VITEBSK
International Chamber of Russian Modernism
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MUSEUM

On 14 November 1918 it was announced in Zhizn Iskusstva / Life of Art, that, "According to information received in Petrograd, a museum of Russian art is being created in Vitebsk under the direction of the painter Chagall." The museum would be connected directly with the Practical Art Institute, which opened in January 1919 on the initiative Marc Chagall and of which he was the Director.

The Vitebsk Provincial Council had met on 12 March 1919 and approved the plan for a collection of modern art, allocating 60,000 roubles "in order to purchase works of primarily local artists". The Museum of Modern Painting was formed from ten works by modern artists, to which were added thirty paintings awarded by IZO Narkompros and received in August 1919. These included works by Robert Falk, Kazimir Malevich, Olga Rozanova, Mikhail Le Dantiu, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexandra Exter, Pavel Kuznetsov, and others. A further twenty six canvases were assigned to the Vitebsk museum by IZO Narkompros, which Marc Chagall brought with him from Moscow in May 1920. The Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art – as it was also called – thus received a total of fifty six paintings.

In addition to these, acquisitions by the Purchasing Commission of the Provincial Department of Enlightenment of Narkompros bought two canvases by Marc Chagall. Works by Yuri Pen, Natan Altman, David Burliuk, and A. Romm, as well as a number of Vitebsk artists were also acquired. In 1921 it purchased a painting by Kazimir Malevich. The total collection amounted to approximately 120 canvases in 1921, half of which was made up of local artists, and half of which comprised the work of painters from Moscow and Petrograd.

The Museum of Contemporary was housed in the art school, the Vitebsk Practical Art Institute. It was in the rooms of the Museum where Chagall (who had two rooms of his own), Malevich, Ermolaeva, Nina Kogan, and El Lissitzky could teach in front of the most modern of recent paintings, sometimes brought into the teaching studios themselves.

The paintings that had been purchased from local artists and those from the State Art Fund in Moscow were first presented to the Vitebsk public in an exhibition that opened on 8 November 1919 in the Borokhov Club in Vitebsk. On 14 November, Kazimir Malevich gave a lecture, "On the Tasks of Modern Art", and there were debates held at the closing of the exhibition on 22 December 1919. The attendance "was so full that not everyone could squeeze in." The works were then transferred to the rooms in the art school on 16 January 1920, with the first permanent exhibition opening in July and August 1920.

With the closing of the Vitebsk Practical Art Institute in May 1922, the works in the Museum collection were taken down and stored. Vera Ermolaeva wrote a letter of 28 May 1922 to Petrograd saying that, "In view of the absence of a local organ interested in the works of modern artists, all the pictures have simply been abandoned in the storeooms of the School of Art. Considering that the subsequent fate of these works is completely unknown and that they are threatened by inevitable destruction owing to the staff of the school of art moving to Petrograd, I categorically declare that the pictures must immediately be transferred from Vitebsk to a more cultured centre where they can be stored and put to cultural use."

In a subsequent letter Ermolaeva writes that, finally, "I took the pictures without the proper authorisation", sending a first batch of works to the Museum of Artistic Culture in Petrograd on 6 July 1922, with a second group following on 15 August, 1922. Nina Kogan was given official permission to transfer pictures from Vitebsk, passing her "official power" over to Nikolai Suetin, a task that was subsequently carried out by Lev Yudin. It seems that only twenty two of the fifty six works were transferred. A work by Kandinsky "had been given away to someone", and others were thought to have been cut up in order to use the canvas "for practical purposes". Thirty paintings were discovered in September 1925, "unframed and in bad condition", which entered the Department of Modern Industry n Vitebsk in 1925, then the State Museum. These works included still lifes and landscapes by Rozanova, Exter, Mashkov, Kuprin, Lentulov, Kuznetsov, Morgunov, Falk, as well as a "Suprematist Circle" by Rodchenko, and a "Mincing Machine" by Kliun. There is a subsequent history of the works when they were evacuated to Saratov during the war, some of which may never have returned.

As one of its chroniclers, L. Mikhnevich, writes, "The history of the Museum of Modern (Left-Wing) Art is not a long one. It was represented by all of two displays – merely a second in the lifetime of any museum. Its collection was equally small, containing somewhere between 120 and 200 works. No discussions about its conception remain in the official records. The museum burned brightly before rapidly extinguishing, like a brilliant but fleeting vision."


Patricia Railing

SOURCES
L. Mikhnevich, "The History of the Museum of Modern (Left-Wing) Art in Vitebsk", The Russian Avant-Garde: Representation and Interpretation. Palace Editions, St. Petersburg: State Russian Museum, 2001, pp. 36-45.

N. Antonomova, "The History of the Acquisition of the Works of Kazimir Malevich by Russian Museums from 1919 to 1921", The Russian Avant-Garde: Representation and Interpretation. Palace Editions, St. Petersburg: State Russian Museum, 2001, pp. 111-112, 115.

Museum in a Museum, in Russian: Muzei v muzee. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 1998.

Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebsk, The Life of Art, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 225-230.

Some Works from the Original Collection
Sent from the Moscow State Art Fund
IZO Narkompros, 1919 and 1920

Robert Falk

Village in the Crimea, 1915
Oil on canvas, 125 x 81 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919 Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum, Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926
Natalia Goncharova

Cyclist, 1913
Oil on canvas, 78 x 105 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum, Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Wrestlers, 1908-9
Oil on canvas, 100 x 122, cm.
Signed NG on back
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum,
Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Mikhail Larionov

Nude (Venus), 1912
Oil on canvas, 83 x 100 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum,
Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Mikhail Le Dantiu

Man with a Horse, 1912
Oil on canvas, 87 x 106 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum,
Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Sazander, 1912
Oil on canvas, 113 x 65 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum,
Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Kazimir Malevich
Carpenter at Rest, 1912
Oil on canvas, 109 x 72 cm.
Intended for Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art
Sent instead to
Vladimir-Suzdal Museum of Architecture and Art, 29 March 1921
Lost
Perfected Portrait of Ivan Vasilevich Kliunkov, 1913
Oil on canvas, 112 x 70 cm.
Signed lower left: "K. Malevich 1911" (sic)
Acquired for Museum of Artistic Culture, Vitebsk and brought there on 12 August 1919
Transferred in August 1922 to Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd
Requested by Vera Ermolaeva for it to be hung in the Cubist Studio, Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd/Leningrad, 1924-1926, for teaching purposes.
Transferred in 1926 to the State Russian Museum, Leningrad
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Grinder – Flickering Principle, 1912
Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 79.5 cm.,
Initialed lower left: K.M.
On back of canvas: "Flickering Principle"
Label of Museum of Artistic Culture No. 84, allocated to the city of Vitebsk
On the stretcher "M[useum] V[itebsk] Grinder" (1919-1922).
Apparently never sent to Vitebsk but directly to Berlin.
Galerie Van Diemen, 1922
Katherine Dreier Collection, Société Anonyme
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
Dated 1912 by the artist in 7th Union of Youth catalogue, December 1913-January 1914
Cow and Violin, c. 1914
Oil on wood, 48.8 x 25.8 cm.
Back painted black and inscribed in red by Malevich:
"Alogical juxtaposition of two forms, cow and violin, as a stage in the struggle between the logic of nature, meaning, and petty bourgeois prejudices. K. Malevich, 1911"
Acquired for Museum of Artistic Culture, Vitebsk and brought there on 12 August 1919
Transferred in August 1922 to Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd
Requested by Vera Ermolaeva for it to be hung in the Cubist Studio, Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd/Leningrad, 1924-1926, for teaching purposes.
Transferred in 1926 to the State Russian Museum, Leningrad
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Suprematism, 1915
Oil on canvas, 87.5 x 72 cm.
Museum of Artistic Culture, Vitebsk, 1920
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
Transferred to State Russian Museum, 1926
Leningrad / St. Petersburg
Suprematism hanging in
UNOVIS studio,
Practical Art Institute
Vitebsk, 1921
Olga Rozanova

Red House, 1910
Oil on canvas, 85 x 98 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum, Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Blue Vase with Flowers, 1912-1913
Oil on canvas, 66 x 52.5 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum, Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Still Life (Non-Objective Composition), 1915
Oil on canvas, 56 x 65 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum, Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Non-Objective Composition (Suprematism), 1916
Oil on canvas, 78.5 x 53
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum, Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

Non-Objective Composition (Suprematism), c. 1917
Oil on canvas, 85 x 60.5 cm.
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art, 1919
Museum of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, 1922
State Russian Museum, Leningrad/St. Petersburg, 1926

David Shterenberg

Writing Desk, mid-1910s
Oil on cardboard, 14" x 11" (inches)
Vitebsk Museum of Contemporary Art
Received from IZO Narkompros, Moscow, 1919
Vitebsk Art Museum

 

 

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