Open air artworks

[b]Young Vitebsk artists restore tradition of painting city walls[/b]Vitebsk is known for its ancient and glorious art traditions, such as decorating streets and houses with picturesque canvases — a custom dating back to 1918. In that year, Marc Chagall was Arts Commissioner for Vitebsk and Vitebsk region. He chose to paint the wooden fences in front of St. Nikolay’s Cathedral to celebrate the 1st anniversary of the October Revolution not with slogans urging the public to demolish palaces, but with green sheep and violin players, to the surprise of all! However, he truly had created a festive, revolutionary mood and, one year later, the city authorities decided to decorate the entire street in the same manner. For the 1036th anniversary of their native city, celebrated in late June 2010, Vitebsk artists copied the grand figures of Kazimir Malevich, recreating his Death to Wallpaper! (which original is housed by the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg). It’s located in the street, which has preserved the building of the People’s Art School, founded by Marc Chagall. Some specialists say that Malevich made this work to further decorate an interior while others assert that it was created for a Vitebsk house.
Young Vitebsk artists restore tradition of painting city walls

Vitebsk is known for its ancient and glorious art traditions, such as decorating streets and houses with picturesque canvases — a custom dating back to 1918. In that year, Marc Chagall was Arts Commissioner for Vitebsk and Vitebsk region. He chose to paint the wooden fences in front of
St. Nikolay’s Cathedral to celebrate the 1st anniversary of the October Revolution not with slogans urging the public to demolish palaces, but with green sheep and violin players, to the surprise of all! However, he truly had created a festive, revolutionary mood and, one year later, the city authorities decided to decorate the entire street in the same manner.
For the 1036th anniversary of their native city, celebrated in late June 2010, Vitebsk artists copied the grand figures of Kazimir Malevich, recreating his Death to Wallpaper! (which original is housed by the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg). It’s located in the street, which has preserved the building of the People’s Art School, founded by Marc Chagall. Some specialists say that Malevich made this work to further decorate an interior while others assert that it was created for a Vitebsk house.
Whatever the truth, the fact is that Malevich founded the UNOVIS society (abbreviation in Russian of ‘the champions of new art’) in Vitebsk in February 1920. Just one year before, he and his companion El Lissitzky planned to decorate the entire street; this was curtailed though, with the pair painting only one Vitebsk building in December 1919 — the house of the Committee for Combating Unemployment.
“Malevich and his UNOVIS companions established the entire vision of the city as the centre of a new visual culture,” explains the Head of Vitebsk’s Modern Art Centre, Valentina Kirillova. “His sketches were well-received by the city and were put in place for 1920’s 1st May celebrations. Death to Wallpaper! may have been created to decorate an interior but it was adapted to suit the city’s walls. The unique style is still fascinating to today’s international art specialists.”
Artist Yelena Chuikova undertook to transfer Malevich’s draft to the wall with the help of an electronic measure, scaling his work up to cover almost 7m x 7m! “Two of us, me and my friend, began painting the wall and, believe me, it’s physically demanding,” Lena admits. “We had rollers, but they splash the paint, so we had to use mainly small brushes. However, you forget about fatigue when you realise that you are creating the cultural heritage that will be the pride of your city and the entire world. The city used to be the workshop of Yuri Pen, his student Marc Chagall and, later, other artists who revolutionised art! Drawing ‘black squares’ and the other suprematist images of Malevich on the house wall, we were preparing a breakthrough in the usual understanding of painting.”
Of course, painting the side of a building is not like painting onto normal canvas. Moreover, the wall on which Lena was painting (viewed perfectly from Lenin Street — one of the main avenues through Vitebsk) is old, with numerous nooks and crannies, so the working space was far from smooth or flat.
Initially, the ‘black square’ placed by Malevich in his lower left corner of the sketch was moved by his followers to the upper right — to allow the images to flow properly. However, designer Alexander Vyshka then came up with an interesting solution to preserve the original integrity of the artist’s work. By painting on two planes, both on the wall and on the annex, the design will be perceived as one plane when viewing from Pravda Street (on which Vitebsk People’s Art School was founded in 1918). The creation by the young Vitebsk artists became a ‘diptych’ — viewable from several points.
“It is a known fact that Malevich denied any bourgeois manifestations in art. He wanted pure art to dominate in the world,” explains one of participants of the art-campaign, painter Andrey Dukhovnikov. “There are several approaches to his ‘black square’, but no matter whether we want it or not, this work has become an icon of the 20th century. The black square is a ‘unit of beauty’ — nothing else but a contemporary pixel, an idea well-known to those who deal with digital photos. It turns out that, in the early 20th century, Malevich managed to anticipate today’s computer technologies!” While Dukhovnikov, Chuikova and their helpers painted the wall, they were approached by various people asking questions and were able to share their opinions.
Famous Vitebsk artist Alexander Maley also recreated Malevich’s work in the early 1990s, in the same place. He tells us, “At that time, the Kvadrat Creative Association existed in our city. Together with our friends, we decided to arrange a campaign in honour of our prominent fellow countryman. However, our paint was unstable and the picture ‘melted’ before our eyes, changing colour. Ordinary painters from municipal services tried to reconstruct it; then, several years ago, during the rebuilding of Lenin Street, it was painted fully over. Whenever I passed by this clean wall, I always felt that there was something missing. I’m truly happy that these young artists picked up our baton.”
This time, special paints were used to ensure its endurance.
“It’s wonderful that this picture is appearing in this place!” notes another Vitebsk artist, Felix Gumen. “It’s as if it points to the building which once hosted Vitebsk Art School, founded by Chagall, where Malevich headed classes.”
This year’s campaign is just the first step in a major project to reconstruct Vitebsk’s central part, neighbouring this historical building. A large multi-functional exhibition centre is planned, accommodating experimental artists. Interestingly, two years ago, the project was shown at Belarus Investment Forum in London; recently, Vitebsk was visited by potential British financiers, ready to invest around $10m in the idea’s realisation. Works by Malevich and his UNOVIS friends are still stirring debate among art lovers worldwide. Their fans may soon be able to see the Vitebsk period of the lives and creative careers of these outstanding masters in comfortable conditions.

By Sergey Golesnik
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