Il’ia Grigorievich Chashnik was born to an unremarkable Jewish family in Lyucite, Latvia on June 20, 1902. He spent most of his childhood in Vitebsk, leaving school at the age of eleven to work in a small watchmaking workshop.
From 1917 to 1919, Chashnik studied art with the local artist Iurii (Yehuda) Pen before moving to Moscow in 1919 to attend the newly-opened VKhUTEMAS [Higher State Art and Technical Studios]. Just a few months later, however, he transferred to the Vitebsk Art Institute in order to study under the Russian-Jewish folk painter and avant-gardist Marc Chagall. Soon he became enamored of the work of Kazimir Malevich, the mastermind of Suprematism. Malevich also happened to teach at the Institute, before receiving a promotion and taking it over during the winter of 1919-1920. El Lissitzky also mentored Chashnik briefly before departing to Western Europe.
Once his apprenticeship under Malevich began, Chashnik’s paintings underwent a radical change. Chashnik cultivated his own distinctive style within the Suprematist idiom, developing Malevich’s ideas of abstraction and non-figuration to produce floating geometric shapes with crossing planes. While Malevich composed white-on-white paintings wrapped in fragile stillness and simplicity, Chashnik moved toward more dynamic pieces where black was the predominant element.
David Walsh of the World Socialist Website described the young painter’s unique talents with considerable eloquence in a review he wrote of The Great Utopia exhibition of 1993, which featured some of Chashnik’s work. Walsh wrote:
Chashnik’s The Seventh Dimension: Suprematist and his Color Lines in Vertical Motion demonstrate an enormous talent. His Cosmos — Red Circle on Black Surface (1925), for example, is an extraordinary work. A giant red circle (sun, planet) hovers in blackness (sky, atmosphere). Under it on the painting’s surface floats a Suprematist-like structure (space station), lines and rectangles arranged horizontally across a central bar. The Suprematist craft — delicate, outweighed, pale in color — is seemingly directed toward the gigantic, perfect red sphere. The enormity of the task, the terrifying emptiness of the universe, the flimsiness of the vessel, are clear to the viewer.
Along with some other talented students of Malevich’s class — Nikolai Suetin, Vera Ermolaeva, and Lev Iudin — Chashnik participated in the organization of the group POSNOVIS [Followers of the New Art], later renamed UNOVIS [Affirmers of the New Art], contributing to all of its exhibitions. He became particularly close with Suetin, a friendship and creative partnership that would endure until the former’s untimely passing in 1929.
Even further, while still in Vitebsk, Chashnik helped Malevich draft the syllabus for the Department of Architecture and Technology at Vitebsk in 1921. There he explained:
The constructions of Suprematism are blueprints for the building and assembling of forms of utilitarian organisms.Consequently, any Suprematist project is Suprematism extended into functionality. The Department of Architecture and Technology is the builder of new forms of utilitarian Suprematism; as it develops, it is changing into a huge workshop-laboratory, not with the pathetic little workbenches and paints in departments of painting, but with electric machines for casting, with all kinds of apparatuses, with the technological wealth of magnetic forces. [This department works] in concert with astronomers, engineers, and mechanics to attain a single Suprematism, to build organisms of Suprematism — a new form of economics in the utilitarian system of modernity.
When local authorities forced UNOVIS out of Vitebsk in 1922, Chashnik, Suetin, Ermolaeva, and Iudin followed Malevich to join the GINKhUK in Petrograd. Throughout the Petrograd/Leningrad period, Chashnik spent his days exploring possible applications of Suprematist art to everyday life.
He worked as a designer with Suetin at the Lomonosov State Porcelain Factory, and collaborated with the INKhUK [Institute of Artistic Culture] on textiles, posters, and buildings from 1923 on. Starting in 1925, he also worked with Konstantin Rozhdestvenskii at the Institute of Decorative Arts. In 1927, Chashnik and Suetin both became part of Aleksandr Nikolskii’s architectural brigade, working on wallpaper schemes and color patterns for painted buildings.
Toward the end of the decade Chashnik married Cecilia Gorodneva, who gave birth to their son (also named Il’ia) in 1929. Unfortunately, the greater avant-garde painter and innovator died during a botched appendix operation that same year. Despite his early death, he remains one of Malevich’s most distinguished disciples and a memorable partisan of Suprematism.