LITVAK ARTISTS IN PARIS EXHIBITION IN VILNIUS
PART II. CELEBRATIONS & CHAGALL UNIVERSE
Part I of the essay can be read here.
Celebrations: Blatas, Chwoles and Kikoine
In a remarkable way, additionally to the feast of Chagall, this exhibition also created three very special celebrations of great artists, Arbit Blatas born Neemia Arbitblatas, Rafael Chwoles and Michel Kikoine. In all three cases, there are not a single or couple of works of these brilliant masters, whose all legacy is both large and important, that we can see as a part of a collective show, but there are very well thought of and sharply selected ( I can just imagine how difficult the process was) , presentations of oeuvres of these masters in its best.
To succeed to create three quite representative mini-exhibitions of such important masters, still having it in a perfectly harmonious accord with an entire exhibition in a whole, is a very serious achievement by the curator. My gratitude and congratulations to my friend and colleague Vilma Gradinskaite. This kind of work, this kind of approach requires not only a serious knowledge and a sharp curator’s eye. It requires a deep understanding, co-feeling and love.
Litvak artists, maybe as rarely as someone else in the history of art, apart from van Gogh, do deserve to be treated with love and understanding, understanding and love. Their dramatic lives were so challenged and so atypical from a regular life of artists who lived in their own countries or were free in their choices of everything, that the degree of overcoming spent by each of them for living and work does deserve a different approach and a different level of understanding, a different treatment towards each of them and at the same time, all of them together, from any other artist in modern history of art. In the case of the Litvak Artists in Paris exhibition in Vilnius they all, all 21 of them, have got it, gracefully.
Arbit Blatas who was born Neemia Arbitblatas in the beginning of the 20th century in Kaunas, and who had long and very productive artistic life, is presented at the exhibition in Vilnius by eight large enough oil paintings and four exquisite figurines from the collection of 20-strong outstanding sculpture portraits of his fellow artists from the Ecole de Paris which is now part of the collection of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art and which will make an honour to the most prestigious museums world-wide. Several years ago, Arbit Baltas’s family donated 300 of his works to the Lithuanian state, and now this very important collection is at home.
Streets, embankments and squares of Paris, Paris roofs and trees, Paris colours and atmosphere, Paris cafes – all of it comes out in an elegant abundance from a masterly Blatas’s warm oil paintings. Interestingly enough, he did it also in a real-time mode when writing his life sketches from Paris in the late 1920s for the Lithuanian newspapers. His stories, with small charming sketches, were actually the source of knowledge of real Paris, with vivid details of its life, for many people in Lithuania who read about it in his reports for the first time.
It was so warming to see enlarged reproductions of those publications on the walls of the exhibition, almost a century since they were published in various newspapers in Lithuania back in the 1920s and 1930s. This is what material culture tradition can bring to us when we care about our heritage, – uninterrupted line of life.
Two out of the presented eight paintings of Blatas have caught my eye and attention in particular, Harry’s Bar and Ecole de Paris. Harry’s Bar, with its intense palette, was a very heart-felt reminiscence if not a dialogue with van Gogh and his vision of cafes in France.
Ecole de Paris portrays all Blatas’s friends and colleagues in a warm and detailed way. The fact that this group portrait of the Ecole de Paris was created by one of them, adds both authenticity and first-hand perspective of the unique group of both personalities and artists.
This rare and meaningful work has been loaned to the exhibition by its owner, art collector Darius Lebedzinskas.
A big Baltas’s portrait of Marcel Marceau is a splendid work, and is important in its own right. The thing is that the Arbit Baltas-painter produced and left for us as his legacy the themes and thoughts of the Arbit Baltas-man who was a special personality in the way to be vividly interested and deeply engaged in the same themes and subjects for a long time, decades, sometimes.
The artist was very close friends with Marcel Marceau and painted the great mim for years. In his book, Marceau is telling about it in loving detail. Their’s both Jewishness and both’ suffering during and because of the Holocaust made that friendship cemented for life. It is simply great that the exhibition honoured this special friendship of two outstanding men by exhibiting the expressive and loving Baltas’s portrait of Marceau.
But Baltas’s figurines of his friends and colleagues artists, four out of twenty existing, are simply outstanding. Rarely in my life have I seen such talented and such perfect expressions of people and their characters in sculptured portraits. And not just people, the artists in their professions, and of their artistic manners. That finger of Marcel Marceau, that essence of Soutine, even in the way of sculptured characteristic Soutine’s brush stroke. Those characters of Lipchitz and Mane-Katz express the very essence of the both artists. The bronze figurines are simply immensely talented. I am dreaming of an exhibition of the entire series of masters of Ecole de Paris by one of them, super-talented Arbit Blatas.
The figurines of the great masters and emphatic personalities are exhibited in the hall of which a third part is taken by a very warm and very alive presentation of great Rafael Chwoles.
I heard about this very special artist a long time ago, and then was lucky to see many of his works at the outstanding celebration of Jewish talent organised at the UNESCO in Paris almost a decade ago, in 2014. There, I got to know Chwoles’s sons, Alexander and Milij, and am in touch with Milij ever since. One of my works from my Shining Souls ongoing project is homage to Rafael Chwoles, his warm art and his dramatic life. He was an exceptionally warm and thoughtful artist and personality.
Rafael Chwoles’ sons’ devotion to their father, great artist and very modest, introverted man, is extremely touching and is one of the most touching expressions of goodness and humanity in the world. It is reassuring of the most important things in this life, love and devotion to the things good and kind. I cannot express enough how glad I am to learn that after many years of negotiations, Rafael Chwoles’ collection donated by his sons to the state of Lithuania, will be back home, at last, with a floor of a currently renovated building in Vilnius down-town dedicated as Rafael Chwoles Museum, a part of the Vilna Gaon Museum. Hurray for that.
At the current exhibition, there are four Rafael Chwoles’ works on the wall, and two large vitrines with many wonderful picturesque oil sketches of Paris on paper and cardboard. Among those four works, Streets of Paris is a great work.
It was created in 1963, soon after the artist moved to Warsaw leaving Vilnius where he returned after four years in the Soviet Nizhny Novgorod during the war to find a total devastation, in all meanings, for a Jewish person. After almost a decade in Poland, Chwoles family managed to move to Paris at the end of the 1960s.
But yet before that, Rafael Chwoles thought about Paris in his dreams and works. Street of Paris shows us the dramas which never left the artist’s mind, but did not drive him to the dark side of the moon either. Human, deep, engaging work. And that face on the very bottom of the work, of himself, I presume, but also of all of us who live in the post-Holocaust dimension.
And those many separate pages of Rafael Chwoles’s albums presented so lovingly in two large vitrines, there is something home-like, touching, and family-like about them. There are many good oil sketches there, Chwoles organically could not produce mediocre works, but to me, those on the smallest pieces of cardboard, were speaking directly to my heart.
You immediately realise , and you actually see in front of you, that the artist could not afford canvas, and was using every bit of cardboard to paint. And lovely, talented pictures he produced. Rafael Chwoles to me is one of the very rare artists who organically combined mighty artistic talent and warm, disarmed and disarming Jewish heart, and I always feel that magic of loving heart in any of his works.
A half of the second hall of the exhibition is occupied by ten fantastic works by Michel Kikoine, another exhibition-within-exhibition at the feast of Litvak artists in Vilnius, and another discovery. We know Kikoine and his profoundly masterly works well, but seeing them in a large enough quantity at the same spot brings the joy of a rendezvous with a great artist. The artist who understood colour, light, composition, style, genre, you name it. The artist who was artistic to the core, and who was so much deeply and organically in the context of his time, it’s different periods, and art of this time.
The exhibition’s curator Vilma Gradinskaite made a very good work in selecting Kikoine’s works for this exhibition, and we are treated with the collection starting with the work made in 1915 and ending with the work created in 1960. And how different they are. In the Kikoine section of the exhibition in Vilnius, we can see the echoes of Impressionists, a references to Cezanne and Renoir, a dialogue with post-Impressionists, and his own very distinct voice of what Vilma Gradinskaite calls as Jewish expressionism.
All the works presented at the exhibition are from the treasury of the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris, apart from a self-portrait made in 1950, which is at the Centre Pompidou collection. I hope very much that the idea of organising Michele Kikoine personal exhibition in Vilnius and Lithuania, following Dr Gradinskaite’s idea for this extremely worthy project, would become a reality. It will bring long-lasting joy to everyone who would be lucky to visit it.
What does it mean, a successful exhibition? Many things of course, starting from the main idea and concept, followed by the right choices of partners, luck with availability of selected or dreamed about works to exhibit, but it is also an exhibition’s structure and its narrative, its architecture, and its inner script. At the exhibition in the Vytautas Kasiulis Museum in Vilnius, after you went through it all, being amazed, happy, grateful for all these 130 real treasures that the organisers were so generous and well-tasted to share with you, you are simply struck by a small piece, the last one, in a perfectly created narrative of the Litvak Artists in Paris.
A small piece is by Chaim Soutine. It is a portrait of an advanced mid-aged newspaper seller from a kiosk which Soutine passed many times in Paris. You are struck, without reading Soutine’s name. You do not understand how on such a small piece of canvas, anyone can express so much of life and its inner meaning.
Illustrations do not provide the whole impression of many of the works of art. Marc Chagall has noted it decades ago, and he actually underlined that there are works which are good if not better in reproductions, and there are works which are very good live but not reproducible. It is the case with many of the works at this fantastic exhibition, as well, including the gem of small Soutine’s work.
But fortunately, regarding the super-gift of 33 works of Chagall, presented in Vilnius, all of them are great in both live and reproductions. And thanks to that, you would be able to keep the overwhelming impression of the Universe of Chagall which his family and Comite Marc Chagall and the organisers very generously provided for public domain at the exhibition in Vilnius, consulting the catalogue of it, every now and then,
Chagall Universe created for this exhibition in Vilnius, occupies an entire hall of the museum, and the exposition was constructed very elegantly. This hall is the centre of the exhibition and is a superb long-lasting gift to everyone who visits it.
Everyone who has to do with presenting even one Chagall work at their exhibitions knows how demanding it is. The works of our Master of Souls & Dreams are in ever growing demand, and the requests are mounted in a several-years’ queue to receive a work.
The Vilnius exhibition’s organisers are justly extremely grateful to Chagall’s granddaughter Meret Meyer for her superbly generous attitude to the idea of this exhibition, and her great, colossal input into its meaning and quality.
With over twenty etchings and two Marc Chagall’s full pages from his Ma Vie manuscript presented, the rest of the Chagall exposition within the Litvak Artists in Paris, and the whole of it can be seen as enlarged Ma Vie through Marc Chagall’s eyes in these presented works presenting 35 years of the master’s life and work, from illustrations for Ma Vie made in 1922 through very rare Chagall’s sculpting works, one of which was finished by the artist in 1957.
This period of three and a half decades included the most dramatic, tragic years in Chagall’s life, his and his family running for life during the Second World War, his beloved Bella’s tragic death in New York, and his return to the post-Shoah Europe which impacted him to the core. But also his and family’s emigration from Soviet Russia in 2022 was not that easy, and it can be felt in the works of the period.
There is only one oil work among 33 exhibited in Vilnius, well-known The Village in the Dark Sun, created by the master in 1950.
Six years after Bella’s death, Marc’s sun was still dark, and every smallest detail of this classic work tells, actually screams about it in that gentle, beautiful universe created for the humanity by Chagall, which in the case of this work is ultimately dark, you can feel the weight of this deep, threatening darkness emanating from the painting, physically.
Two of Chagall’s sculptures are fantastic treats within the master’s exposition in Vilnius. We know about a hundred of his sculpting works, but they were not on display at exhibitions until a decade ago.
Chagall got interested in the medium in 1949, when he was over 50. It was a new medium for him, and he was quite interested in sculpting, actually, carving various stones throughout the early 1950s.
The two works presented in Vilnius, one in bronze and another in limestones are telling, charming and enhancing.
One painting work there is quite exceptional, it is Beef or Skinned Beef, and it is Chagall’s dialogue with Soutine, the work on which Chagall worked for a decade, 1925 – 1929-1935, as he punctually marked it.
This work is rarely exhibited, and it was amazing and very interesting to see it as a part of the exhibition. And the dialogue of both Soutine and Chagall, in fact, is their individual dialogues with Rembrandt whom they both adored and have had as a pre-dominant, towering figure.
Rembrandt’s Flaunted Ox appeared in 1655, and it was painted on the wood. The dramatism, the strength, and the shock coming out of that not quite typical for Rembrandt either work has never diminished. It did strike people in the mid-17th century in the same way as it did in the early 1920s when Soutine and Chagall saw it, as it does today. Chaim Soutine produced his first of many paintings directly referring to Rembrandt’s classic image which was the great master’s metaphor of death, in 1924. He started to paint and draw some of the works on the theme much earlier, but the characteristic Soutine’s carcasses in oil, as we know them and what he became famous for, among the other things, appeared in 1924 first.
So, Marc Chagall was responding to his troubled friend with his version of the Rembrandt’s Flaunted Ox the next year, 1925, and he continued to work on this dialogue for ten years, making some substantial details of the painting in 1929 and finalising it in 1935. I don’t even know if this work of Chagall is about Soutine, but I am certain that it is about Rembrandt and Marc Chagall himself as it is obvious from this rare and very interesting work and its telling details, indeed. Marc Chagall would return to the theme of Flaunted Ox once again, in 1947, and that his painting is as an open wound, understandably.
Two other works in the Chagall Universe space of the exhibition in Vilnius spoke to my heart, his Villager Holding the Torah of 1928 ( and the work comes from the deposit of the Fountenay-sous-Bois City Hall, being part of the Museum of Art and History of Judaism collection), and the portrait of his father, a small but very soulful and loving work which is officially known as A Man with a Glass of Tea , a loving gouache work of 1922-1923, done by the artist soon after he has left the Soviet Russia for good.
The works are exhibited next to each other, and one can see a very close resemblance between the portrait of Khatskel Chagall, and the Villager holding the Torah. I think that it is not an occasional resemblance. I think that Marc Chagall was thinking of his father when painting his Villager in 1928.
And of course, Chagall’s well-known self-portraits with him placed in the front of his easel upside down, staying on his head, is a pure joy.
As my husband, an artist for whom Chagall is as indisputable authority as Rembrandt was for Chagall himself, noted looking at that small gouache self-portrait: “It does not matter how much colour one uses. When there is art, it is a revolution of perception, and it does not require much beyond it”. So very true.
Michael continued referring to Chagall’s etchings for his Ma Vie: “ Who else ever came with these ideas? Who else literally switched one’s heart and mind in between, and painted accordingly?”
A big wall in the Chagall hall of the exhibition is entirely dedicated to 20 framed etchings from the artist’s Ma Vie autobiography which he started at the time, before leaving Russia for good, in 1922. It is a full collection of those famous sketches, with many of Chagall’s ideas of depicting the shtetl world appearing there. Being seen as a complete collection, it immerses us in the world of his now famous images at the time and moment when they originated.
It gets us close to his feelings transformed into some of the most brilliant and most touching images in an entire Jewish art. But a very special treat are two original pages from the Ma Vie manuscript in which accurate Chagall’s handwriting lives alongside his drawings illustrating the soulful text of Ma Vie. A treasure.
As it happened, the last time Marc Chagall’s works were shown at the exhibition in Lithuania was a century ago. When the artist decided to leave Soviet Russia for good in 1922, he was permitted to do so, but without his works. In a very well known and well documented episode of history, it was due to the efforts of the outstanding pre-Soviet Lithuanian Ambassador to the USSR, important Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrusaitis, that some of Chagall’s works were saved and and transported from Russia in the early 1920s.
The works were transported via Kaunas, where Chagall’s wife Bella’s relatives were living at the time. Chagall, Bella and Ida also came to Kaunas and spent a few days there, on their way to Paris. It was exactly at that moment that some of Marc Chagall’s works were exhibited in Kaunas, twice, for a couple of days each time. The next time it happened was now, a century after. Just to think about it.
I entered this exhibition with love, and I ended it with pride for what love, talent and soul can bring to the world.
Litvak Artists as an Integral part of Lithuanian culture
Discussing this outstanding cultural and public project and deed with my Lithuanian colleagues which were pivotal for its realisation, I have noticed one important aspect that they have emphasised. ‘ This exhibition is extremely important, – says Dr Arunas Gelunas, director of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art, a state institution that includes 11 museums all over the country. – It is important not only because of the number of works and number of artists we were able to bring here, to the home of many of them. But it is important because it physically and literally places their art, the art of the Litvak artists, into the context of the country where many of them originated from.
During many years of my work , first as the Minister for Culture and later on as Lithuania’s representative at the UNESCO, I have noticed a strange tendency which I believe is wrong. Due to many circumstances, both objective and subjective ones, during many years of our very dramatic history, many people here in the country tended to think that the Ecole de Paris, the artists who left the country and were working in France, the US and other countries, although had had their roots in Lithuania, and also Belarus and Ukraine, all those whom we known as Litvaks, the Jewish artists as they were, has created a paralleled world. That their art is not a part of Lithuanian culture. I always thought that it was a fundamentally wrong approach.
The genius of the Litvak artists came from their origin, the places where their families lived and where they were born, their homes, the places where their life was started and developed. The places which they were remembering with love and nostalgia for the rest of their lives. That love, memories and nostalgia has brought the genius and the immortal images created by the Litvak artists to the world and it has become a world cultural heritage.
But first and foremost of all, it is the heritage, legacy and the integral part of Lithuania. We should perceive it like that, we should be proud of it, and we should understand and see it in this organic way. And this exhibition, the largest in the Baltics to date, is important for us to step in this direction”.
I cannot agree more with my friend and colleague. Arunas, his team and colleagues are doing a great service to the entire Lithuanian society and many of its generations by their understanding, intention, and deeds. Their mission is both noble and is absolutely historically justified. And it is a high time for that, too.
I hope that it would be successful and that people in Lithuania and the other countries where from the myriad of superbly talented Jewish youth moved to Paris a century ago, in order to become a free artists, and has become the creme a la creme, a shining example and the pride of the world culture despite many tragedies they had to experienced in their very uneasy lives, would not only intellectually realise, but also feel at the emotional level that Litvak artists has enriched and glorified the countries of their origins first and foremost of all.
Homecoming of the Ecole de Vitebsk
Their life in Paris was not easy, despite being extremely rich artistically-wise. They were poor, they were strangers, they were different. They were not ‘connected’ in high society. The very title Ecole de Paris which we are using now without any prejudice, initially was something close to diminishing and contempt, as I wrote in my previous works on the Ecole de Paris and its Jewish artists which were a majority of it.
They counter-balanced envy and sometimes snobbish hostility towards them by their organic immense talent, their natural-born wit, but most of all by generously putting their open heart into every sketch, drawing, painting and sculpture coming from them. This is additionally to unrestricted freedom of expression which was outpouring in their works.
It always was Ecole de Vitebsk, in the most revered sense of the term, both for those tens of great Jewish artists from Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Belarus, for their public and for the art critics and other professionals as well. Being privileged to be a wife of a good artist of the Litvak origin, and having the same origin myself, it felt only natural for me to work on a special project, Homage to the Ecole de Vitebsk, which was prompted to a serious degree by so special exhibition of Litvak Artists in Vilnius.
There is nothing closer to my heart in the world of art history than those artists, aged as my grandparents, so I can feel and understand them and their world quite closely and authentically, and coming from the same parts of the world as mine and my husband’s families came from. I have a family-like feeling to each and every of them in particular, and to all of them as a group sharing an immense talent, but most and foremost, that Jewish heart, wise, vulnerable, fine, with melancholy and humour in the same proportion, with our all common memory, and everyone’s personal detailed memory amalgamated in the Jewish narrative of the modern art of the 20th century.
They were striving to be in Paris following a childish belief of the shtetl about the golden place to be. ‘As happy as God in Paris’ was one of the best known Yiddish proverbs, and it reflected on the dreams of big talents born in such impressive quantities all over the shtetls in several parts of the Russian empire. And God was definitely watching over them from and in Paris, although some of them as Soutine, fell a tragic victim of the weaponised and so meticulously organised hatred towards Jews.
Still, most of the Litvak artists lived amazingly long lives, which is a feature of its own. Many of the people from that generation of our grandparents who did survive WWII, lived long, being formed extremely strong by the unspeakable experience of the Shoah, and also compensating for the devastating number of its victims . Litvak artists also worked extremely productively. They have created a special, unique stratum of heartfelt art, the warmth of which contradicts inhumanity which they and their contemporary have experienced, in the most poignant way. They did prove that those mannequins of evil who regarded their art as ‘degenerate’, were and still will forever be the epitome of the degenerated essence of anti-humanity itself.
It is only natural that the Ecole de Vitebsk is coming home. I always knew that it would happen. It is just impossible not to, it is against the laws of nature, the laws of human coexistence, and the laws of history development.
I remember how tirelessly I was gently but persistently confronting some of my colleagues in different world museums, from Paris to New York, where people who did not bother themselves with some extra studies, would repeatedly annotate the works of Chagall and his friends and colleagues from Ecole de Paris as ‘Russian’ artists, or Russian, French” ones. Initially, they did not understand my point, then something changed, and I got an apology first followed by actual corrections in some lucky cases.
I am very glad that the current process is so consistent in Lithuania, the native country of so many great Litvak artists. First, Samuel Bak has donated the major bulk of his works to Lithuania, and now we have a special Samuel Bak Museum as a part of Vilna Gaon Museum in Vilnius. Then, the family of Arbit Blatas did the same, and an important collection of 300 works of that extremely talented artist is back home now, as well. Now, Alexander and Milij Chwoleses have recently signed an agreement with the same Gaon Museum transferring his father’s legacy back to Vilnius as well, and from November 2023, Rafael Chwoles Museum, a part of Vilna Gaon Museum, should be opened in the Lithuania’s capital, too.
I find it all extremely important. It is a natural place for the legacy of those great Litvak artists. In accommodating those collections, Lithuania is enriched and its culture blossoms in an additional way and in the special dimension which is organic. And soon, Lithuania will become a world cultural hub of Jewish, Litvak art which would make it one of the important cultural centres of the world, with a good reason. I am very happy that Samuel Bak, and children and great-children of the other Litvak artists whose legacy is making this essential homecoming, are seeing it, and are living through this essential process and human experience. From now on, it will enrich many generations, both in Lithuania and elsewhere, all those who would have a very solid reason to visit the museums filled with the legacy and works of the great Litvak artists who have returned home, after a century of wandering.
As happy as God in Paris. As satisfied as a Litvak artist coming home. As lucky as we are seeing the process in real-time.