What is Belarus? A small state bordering Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia, known mostly for its president and its Nobel laureate (both the only ones in the country’s sovereign history). Not quite an exhaustive description, but at least we are sure that this is a country. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the time we’re going to discuss, the question was even more complicated.
The previous century, the 19th one, marked the hegemony of Russian Empire in Belarusian history when this territory, earlier a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, suddenly found itself under the iron hand of Catherine II. We’ll skip the long colourful story of revolts, legal manipulations and political confrontation, as its dramatic plot deserves a separate article, and will focus our attention on the fin de siécle, precisely on the condition of the cultural field.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, Belarusian artists became a relatively natural part of the Empire’s cultural field and worked in the context of a Russian tradition. The only two education institutions legitimate to give a higher education in fine art were based in Saint-Petersburg and Moscow (The Russian Academy of Arts and, after 1866, The School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture respectively). These conditioned the views of both the mainstream art world, and the comparatively small number of artists in the lands of Belarus. The majority of graduate painters stayed in the cities they studied in, or travelled around Europe to broaden their outlook and to develop painting skills, but some had motives to come back. Among the returnees was a prominent figure who, being a persuaded realist, ironically arrived at the explosion of anti-academicist sentiment after the revolution of 1917.
His name was Yudl Pen: Jewish, from a poor background, he would travel the thorny path to the dream of becoming an artist. His financial state, and attachement to the Pale of Settlement (ghettoized Western Imperial Russia) meant he had little prospects towards an education in fine art, however in 1880, aged 27 , Pen managed to enter the Academy of Arts. As an artist he always had a realistic inclination, believing that true art should be totally understandable and pleasant to the viewer; a subjective view, perhaps, but what matters about Pen is that he was not only an artist fulfilling his dream, but also a caring teacher who taught a whole generation of uniqueartists.
In 1896 Pen arrived in Vitebsk, a Belarusian town in the Pale, opening a private drawing school – a modest commercial undertaking that later on gave birth to the Vitebsk painting school in its philosophical meaning. A leading light in Vitebsk’s founding was world-famous Marc Chagall, raised there and a pupil of Pen’s. He became a Commissar of the Arts for Vitebsk province after the October revolution and founded the Vitebsk Arts College – the first art school of Soviet Belarus and the melting pot of Belarusian avant-garde trends.
Friends in everyday life, both professors of the newly-born college; yet Pen and Chagall were artistically opposed. Many of Pen’s former pupils became his opponents: El Lissitzky, Ossip Zadkine, Zair Azgur – these are just the most prominent and the most illustrative names. Their breaking with realistic tradition, though disapproved of by Pen, wasn’t motivated pettiness or rebellion. It was a mission, a manifest, an answer to political changes. The new anti-imperialistic society based on equality and communist ideas needed a new art language, and the artists aspired to develop it. It was a time of utopia when everyone believed in the purificatory power of the Revolution, including even those who will later on in the Soviet history be given the peculiar term “intelligentsia”.
Those three years after the Revolution and the 1920s became a period of artistic experiments, searching for new forms, ways and visions. Unlike Western European art historiography, the Belarusian school pays no attentoion separate periods of impressionism, expressionism and other peculiar “-isms”, as all these styles got the opportunity to develop and developed parallel with one another during the first 15 years of Soviet rule. The damage left by the Second World War means that Belarusian works are hard to find, but the collection of the National Art Museum in Minsk still preserves a number of character paintings and sculptures that may serve as true emblems of the decade.
These are, first of all, Abram Brazer’s portrait of Yudl Pen created using the Cezannistic principle of volume imparted through colour, signifying the difference between traditional painting (which is obvious in Pen’s self-portraits) and the tendencies cultivated by the Vitebsk Arts Colledge. One more publicly available masterpiece encouraged by this educational establishment is Mikhail Kunin’s The Art of Commune, an example of still life based on the refusal of mimesis, i.e. detailed imitation of reality, and the application of new painting semiotics. The farthest step in this direction was made by Kazimir Malevich, the professor of the College, the inventor of suprematism and the creator of the UNOVIS group of artists, or “those who affirm the new art” – new meaning art its most abstract, non-figurative from.
In parallel, though slightly more slowly, the same tendencies developed in other regions of Soviet Belarus, culminating in the 1925 1st All-Belarusian Exhibition. A report on the artistic archievements of the Soviet Belarus, it featured Vladimir Kudrevich’s post-impressionistic works (the most unique survivor of the Second World War being The Morning of Spring, in the collection of the National Art Museum of Belarus), Mikhail Stanuta whose early paintings were much influenced by the style of Paul Gauguin and Mikhail Filippovich whose style presents a combination of annalistic archaization and modern fauvism expression. In the 1920s, concepts of Belarusian identity rose to the fore. The state had four official languages at the time: Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish – and art united them all. Artists received unprecedented freedom of style and expression, the halo of which was observed even in ideologically motivated works such as those made public by the the 2nd All-Belarusian Exhibition (1928).
Thematically it focused on the man of labour and was, per se, the first incident of government procurement in culture. However the general tension and formalistic inclination of the presented works, as, for instance, Alexander Grube’s Barrower or Sergei Kovrovsky’s Grinder, annoyed state officials. The art they found at the exhibition could not and did not meet the goals of ideology.
Even though the works seemed to reflect the life of the man of labour, the man of labour as he was couldn’t possibly understand that kind of art. The proletarian art wasn’t at all art for or about proletarians, it was art by proletarian artists or, to be more precise, those who believed in communistic utopia and aspired to equalize artists and the working class. Such philosophy, however, wasn’t of much interest to the Party.
From 1928 censorship and direction of artistic development were toughened up, towards a more ideologically appropriate message until the adoption of Socialist realism as official art method in 1932. It was the end of the era of artistic freedom – obviously short but absolutely remarkable for the history of art. Absorbed by form experiments, the artists of the 20s sincerely pursued the revolution in art, missing the fact that the art revolution was a phenomenon of a different nature to the social and political one. This conflict meant that by the 1930s, a new era of Belarusian and Soviety history had begun, silencing the once flourishing avant-garde.
 Western Imperial Russia where the permanent Jewish residency was allowed, including Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Moldova, Poland and Lithuania
 The main culture position in the province after the October revolution. As a commissar, Chagall curated the work of all museums and had a right to found new cultural institutions.
 The policy of protection and promotion of Belarusian culture conducted during the 1920s in the Belarusian SSR