Dreaming of Belarus: A Pligrimage to Vitebsk

Editor’s note: ISSUE contributor Elena Ivanova spent the summer in Eastern Europe doing research for a book. This story is the last in a four-part series chronicling her adventures and the artistic discoveries she made along the way.

“My sad, my joyful town!” — Marc Chagall

“Street in Vitebsk” by Yuri Pen.

Long evening shadows were already weaving their intricate patchwork on the city’s streets and alleys, but the sun was still blazing as if it had no intention of quitting for the day. “Is it always so hot in Vitebsk in the end of May?” I wondered as I made my way up the hill towards the majestic cathedral that crowned its top. I felt like a pilgrim who, after a long journey, has arrived at the holy site and is overwhelmed by awe, anticipation and exhaustion.

Having reached the high plaza of the Cathedral of Assumption, I was rewarded with a grand view of the Dvina River, the major waterway connecting Vitebsk with the Baltic Sea. The river ensured growth and prosperity of the ancient city since the date of its foundation, in 947, till the age of railroads stripped it of this honorable duty. The opposite bank looked wild and verdant, although I knew that this picturesque facade concealed a modern city district. Nevertheless, I indulged in a fantasy of standing on the spot over a hundred years ago and enjoying the view as Vitebskovites saw it in the early 1900s.

“Self Portrait” by Yuri Pen

My family’s roots are just north of this area, on the border of Russia and Belarus. However, it was not my family story that I set out to uncover during my trip. For several years I have been putting together the life story of Belarusian-American artist Leon Schulmann Gaspard, whose name may be familiar to art fans in southeast Texas due to an excellent collection of his works at the Stark Museum of Art in Orange.

When I visited Minsk, I spent days at the State Historical Archive of Belarus looking for references to Schulmann. Here, in Vitebsk, I was on a different mission. This was his native town and it was at the famous school of artist Yuri (Yehuda) Pen that young Leiba Schulmann, as he was known at the time, got his first instruction in art.

My plan was to learn as much as possible about Pen’s school and his pupils who lived in Vitebsk around the same time as Schulmann. This knowledge could help me to better understand the environment that nurtured Leiba Schulmann’s artistic talent.

The most famous among Pen’s pupils was Marc Chagall, just five years younger than Leiba. Chagall’s memory is much revered in Vitebsk and everything related to his life in this city is preserved and carefully studied. So early next morning I headed to Chagall’s childhood home, which is a museum today.

A one-story brick house on Pokrovskaya Street appeared to be way too small for a family of ten. Two boys had a bedroom of their own and although it was no bigger than a closet, they fared much better than their sisters. Six girls, spaced within 13 years, had to share one bedroom as well. The dining room could barely fit a table and chairs. The adjacent living room was more spacious, but the family did not benefit from it since it operated as a grocery store. There were times when they even had tenants.

“Portrait of Marc Chagall” by Yuri Pen

Yet Chagall’s parents were not poor by the standards of their time. Through hard work and frugal housekeeping, they saved enough money to replace the original wooden house with a brick one and then added two more wooden structures to their property. Looking at the photographs displayed on the walls, one gets an impression of a respectable middle-class family.

What did young Moishe, who was destined to become the great Marc Chagall, see when he looked out of the window? “Churches, fences, shops, synagogues stand on every side, simple and eternal as the buildings in Giotto’s frescoes. Around me, all kinds of Jews, old ones, young ones, Javitches, Bejlines, come and go, turn and turn again, or simply trot along. A beggar runs toward his house, a rich man goes home. The “Cheder” boy runs home. Papa goes home.”1

A plaque to Yuri Pen and the Town House Towers in Vitebsk, Belarus.

I thought of the busy neighborhood of Chagall’s youth as I walked down the street. The area looked deserted, with overgrown lots and an occasional factory. A skeletal frame of a synagogue stood at a street corner like a grisly ghost from the past.

From his backyard, the future artist could see in the distance the towers and the golden dome of the Cathedral of Assumption. Although located on the other bank of the Dvina, this majestic building soared above the landscape of wooden shacks and vegetable gardens. Later in life, Chagall often depicted this cathedral in his paintings, showing it closer than it actually was so that its massive structure seemed to overwhelm the dwarfish houses of his neighborhood.

The Cathedral of Assumption in Vitebsk

Young Leiba Schulmann could have lived in a similar neighborhood. Some of Pen’s students recalled that Schulmann came from a poor family and his father was either a carpenter or a cabinet-maker. In his early works he portrayed wooden houses and fences stretched along a dirt road, like the ones depicted by Chagall. Other works featured the Cathedral of Assumption, although the artist tended to arbitrarily place it in a location of his own choosing, such as a marketplace.

While in those bygone days Pokrovskaya Street and much of its neighborhood looked like a village, the downtown of Vitebsk boasted paved streets and even a tram line. It was from the platform of a tram that young Moishe noticed a white inscription on a blue placard sheet of metal that said, “Pen’s School of Painting.” Remembering this pivotal moment of his life, Chagall wrote, “Ah!” I thought, “what a clever town our Vitebsk is!” I immediately decided to make the acquaintance of the master.”2

Scholars still debate when exactly Chagall attended Pen’s school. The artist claimed that it was in 1906, at the age of 19. However, even if it happened a few years earlier, as some researchers suggest, by then Leiba Schulmann had completed his studies with Pen. Chagall must have often heard from his teacher about this talented young man who continued his education in Odessa and then in Paris. In the fall of 1907, the proud master exhibited his works side by side with Schulmann and two other former students at a large show at the Second Public Assembly in Vitebsk.

Portrait of Schulmann” by Yuri Pen

Today there is no tram line and the house which accommodated Pen’s apartment and the school is gone. Paradoxically, it survived the war, only to be demolished later. A memorial plaque on the building standing on its site reminds us of this remarkable man, a talented artist and a passionate teacher who devoted forty years of his life to instilling love for art in young minds.

Born in a poor Jewish family in Novoalexand-rovsk (today Zarasai, Lithuania), Pen achieved something that very few artistically-minded Jews in Russia were able to achieve. He was admitted to the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Upon successful graduation he was granted the right to reside in the capital city. However, he preferred to go to provincial Vitebsk where, in the fall of 1897, he opened an art school for the local public.

Pen’s school was open to anyone who wanted to study art, regardless of age, ethnicity or rank. Those who were too poor to pay enjoyed free lessons. For Jewish youth the school offered a rare opportunity to get instruction from a professional artist. There were very few art schools within the Jewish Pale of Settlement which limited the movement of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire to its western provinces (today’s territories of Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.) Besides Chagall, such future superstars of 20th-century art as El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine also commenced their art education at Pen’s school.

While in Minsk, I had the pleasure of meeting a grand niece of Pen, Anna Gerstein. A retired theater critic, she is energetic and agile despite her venerable age. We spent a delightful morning at her apartment drinking tea and talking about the time she and her parents stayed with “uncle Yuri” in Vitebsk. “He had three rooms, but the only big room was taken by his studio,” she reminisced. “The walls were covered from floor to ceiling with his paintings and those of his pupils. He also taught in this room. He slept on a couch, which was the only piece of furniture in the adjacent room. There also was a tiny room by the kitchen.”

It was in this tiny room facing the backyard that the 82-year-old artist was viciously murdered on the night of March 1, 1937. The official report was that the motive was burglary. “Anna Grigorievna, do you think it was politically motivated?” I asked. She replied, “The truth has not been told yet… There was a public outcry when it happened and some petty thieves were promptly picked up. They confessed, were tried and sentenced to a prison term, but later they recanted their story, said they had nothing to do with Pen’s death.”

Anna Gerstein

She didn’t have to say it – we both knew Soviet history. 1937 was the year of the Great Terror. Along with an open witch hunt for foreign spies and traitors, a secret campaign against prominent cultural figures was carried out by Stalin’s henchmen. Although Pen never meddled in politics and cared only about art, he stayed in touch with his former students who now lived abroad — Chagall in France, Schulmann in America. Maybe a trivial thing, like an exhibition catalog with a foreign return address, was enough to seal his fate….

This is the last installment of my travelogue. My magical travels in Belarus came to an end. I found what I had set out to discover: I got a glimpse of life of young Jewish art students in the early 20th century. At the same time, on my journey, I collected my own memories which are too extensive to fit into the format of a magazine article. This travelogue may be looked upon as a sampler plate which gives readers a taste of various wonderful things that Belarus has to offer. By the way, did I mention that Belarusian pastry and dairy are the best I have ever tasted?

1          Marc Chagall. “My Life” Peter Owen Publishers, 2011, p.10.

2          Ibid., p.59.

Story and photos by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE Staff Writer