The childhood or working homes of most painters of world renown are now well-established tourist honey pots. The massing of art-hungry visitors at Monet’s Giverny came to mind as I wandered, alone, around the house of Marc Chagall. Despite his Francophone name, Chagall lived in a bungalow down a quiet cobbled lane, which is to be found in Vitebsk in the international tourism backwater of Belarus.
Chagall was born in the city in 1887, and spent much of his youth at 11 Pokrovskaya Street, the eldest of nine children. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this because, historically, his home country has done little to promote his origins. When I lived in Belarus in 1989, when it was still in the Soviet Union, Chagall was invisible, all but a non-person, though he never quite made it to the status of an official enemy of the state. Even a recent review, by Andrew Motion, of the latest biography of Chagall made no mention of his Belarussian origins.
Chagall was a Hasidic Jew, which may partly explain the Belarussian, and before that, the Soviet state’s ambivalence towards him. After the Russian revolution he became director of the Art Academy in Vitebsk, but soon left for France.
A visit to his house is a fascinating, and oddly moving, experience. The landscapes of Vitebsk heavily influenced his paintings, featuring small houses, fences, animals and children. These locations were likened in importance by his biographer, Jackie Wullschlager, to the influence that Dublin had on James Joyce. Chagall once said: “Not a single picture I have, where you cannot see a fragment of my Pokrovskaya Street.”
Behind the unremarkable exterior of his home, a thoughtful, if budget-oriented, restoration has taken place. Part of the house was a local store selling groceries and your footsteps echo on wooden floors as you brush past red-draped curtains and flock wallpaper. There are just two rooms, and a kitchen. The display is spartan but the sketches and prints present intimate glimpses of what family life must have been like. There are drawings of his father asleep at the dining table, a samovar boiling away and a couple snatching an embrace. Other pictures show Chagall with Picasso in 1906, and Chagall with his first wife Bella and their daughter Ida in France, just before they returned to the Russian revolution.
There is nothing to signify that he was Jewish, nothing in English, and little interpretation, even in Russian or Belarussian, so you will need to do your homework before you arrive. Behind the house is a small, charming garden with a Chagall bronze cast enclosed by a brown and green crooked fence.
The other Chagall must-see site in Vitebsk is the Chagall Art Museum, which lies across the huge valley carved out by the Western Dvina river. Funded by the European Union, it lacks proper air-quality control, which means that Chagall’s illustrations to a copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls is kept under wraps for much of the year. Thirty lithographs on the ground floor include some trademark images: fiddlers, lovers flying in the sky, Chagall on a chimney. A separate section is devoted to paintings on religious themes.
Vitebsk also repays further exploration. It was all but razed during the Second World War, and the only surviving part of central Vitebsk from Chagall’s time is a small quarter around the City Hall, from Lenin Street and along Suvarova Street, where fin de siècle wrought-iron railings top overhanging balconies.
Elsewhere, the city’s wide streets and functional buildings look as though they were dropped by airlift in pre-fabricated concrete blocks, but they boast a fading grandeur. Next to the Chagall Art Museum stands the Russian governor’s palace. Napoleon spent his 43rd birthday here, during the ill-fated 1812 campaign. (A monument marking the centenary of the campaign stands in the centre of the wooded square.) Today the building houses the local secret service, though they seem happy for you to photograph it. As with other cities in Belarus, this is a place to take pictures of some of the few remaining busts of Lenin and other Soviet-era figures that remain on public display. Street names such as Sovetskaya and Kirov present an unexpected wind chill from the Soviet past.
Yet Vitebsk is unexpectedly home to one of the best and most charismatic hotels in the former Soviet Union. It’s run by accomplished, cosmopolitan owners, and the rooms of the Hotel Eridan have an individual flourish and the restaurant is superb, with a wine list that ranges from Georgia to Australia.
The city has few high-rise buildings, which means it has superb views and big skies from vantage points such as the bridge across the dramatic, high-sloping banks of the Western Dvina. Close by is the Annunciation Church, with its classic Byzantine design of limestone blocks separated by brick and stucco exterior. It is the only intact surviving example of such architecture north of the Black Sea. Next door stands the exquisite, restored, wooden Alexander Nevsky Orthodox church, dating from the 10th century.
I left Vitebsk by bus, passing the traditional wooden houses of Peskovatics, where Chagall was born. My guided tour had not included this quarter, not because of any lingering animosity towards Chagall but more because tourism in Belarus remains extremely embryonic. Here, frustratingly, were the gaily coloured stone houses that Chagall would have recognised from his youth, along with vivid green window frames, tidy fences and little rag-tag children. I wanted to stop the bus and explore. But in a way, the difficulty of tracking down the man’s haunts seemed in keeping with the quirky, elusive nature of his otherworldly pictures.
How to get there
Regent Holidays (0845 277 3317; regent-holidays.co.uk ) offers five nights in Belarus from £654 per person, based on two sharing, including flights from Heathrow to Minsk via Prague with Czech Airlines; airport charges; transfers; three nights’ B&B at the three-star Hotel Planeta in Minsk; and two nights’ B&B at the three-star Hotel Eridan in Vitebsk.
Visas can be obtained in advance from the Belarussian embassy (020-7938 3677; belembassy.org/uk) or on arrival at Minsk airport. You must have your accommodation pre-booked and a letter of invitation.