Our Notes & References
The birth of a rich book-illustrating career: Chagall’s first book, showing 9 full-page illustrations, and the only children’s book to be illustrated by the great modern artist.
A lovely example of this very fragile booklet, a landmark in Yiddish book illustration published the year of the Russian revolutions. Forbidden under the Tsars, Yiddish publishing became authorised thanks to the 1917 revolution, and Russian avant-garde artists such as Chagall and Lissitzky produced new works combining their roots in Jewish culture with modern motifs. Jewish tales, such as the ones collected during Shlomo An-ski’s expeditions to the Pale of Settlement, were a source of inspiration for Yiddish authors. Der Nister’s text and Chagall’s images exemplify a “dynamic exchange, where modernist thinking and the simple perspective of children intersect to effect a creative transformation of Jewish cultural heritage” (Koller).
Installed in Paris since 1910, Chagall (1887-1985) visited Russia in 1914 and the outbreak of WWI prevented him to go back to France. In 1916, while working for the Petrograd committee, the 29-year-old Chagall, by then well-known both in Russia and Europe, provided Der Nister’s Mayse mit a hon and Dos tsigele with five and three illustrations respectively, in India ink and opaque white on paper. The drawings were commissioned by Nohum Shtif, a Yiddish linguist and writer, then editor for modern Yiddish literature at the Kletskin publishing house. This edition was part of a series of children’s books “Far unzere kinder”, previously published in Kishinev and Odessa and revived by Shtif.
Chagall’s illustrations, in the style of Jewish traditional woodcarvings, feature a goat, a rooster, a little house, a woman with a rooster, a baby carriage and a goat, a staircase, the night. Chagall’s naïve style uses simplified and angular lines; mixing modernist elements and the Jewish tradition, it reflects the fantastic theme of the two tales. The style echoes the naïve images of animals from Chagall’s famous oils, e.g. the 1912 Le Marchand de bestiaux (The Cattle Dealer, Kunstmuseum Basel) and the 1911, A la Russie, aux ânes et aux autres (To Russia, Asses and Others, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris).
This was the only book Chagall illustrated before leaving Russia in 1922: he returned to illustration only in the late 1930s.
“[Chagall] has set children’s fairy tales in lovely graphics. We didn’t know Chagall like that before. The page seems to have absorbed the liquid and restless lava of his usual black masses. The edges and spots are scattered clearly and even sparingly, resembling a dry pattern of branches against the evening sky. Chagall’s pen became laconic and clear. He subdued it, himself obeying the text of fairy tales” (our translation from Abram Efros, Russian and Soviet art historian, friend and first monographer of Chagall).
The two tales in verse were composed by Pinchus Kahanovich (1884-1950), a major Yiddish author, philosopher, translator and critic who wrote under the pseudonym “Der Nister” or “The Hidden One”. He became one of the most important Yiddish writers in the USSR. An anti-fascist militant, he was arrested in February 1949 on charges of being a “bourgeois nationalist” and died in a GULAG camp. His books were withdrawn and censored, contributing to their current scarcity.
Published by “the first genuine publisher of modern Yiddish literature” (Melech Ravitch, 1947, p. 272): Boris Arkadevich Kletsin (1875–1937). Born in Horodishche (now in Belarus), Boris Kletskin and his family moved to Vilna/Vilnius, the city with which his name would thereafter be associated. An only child of wealthy parents, he received a traditional religious education and was also tutored in secular subjects. In his younger years, Kletskin was a founder of the zhargonishe komitetn, which established libraries and disseminated Yiddish reading matter among Jewish workers. Active in the Bund especially before World War I, he helped set up that organization’s Di Velt (The World) publishing house and its official press organs, Der veker (The Alarm Clock) and Di folks-tsaytung (The People’s Newspaper). Kletskin’s own publishing company, the “Vilner Farlag fun B.A. Kletskin”, was established about 1910. Before World War I, he issued the pioneering journals Der pinkes (The Record Book; 1913), Di yudishe velt (The Jewish World; 1913–1915), and Grininke beymelekh (Little Green Trees; 1914–1939), along with dozens of Yiddish books. Kletskin’s publishing activities were disrupted by the war. He left Vilna and did not return until 1919, and in 1925 transferred the company to Warsaw. Kletskin also published the influential literary weekly Literarishe bleter (1924–1939), the theatrical journal Yidish teater (1927), and a revived version of Di yudishe velt (1928). He was a devoted patron of Vilna’s YIVO Institute, but his personal fortune was exhausted during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, books continued to appear under the Kletskin imprint even after he himself succumbed to heart disease in Warsaw. Boris Kletskin’s publishing house “not only enriched Yiddish literature […] but it also helped to raise the prestige of Yiddish and modern Yiddish culture” (quoted in Baker).
Kletskin’s activities paved the way for the success of the Kultur-Lige: both publishing enterprises played a key role in the Jewish cultural Renaissance. Kletskin corresponded with the Kultur Lige Kooperativer Farlag regarding printing plates for some of his editions during the 1920s.
Kletskin’s original town, Vilnius, was a hotbed of Judaism and reached a real golden age of Yiddish culture at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks in particular to the development of a series of Jewish publishing houses. At the end of the 1940s, the Russian government decided to suppress the remaining Jewish culture in the USSR and therefore ban Yiddish: it ordered these books to be removed from libraries in order to destroy them. Those that escaped destruction sometimes bear the stamp of withdrawal from the shelves, dated 1948 – which is not the case with this copy.
A very rare example of Yiddish publication, and of the early oeuvre of one of the greatest Jewish artists.
A bit more than a handful of copies is considered to have survived; we are aware of a copy in the MoMA (apparently the only one in an American institution), three in private collections (France and USA), one sold in Russia in 2018, and only one selling at a Western auction, the “Ivan Collection” copy, with erased stamps, in Bloomsbury NY in 2008.
MoMA 146. Baker, Zachary M. 2010. Kletskin, Boris Arkadevich. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Kletskin_Boris_Arkadevich (accessed October 4, 2021).
Koller, Sabine. A mayse mit a hon. Dos tsigele: Marc Chagall illustrating Der Nister, in Estraikh, G. (2014). Uncovering the Hidden: The Works and Life of Der Nister (1st ed.). Routledge.
Three letters about a request from the Vilner farlag of B.A. [Boris] Kletskin to the Kultur Lige Kooperativer Farlag for the printing plates to Shalom Asch’s Stories from the Bible and Dramas, YIVO Digital Archive on Jewish Life in Poland.
Khone Shmeruk, “Nokhem Shtif, Mark Chagall un di yiddishe kinder-literatur in Vilner Kletskin farlag 1916–1917”. Di Pen (Oxford), 26, September 1996, p. 5.
Efros A.M. Chagall // Efros A.M. Profili: Ocherki o russkikh khudozhnikakh [Reprint on the 1930 edition]. SPb.: Azbuka-klassika. 2007.