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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Belated Museum for a Native Son

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 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?'"


The moment passed, and the opportunity vanished.


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 and put the town on the map.


It won't be easy.


On a bluff high above the river that winds through Vitebsk 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. Bazan, 37, 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.


"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. And in a country consumed by xenophobia and anti-semitism, it was chancy even to speak about Chagall.


Finally in 1988, as the system began to crumble, thanks to Gorbachev's reforms, Bazan was allowed to pursue her interest in Chagall openly, and she began planning the museum.


"When we arranged this exhibit, we faced a big problem, because we have no original works of art," she said. "So we were producing from our hearts, our souls. And we needed an imaginative way to show Chagall's work, his composition, his coloring, this fairy-tale quality to his art. We wanted to present a general mood. It was the only way out -- to show something of Chagall when we didn't have Chagall himself." The museum opened in 1992.


The result is modest but appealing. Some of Chagall's paintings with a Vitebsk theme have been copied right on the walls and ceilings. One of them is "Red Roofs," a work from the 1950s in which the artist, palette in hand, bows low to the city as he is presented with a bouquet of flowers.


There are two lithographs, donated by a museum in Germany. Old chairs, a samovar, an oil lamp, a clock and a violin are suspended in mid-air, as if in flight. On the wall is a poem by Chagall, in his handwriting, dedicated to Bella, his first wife and the bride who is soaring with him above Vitebsk in his early paintings.