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Chagall's Birthplace Finally Returns His Affection. : Art: His hometown of Vitebsk in Belarus has a museum in his honor, but no original works.

December 10, 1994|LEE HOCKSTADER | THE WASHINGTON POST

VITEBSK, Belarus — One day in 1962, an extraordinary letter arrived at the Vitebsk museum for culture and history, a pretty pink building that was left standing, miraculously, after the city was pulverized in World War II.

The letter was from a Soviet scholar in France who had been in touch with Marc Chagall, the renowned modernist painter then in his mid-70s. This alone was unusual. Chagall, who had left his home town of Vitebsk as a young man to live in France, was a non-person as far as Moscow was concerned.

As an emigre, a Jew and a painter whose work did not (to say the least) celebrate the heroic triumphs of the Soviet socialist people, Chagall was politically, ethnically and artistically incorrect. What could a Soviet scholar on official business possibly have to discuss with Chagall?

If the fact of the letter was unusual, the content was astonishing. Chagall left Vitebsk (pronounced VEE-tebsk) in 1922, but he had never forgotten it. It was where he first fell in love, married and learned to draw and paint.

Many of Chagall's early canvases are scenes of Vitebsk or what he called its "special sky," where he conjured soaring brides, flying cows, dancing fiddlers and airborne violins, all of them taking flight in his imagination and lingering, as shards of memory, for decades.

Now Chagall, relaying his message through the scholar, wanted to know: Could he give some of his work back to the city that had inspired him so many years ago?

Yevgenia Kichina, who worked in the museum's art department, saw the letter and got excited. With some others in her office, she drafted a letter describing post-war Vitebsk, a city of grimy apartment blocks that was almost unrecognizable as the 1,000-year-old town of wooden houses and graceful cathedrals of Chagall's youth.

"We said we had set up an art department and would be happy if we could have the Chagall pieces," she said.

Then Kichina mentioned the letter to a member of the city's Communist Party committee. "He said, 'What--and you are going to do this on your own, without any permission? How could this even occur to you?' "

She appealed to a regional party official, who turned her down flat. "I asked him why not, and he said, 'No, period.' "

The moment passed, and the opportunity vanished. Having lost much of its heritage in the war, Vitebsk had let slip the ties to its most famous son too.

Now, three decades later, the city is struggling to reclaim what it has lost. Most suspect that Vitebsk's bond with Chagall, who died in 1985, is irretrievably gone. But a few true believers are convinced it is not too late, that Vitebsk and Chagall can connect again, that somehow the artist and his legacy can rescue dull, drab Vitebsk, add a dab of life, a splash of color and put the town on the map, despite everything.

It won't be easy.

On a bluff high above the river that winds through Vitebsk, in the shade of a leafy park, stands an old, red-brick house of two stories. Formerly used for apartments, the building was converted two years ago and is now one of the world's more curious museums. It is Vitebsk's Marc Chagall Museum, but it contains no original works by Chagall.

Officially the museum is owned and operated by the city, but in truth it is the personal project and passion of the director, Lyubov Bazan. A reed-thin, 37-year-old woman of determination and intelligence, Bazan has managed quite literally to make something out of nothing.

Bazan grew up in Vitebsk during the pre-Gorbachev period of stagnation, when the name of Chagall was all but unknown here. The few mentions of his work Bazan had glimpsed were in the pages of Soviet art books, in which the artist was mocked and criticized.

It was only when Bazan was an art student that she discovered, while leafing through such a book, that Chagall was born in Vitebsk, the son of a Yiddish-speaking manual laborer who worked in a herring store. She was astonished.

"I started asking people, older people, about Chagall," she said. "They said he had emigrated a long time ago, that he was a traitor to his motherland."

Chagall, once the city's arts commissar, had disappeared from Vitebsk almost without a trace. No books of his art were available in the bookstores; no posters could be bought at the museums. The one or two original works he left behind in the city were lost in 1941, when the Germans swept into Vitebsk, occupying it for three years.

The house where the artist grew up was still standing in a quiet neighborhood that was once the Jewish ghetto, but there was nothing to distinguish it. The school and museum he ran had been turned into a computer center.

In a country consumed by xenophobia and anti-Semitism, it was chancy even to speak about Chagall. This was particularly true in provincial, war-battered Byelorussia (renamed Belarus at independence two years ago), which was among the more conservative outposts of the Soviet empire.

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