and his students would soon appear on the streets and buildings of Vitebsk, particularly for the May Day celebrations of 1920. Chagall, meanwhile, retreated, resigning from the school before moving, in June 1920, with his wife and daughter to Moscow.

While Malevich may have ultimately triumphed in Vitebsk, it is in fact Chagall who provides the visual and narrative framework for Mitta’s film. The Russian-Jewish painter’s compassionate, joyous vision of humanity and unmistakable modern folkloric aesthetic permeate much of Chagall-Malevich. At various points in the film, in fact, the characters float up into the air, infused with the spirit of Chagall’s whimsical paintings. Mitta, establishing the naked human body as a metaphor of sorts for the earthy, yet unburdened essence of Chagall’s work, immediately lays bare the Russian-Jewish painter for all to see, as Chagall appears naked in our first glimpses of him as both a newborn baby (against a rural, Shtetl-like background suggestive of the painter’s Vitebsk work) and as a burgeoning artist (played by Leonid Bichevin) in Paris, where he paints in the nude in his hot, fly-infested studio. This nudity, coupled with the later banya scene, appropriately communicates the distinct neoprimitivist flavor of Chagall’s persona and artwork.

chagall-malevichThe film then moves quickly from Paris to Vitebsk, where we witness a young poet—Naum—courting Chagall’s fiancée Bella (Kristina Shneiderman). Despite Naum’s lofty words and attention, Bella races off upon word of the painter’s arrival in town. Despite the objections of Bella’s parents, a wedding occurs, with several scenes directly evoking Chagall’s canvases devoted to the themes of love and marriage. And in a slight tweaking of biographical veracity, the married couple’s return to Paris is subsequently hindered by the start of World War I in 1914 (they married in 1915), while the 1917 Revolution finds the Chagalls in Petrograd, where it is decided that the couple and their young daughter will return to Vitebsk so that the painter might contribute to the country’s revolutionary fervor by launching the People’s Art School as a Soviet arts institution.

chagall-malevichBack in post-Revolutionary Vitebsk, where the majority of the film transpires, Chagall discovers that Naum, his former rival for Bella, has abandoned verse for the revolutionary cause and has become a powerful Soviet commissar in the city. Despite residual bitterness over Bella’s marriage to his former classmate, Naum acquiesces to Chagall’s signed decree for the foundation of the People’s Art School, and he hands the new Commissar of the Arts a gun that is initially refused but will, à la Chekhov, figure prominently later on in the film. Students, including the talented son of a rabbi who is vocally dismissive of art, soon flock to Chagall’s classes, as the painter aggressively establishes the new school in the expansive residence of former family friends.  When Chagall displays his work at a parade in honor of the Revolution, he expounds on the relevance of such work, prompting Naum’s disapproval and vocal doubts about the importance of Chagall’s ideas and work to Marxism-Leninism. Undeterred, Chagall optimistically tells his wife that Malevich will come and “show them what a real innovator is.”

Malevich (Anatolii Belyi), as if on cue, arrives during a nighttime storm. Although a large Chagall banner comically falls on the suprematist’s head, he soon takes over the school with his forceful personality and ambitious plans for revolutionary art (“Art is our chance to inhabit all of cosmic space”). Malevich speaks and colorful suprematist forms materialize behind him, assertively gliding into the film frame. The painter’s Messianic fervor, however, prompts the suspicions of not only Chagall’s assistant, who wants to denounce Malevich, but also Naum and his men, who eventually arrest the suprematist. They simultaneously threaten to turn the People’s Art School into barracks for the Red Army. Chagall must therefore fight artistic and personal battles on a number of fronts. Even as he struggles to keep control over the school and its direction, he needs the help of Malevich to save the school from the Red Army.  And it is the faithful Bella who comes to her husband’s aid, as she perilously takes advantage of Naum’s infatuation with her to get Malevich released. Under Malevich’s guidance, the school produces just the right street art—Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge—to display on Vitebsk’s central station when Trotsky travels through the city by train. Nevertheless, Chagall’s situation grows increasingly intolerable, as the violence escalates and the students, save one or two, vociferously shift their allegiances from their initial teacher to Malevich. And as things proceed at a rapid, threatening pace, it will only be through the magic of art that Chagall and Bella manage to escape the political—and aesthetic—hostility of Vitebsk.

chagall-malevichConsiderable research, it is clear, went into Chagall-Malevich, as Mitta’s admiration for the eponymous painters’ works, many of which appear in the background of scenes, informs so much of the film. That said, the artistic passions on display come across at times as cartoonish, while melodrama likewise undermines Mitta’s attempts to celebrate the creative vibrancy of the People’s Art School. The love triangle that emerges between Chagall, Bella, and Naum ultimately detracts from the film’s central aesthetic conflict. Nevertheless, Mitta—a filmmaker whose impressive pedigree extends back to the early 1960s—remains relatively evenhanded in his treatment of the film’s two central artists. Although generally siding with Chagall, Mitta succeeds in honoring the energy and enthusiasm underlying post-1917 avant-garde art in Soviet Russia. While the film’s glossy veneer and weak dialogue, exacerbated by uneven acting, detract somewhat from the historical veracity of Chagall-Malevich, it would be churlish to gripe about the accuracy of this or that detail presented in the film, especially given the loose narrative structure and attempt on Mitta’s part to replicate Chagall’s work through more than a simple presentation of his paintings or, alternatively, a straightforward biopic. The film goes some way toward capturing the spirit of Chagall’s work—and Malevich’s, to a lesser extent—and the way the post-Revolutionary period of artistic experimentation, embodied by the two painters, coincided with rising violence and repression. Like the naked students in the Vitebsk banya, Chagall-Malevich passionately states its case and revels in its unabashed admiration for the era’s art.

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

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Chagall-Malevich, Russia, 2014
Color, 119 min.
Director: Aleksandr Mitta
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Mitta
Cinematography: Sergei Machil’skii
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Production Design: Eduard Galkin, Liudmila Gaintseva
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Anatolii Belyi, Kristina Shnaiderman, Semen Shalikov, Dmitrii Astrakhan, Aleksei Ovsiannikov, and Iakov Levda
Producer: Larisa Shnaiderman, Aleksandr Mitta, Elizaveta Lesovaia, Maksim Koroptsov
Production: Marmot-Film

Aleksandr Mitta: Chagall-Malevich (Shagal-Malevich, 2014)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2015

Updated: 28 Dec 14