A strange walk through Vitebsk in search of the elusive traces of Marc Chagall’s village10 min read

 In Blog, Culture, Eastern Europe

The sun sets in a city that doesn’t exist. A city that once was, but is no more, although the river remains the same, the trains that bring the hills closer to the water, and the bridge she once described as paradise. What remains is trivial compared to what once was, like the setting sun that cannot be captured. Vitebsk is not. Or perhaps it was just a dream, and Vitebsk was never what someone said it was. Of course, the weightlessness of lovers could have been a dream; he and she couldn’t fly, just like goats or violinists didn’t fly before the astonished eyes of a contemplative rabbi. Perhaps none of that was, and none of it was lost. But the colours remain as metamorphoses or memories of a never again, the drawing turned metaphor and vice versa, framed alongside many others. And his signature, he who flew over the rooftops with Bella, who loved the bridge. The bridge of Vitebsk, the city of painter Marc Chagall.

At the end of the 19th century, the small Russian city had about 50,000 inhabitants, almost half of them Jews. There were synagogues, a nearby train station, a quiet, conservative life without surprises or shocks, with small wooden houses, a certain rural character, few or no luxuries. Chagall spent his first twenty years in an area with typical shtetl features, a Yiddish word defining predominantly Jewish villages in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. He grew up in a narrow world, one where the future was defined, but soon he decided to break with the patterns. First, he entered the city’s municipal school, even though it was not allowed for Jews to study there; then, he studied painting and soon received special authorization from the Russian Empire that every Jew needed to travel to St. Petersburg, shortly before leaving for Paris. At least for now, Chagall was leaving Vitebsk. But Vitebsk would never leave Chagall.

"The Grey House" by Marc Chagall (1917)

Today, the Daugava River still flows through the middle of a city that no longer belongs to the Russian Empire, not even to Russia. Today, with just under four hundred thousand inhabitants, it is the fourth largest city in Belarus and has little of those colourful, bucolic, and endearing paintings. The slope rising from the riverbank is crowned by a huge monument with three bayonets pointing to the sky symbolising the Soviet victory in World War II. There is an eternal flame, two fountains, images of peasant women thanking valiant soldiers with flowers. Tanks, helicopters, and heavy cannons accumulate nearby, serving as both monuments and a children’s playground. And, of course, Victory Square and the central Vladimir Lenin Avenue. The colour of nostalgia reflected in Chagall’s paintings is now a succession of grey, square, monolithic buildings. There are no cows or lovers on their roofs.

A muse with the power of flight

Bella Rosenfeld was the woman who made Chagall fly. Both had grown up in the same universe marked by ancient Jewish rites and conservative social traditions. Both sought to escape from such confinement, not out of contempt or resentment but out of simple yearning for more. She was his everything, his companion, his muse, his wings, and also his reason to return to Vitebsk in 1914. But she was also his ally in the discovery of a freedom that seemed so foreign to the destiny assigned to all the neighbours’ children in that kind of shtetl. Bella first found that freedom on the Daugava, and she once wrote that the bridge was paradise: “We escaped from the small houses with their low roofs to look at the sky. And there was the river under the bridge; the air purified between the sky and the water.” But the bridge, like almost the entire city, was destroyed during the Second World War.

"Over the Town" by Marc Chagall (1918)

Vitebsk was under Nazi control for three years, and around twenty thousand Jews were massacred in the local ghetto in 1941. Their corpses floated under the bridge that Bella liked so much. By the late 1940s, when the city began to be rebuilt with sickles and hammers everywhere, little remained of what Chagall had painted and loved — his animals, peasants, colours, and old rituals. He was far away, on the other side of the Atlantic. And Bella had already died in New York.

From colourful chaos to grey monotony — a city rebuilt

The independence of Belarus brought with it a rediscovery of the history and identity of the city. In the last quarter of a century, churches that were destroyed either by the Soviet regime or during the Nazi invasion have been rebuilt. Perhaps the most beautiful is the Cathedral of the Assumption, located on a hill near the confluence of the Daugava and the small Vitba. The view from there to the other side is impressive. You can see the remodelled train station, the chimneys of some factory, the large Stalinist-era buildings, and, if you pay close attention and use a map, in the distance, you can also glimpse the neighbourhood of Pokrovskaya Street. That’s the neighbourhood where Chagall was born and spent part of his childhood and youth; those are the streets and sidewalks that inspired him, his memories and nostalgia with which he conversed during lonely Parisian nights. From there, he always looked at the world; there, the yearnings he would immortalise in his paintings until the end of his days.

Monument in the backyard of Chagall's House (photo by Ignacio Hutin)
Interior of Chagall's house (photo by Ignacio Hutin)

At number 11 Pokrovskaya Street is his family’s house, a single-story brick building, next to a wooden house where tickets and souvenirs are sold. In the large backyard, a monument to the painter rises: he is portrayed as a very young man, with a calm and reassuring smile on his face. He holds a violin whose neck is the Eiffel Tower and whose body is a village that could well be Vitebsk in the early 20th century. The building houses a tiny museum where furniture and other objects from the Chagall family are exhibited, although many are evidently unrelated and seem out of place, especially in a room that has been set up like an old warehouse.

Some artefacts and photographs may be original, but in the context of artificial reconstruction, they end up looking as cheap as the souvenirs sold by a lady under an umbrella on the museum’s sidewalk. She seems bored and disappointed to see that the few visitors of the day do not speak Russian. Both inside and outside the house, all the information will be only in that language, something very common throughout Belarus. Almost in front of the house, on a wall, various phrases can be read in which Chagall remembers his city, its tranquillity, its languor, its peace. But behind the wall rises the shed of a factory. And on the corner, a rectangular prism with four monotonous floors of apartments. Nothing further from what it once was.

Chagall's neighborhood, today (photo by Ignacio Hutin)

The entire neighbourhood is grey, very grey. Soviet, boring, silent, no cars or pedestrians pass by. Very close by, there is a huge three-level building in ruins. It has a relatively intact facade, but behind it, there is little more than rubble and a basement full of garbage. These are the remains of a synagogue built during Chagall’s childhood. It is even likely that this was the synagogue his father attended daily, although by that time there were dozens of religious buildings in the area. There is no sign that provides more precise information about its history, just as there is no sign warning of the obvious danger of collapse.

A wanderer in exile

During the four years he spent in Paris, Marc Chagall constantly immersed himself in his own memories, making his city and its people the greatest inspiration. He did not focus on the dazzling lights of the French capital but on the self-reflection that led him to create a fond, intimate, and even idyllic image of Vitebsk, an image he would recall over and over again in his paintings.

"The Blue House" by Marc Chagall (1917)

Shortly before the First World War, he returned with the idea of visiting Bella for a few weeks, but soon the borders closed, and the few weeks turned into almost nine years. The armed conflict found him secluded in a purely rural environment, in love, oblivious to everything that ever was and will be, only with the woman he married in 1915. Around that time, his work became optimistic and dreamy, marked by a deep affection for everything around him. His paintings were of an untouched world that war could not access, timeless scenes of simple people: everything he had dreamed of night after night in Paris. In a kind of love letter, Chagall confessed to his city: ‘Like a sad wanderer, for all these years, I have preserved your breath in my paintings. In this way, I have spoken to you and seen you as if it were a dream.’

The October Revolution found him in St. Petersburg, and despite the terror that violence aroused in him at that time, he soon declared himself a supporter of communism based on the utopian proclamations of a new world. A few years later, disgusted by the demands the regime made to politically use his art and deeply immersed in poverty, he left the Soviet Union. This time, Vitebsk was left behind forever.

Monument to Chagall on Pokrovskaya Street, a few blocks from his birthplace (photo by Ignacio Hutin)

On Pokrovskaya Street, a few blocks from the house where Chagall was born, a second monument rises, seemingly serving as a response to that optimistic and smiling young man with the violin, full of calm hopes and an ambition that does not despair. Here, the painter is already an old man reclining in an armchair, holding his head in a gesture of pain and bewilderment. He is tired, exhausted. He is a man who has suffered exile, who has been persecuted, who has lost the love of his life and also his beloved hometown. Above him, there is a high arch supporting a female figure flying like lovers, goats, and violinists once flew. The figure smiles with weightless lightness, with bucolic languor, and her smile is also the long, rural dress she wears. Is it Bella? No. Or yes. It is and is not. It is everything that Vitebsk never was and always will be in Chagall’s mind, the almost childlike memory of an idyllic, perennial, innocent world that has nothing to do with wars or massacres and everything to do with the love of a man who never wanted to leave his hometown.

This article was originally published in Spanish on 9 December 2017 by Infobae.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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