In 1918 Russia’s Bolshevik leadership appointed Chagall Arts Commissar for Vitebsk. As Commissar he founded the Vitebsk People’s Art College where he emphasised the importance of a broad syllabus. Chagall recruited a range of teaching staff from Moscow and Petrograd, including his former teacher Yehuda Pen and El Lissitzky, a proponent of the Soviet-approved constructivism. El Lissitzky, in turn, recruited Kazimir Malevich, the founder, four years earlier, of suprematism, a new concept of art that rejected all reference to the physical world in favour of geometric forms.

Although constructivism and suprematism were essentially opposed in their attitude to art (the former gave priority to functional art forms and was endorsed by the Soviets for its social usefulness, while the latter was non-utilitarian), they both relied on a formal vocabulary of geometric shapes. Chagall’s attachment to the ‘real world’ meant that he did not espouse this degree of abstraction. However, his works of the period do allude – perhaps mockingly – to geometric abstraction, as in his Constructivist Portrait 1918, where abstraction is employed in the service of portraiture.

Chagall’s vision of a school that would encourage every tendency ran foul of Malevich’s exclusive faith in abstraction. In time Malevich and his student followers seized the college in the name of suprematism and militant modernism. The situation deteriorated so quickly that by June 1920 Chagall had resigned his post and left Vitebsk for Moscow, never to return.