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How on earth do you get to Vitebsk?

November 12th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

Let’s try to be in time again with this blog and give you some real news. After all a blog tries to be as near to the actual events as you can get. Il faut-être de son temps.

Sitting and waiting near the gate for my flight to Minsk at Schiphol airport and starting this new edition of the kitchen blog I ask myself why I’m always writing when travelling and never when working in the museum or at home. Sure, a lot of the preparations for our projects are negotiations, lectures and discussions that need travelling, but far more of the ‘cooking’ is done by means of a computer and a telephone behind a desk and in meetings in our offices. Maybe I write while travelling because of the idea that a lot more happens when you are on the road and maybe too on the other hand because what happens behind the museum desk seems not worth mentioning. But if you as a reader of this kitchen blog want to sneak into our kitchen and see, smell and taste some of the cooking being done this restriction would mean that you would miss the peeling of the potatoes, the cleaning of the vegetables and the slicing of the onions. And similar work is the major part of what needs to be done in order to get the museum meal ready. So I promise you now that I will write on some of that more mechanical and less ‘heroic’ preparatory work when I’m back.

Already in the air I decide to first write about the purpose of this trip. Tonight, somewhere between ten and eleven local time, I hope to arrive in Vitebsk, in the north of Belarus. So maybe I can publish this first part then.

 

El Lissitzky, Design for a city decoration in Vitebsk, 1921

 

Vitebsk started to interest me some six or seven years ago when we in the Van Abbemuseum bought a work by Lissitzky – or at least we think it is – and I started wondering where it had been made and for what purpose. Supposedly it was a design for the decoration of a building in Vitebsk, made by Lissitzky during the time when he was teaching there or just after that.

 

 

 

 

 

Detail: the building near the theatre

 

Through e-mail I got into contact with Professor Alexander Lisov, an expert on Lissitzky and teaching at the university of Vitebsk. He was able to ascertain the place on the photograph, a building near the central square where the main theatre is located. The building on the photo does not exist anymore. The Germans have destroyed this building during the Second World War and many other parts of the city.

 

 

Detail from the backside: label of the Museum of Artistic Culture in St. Petersburg

 

As happens often, with these first answers more questions arose around this work, especially about what was written on the back of it. Because my interest grew in what Lissitzky was doing in Vitebsk at the time I managed to get a small research budget and some time to go to there and look for further information. During this first visit in 2008 Alexander Lisov showed me around and took me to the places related to Lissitzky that are still there. Amongst them was the building where Marc Chagall founded the People’s Art School in 1918. Lissitzky was a teacher there and led the graphic department. I still vividly remember the first time I set foot on these historic grounds. After that I have been to Vitebsk one more time to do further research. And now I am going to give a lecture on the artistic movement that was founded in this very building of the People’s Art School!

 

If you want to go to Vitebsk in four hours, don’t take this train!

 

But to get to Vitebsk was by no means easy this time. I sat in a cab far too long because of the traffic jam in Minsk, I missed two trains searching for a cash machine in the main station, had to wait four hours for the next train and then tried to sleep in a coupé during an eight hour journey that normally takes four hours. So this blog is posted way too late. Anyway, I’m there. Tomorrow morning is my lecture. It’s the first one I do in Russian…

 

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