‘When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is’
– Pablo Picasso
Well, yes: colour, but also a deep sense of spirituality, of his Jewish heritage and the suffering of his people, a rootedness in Russian folklore and primitive art; an openness to love and joy, the magical, and the ‘logic of the illogical’. All these aspects of Marc Chagall’s work are on display at Tate Liverpool’s superb exhibition, Chagall: Modern Master, which I’ve only just caught up with, near the end of its run.
That statement by Picasso is emblazoned on the final wall of the last room of the Liverpool show, and you will find it quoted all over the Web if you google it. But Picasso goes on to say:
I’m not crazy about his roosters and asses and flying violinists, and all the folklore …
Now this is closer to the truth of how Chagall is sometimes regarded by the art establishment: critics often sound just a little bit sneery about those vivid colours and floating people that have sold a million prints and postcards. Take Richard Dorment (reviewing this exhibition in the Telegraph), posing the question: Was Chagall actually any good?
There’s no doubt that Chagall is popular. You could argue that his work has given more pleasure to more people than almost any other 20th-century artist. But in the final analysis, did he really contribute anything of significance to the history of 20th-century art?
Leaving aside whether giving pleasure to people is a worthy function of art, Tate Liverpool’s exhibition – the largest Chagall show in Britain for 15 years – sets out the case for Chagall as a master of 20th century art, presenting the development of his unique style with real clarity. The exhibition focusses on the early stages of his career – especially the years he spent in Paris before the First World War and the eight years following his return to Russia after the outbreak of war. We can see how, having absorbed influences from Parisian Cubism, Fauvism and Orphism (new to me, that one), Chagall effortlessly combined these modernist tendencies with cultural elements from his Russian and Hasidic Jewish heritage to produce a uniquely individual vision.
Chagall: Modern Master is also a rare opportunity to see more than seventy paintings and drawings from major institutions and private collections across the world. The works are presented in a broadly chronological order, in groups that explore themes such as Chagall’s encounter with avant-garde artistic movements, the extraordinarily productive period of creativity in Paris, the importance of Russian Jewish themes in his work, and his enthusiastic but increasingly difficult engagement with the Russian Revolution. A major highlight of the exhibition is the rare presentation of the seven large-scale murals Chagall designed for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow in 1920 – his last, magnificent artistic gesture before he left his homeland in 1922.
‘The lure of Paris’, the opening section of Chagall: Modern Master, traces Chagall’s early development as an artist in Vitebsk and his subsequent training in St Petersburg before focussing on the three crucial years he spent in Paris between 1911 and 1914. There he responded in his own idiosyncratic manner to the emerging avant-garde movements of Cubism and Orphism in paintings such as Half Past Three (The Poet) 1911 and Paris Through the Window 1913.
Chagall was born in the Jewish Pale in Russia in 1887, the the eldest of nine children; his father was a labourer in a herring factory. Though only half of his home town’s population of 50,000 were Jews, Vitebsk had all the characteristics of the shtetl: wooden houses, a rural atmosphere, poverty. Thanks to his mother, Chagall was able to go on to the official state school after he had finished at the cheder, the Jewish elementary school. Strictly speaking, Jews were not admitted to the state schools, but his mother bribed the teacher. Chagall took violin and singing lessons, began to draw, and spoke Russian rather than Yiddish. He made contact with the bourgeois world where cosmopolitan and cultural interests were valued.
My father had blue eyes but his hands were covered in calluses. He worked, prayed, and kept his peace. Like him, I was silent too. What was to become of me? Was I to stay like that my whole life long, sitting by a wall, or would I haul barrels about, too? 1 took a look at my hands My hands were too soft . . . I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of my life.
– Chagall, My Life
From 1907 to 1910 Chagall studied in St Petersburg. Then in May 1911, with the support of a patron, a Russian-Jewish politician, Chagall moved to Paris. In The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes points out that before the First World War Russia was in closer touch with Europe than it would be again for much of the 20th century. There was an avant-garde in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and the successive impacts of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism had been felt and absorbed there. Thanks to wealthy bourgeois collectors like Sergei Shchukin, an artist in Moscow (with the right connections) could see better Matisses and Gauguins than anywhere else in the world. Which explains why Chagall regarded Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, as the only place to go for artistic advancement.
In this section there is an interesting group of nudes – gouaches painted during 1910-11 that combine the facetted treatment of form associated with Cubism and the primitivism of Russian folk art. They reflect Chagall’s eager embrace of all aspects of the avant-garde during his time in Paris – seen also in The Soldier Drinks (1911) in which Chagall takes the fragmented forms of Cubism to evoke the physical and mental state of a Tsarist soldier during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. But the outstanding work here is Paris Through the Window (1913), with its intersecting planes of colour that show how Chagall had absorbed the colour theories of Orphism.
The picture reveals Chagall torn between lure of Paris and nostalgia for his homeland: the Janus image at bottom right and the couple floating below the Eiffel tower show him torn between excitement at the modernity of Paris and love for the familiar patterns of life back in Russia.
In the next section, From Russia: memories in the city of light, we see how memories of his homeland flooded his paintings in this period. Chagall recreated Vitebsk many times over during his first year in Paris. In his autobiography, My Life 1922, he wrote: ‘Why do I always paint Vitebsk? … with these pictures I create my own reality for myself, I recreate my home.’
Chagall once described his paintings as ‘a surface covered with representations of things … in which logic and illustration have no importance’. I and the Village is Chagall’s definitive painting of the Paris years, reflecting both the influence of Cubism and of his great friend, the painter Robert Delauney. The picture has a radial, centrifugal structure that echoes Delaunay’s use of sectional, sliced images and his ideas about abstract juxtapositions of colour. This structure gives the picture its compositional unity, but is overlaid by motifs drawn from Chagall’s memories of Vitebsk: archetypal human and animal figures that reflect the life he had left behind.
Once in Paris I was finally able to express the … joy I had sometimes felt in Russia; the joy of my childhood memories of Vitebsk.
– Chagall, My Life
Chagall’s Parisian paintings often blend the naive style of Russian folk art with the formal characteristics of the modernism of Cubism that Chagall encountered in Paris. The Yellow Room (1911) has similarities to Van Gogh’s paintings of the yellow house in Arles, with the concentrated colour and distorted perspective that add to the scene’s emotional intensity. The table seems to be set for a missing guest – perhaps Chagall?
The Poet with the Birds (1911) is another work that reflects Chagall’s absorption of Van Gogh’s use of intense colour and thick brushwork. The motif – the artist or poet reclining in the landscape – is a favourite of Chagall.
Chagall: Modern Master shows how Chagall strove in Paris to embrace modernity and tradition simultaneously, by engaging with the most advanced art of the time while still drawing on motifs from the rural and religious culture of Vitebsk. Chagall arrived in Paris just as Cubism made its dramatic public debut at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants. Chagall was not particularly interested in the more theoretical aspects of Cubism, preferring to take the concept of fragmentation, mix it with a Fauvist sense of colour, and apply the resulting blend to richly imagined scenes drawn from his memories.
But perhaps my art is the art of a lunatic, I thought, mere glittering quicksilver, a blue soul breaking in upon my pictures.
– Chagall, My Life
Chagall’s characteristic exaggerated use of vividly-opposing colour reflects the influence of French artist Robert Delaunay, with whom Chagall formed a close friendship (his wife, Sonia Delaunay-Turk, was a painter of Russian-Jewish origin like Chagall). Delaunay had put forward a theory of ‘pure painting’ – christened ‘orphism’ by Apollinaire in 1912 – that, in an effort to respond to the complexity of modern life, argued for the importance of representing multiple states of being simultaneously. For Chagall, this meant using colour to to highlight different emotional states and to reinforce the symbolism of depicted scenes. Two paintings from the Parisian period are illustrative: The Dancer (1913) and Acrobat (1914).
in June 1914, Chagall returned to Vitebsk to attend his sister’s wedding and was reunited with his fiancée Bella Rosenfeld. He intended to remain only for a short period, but the outbreak of the First World War extended his stay in Russia to eight years, and a series of double portraits of the young couple celebrate their love and passion for one another. Lovers in Blue (1914) was inspired by his joyful reunion with Bella. It’s a double portrait in which their faces overlap and bodies entwine. Their heads form the shape of a heart. On 25 July 1915, Chagall and Bella were married.
Paintings such as Lovers in Blue (1914), The Promenade (1918) and Double Portrait with Wine Glass (1922) exude pure happiness, the sheer exuberance of his and Bella’s emotions, depicted with either or both of them floating in the air. In The Promenade, Bella sails above Chagall like a kite, anchored to the ground by his firm grasp of her wrist.
The Poet Reading (1915) was made by Chagall shortly after his marriage to Bella. In it the artist remembers the place where they spent their honeymoon. He wrote in My Life that he imagined lying outside the house:
… woods, fir trees, solitude. The moon behind the forest. The pig in the sty, the house behind the window, in the fields. The sky lilac.
Chagall’s homecoming also sparked a series of small, monochromatic pen-and-ink works in which Chagall documented the impact of war on the life of Vitebsk, as soldiers were dispatched to the war and the town’s population swelled with Jewish refugees.
In the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Chagall had seen Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Jew (1654) and the painting had made a lasting impression on him. It later influenced his own portraiture series ‘Old Jews’, produced at a time when the Jewish communities of Eastern European were at greater risk than ever with the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Russia and the German expulsion of Jews from Lithuania in 1914-15.
In the section ‘The sense of self and Jewish themes’, the Tate exhibition reveals how Chagall responded to the traumas of war and religious persecution following his return to his Russia at the outbreak of war. Chagall’s commitment to the portrayal of Jewish history, fables and identities deepened during the war years back in Vitebsk. For Chagall, being an artist was both a secular and a spiritual calling, and he embraced his Jewish identity. Key works from this period include Departure for War (1914) and Jew in Red (1915).
Many Jewish refugees arrived in, or passed through, Vitebsk during the war and Chagall determined to ‘keep them safe … by putting them all on my canvases’. In Jew in Red (1915), Chagall endows one of these refugees with strength and dignity, while Hebrew verses in the background suggest that he is a learned and spiritual man. He inhabits, suggests the gallery text, ‘an inner world – one eye closed, one open to the realities of war and persecution’.
In Great Works in the Independent, Michael Glover wrote of this painting:
Marc Chagall returned to his home town of Vitebsk from Paris in 1914, and there he remained until the following year, painting obsessively – street scenes, the members of his own family, and an entire series of old Jewish beggars, often rendered in the most unpredictably brilliant slashings of colours. These paintings – Jew in Bright Red, Jew in Green, The Praying Jew, for example – represent both a turning point in his art, and a radical reappraisal of the depiction of Jewish themes. The fantastical subject matter of his recent past has fallen away – yet, stylistically, he remains as daringly experimental as ever.
Man with Torah (1915) is another work from this period that documents the local culture and religious rituals of the Hasidic community in Vitebsk. A rabbi passes in the street, his body hunched as he shelters in his arms the sacred texts. Chagall embraced his identity as a Jewish artist: the mystical Hasidic Judaism of his childhood had a spiritual message that advocated unity and harmony between man and beast – something that explains the preponderance of animals in Chagall’s paintings.
The eight years that Chagall spent in Russia before he could return to Paris were marked by a ferocious rate of artistic production and the consolidation of his signature style – demonstrated in this exhibition by major works such as Anywhere out of the World (1915), Promenade (1917–18) and Over Vitebsk (1922). Chagall was, in his words, searching for the ‘logic of the illogical’. In Over Vitebsk a winter landscape is transformed into a magical scene: a man with a sack floating above the village. A gallery note explains that this may allude to the Yiddish idiom, gegen iber die heisen – ‘going over the houses’ – meaning begging from door to door, common in wartime Vitebsk amidst the abject poverty of the refugees passing through.
Anywhere out of the World (its title borrowed from a prose-poem by Charles Baudelaire) suggests disorientation and a desire to transcend the tribulations of small town existence in wartime as the figure’s mind detaches itself from the rest of his body, floating away into the air.
This life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds; one man would like to
suffer in front of the stove, and another believes that he would recover his health beside the window.
It always seems to me that I should feel well in the place where I am not, and this question of removal is one
which I discuss incessantly with my soul.
‘Tell me, my soul, poor chilled soul, what do you think of going to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and there you would invigorate yourself like a lizard. […]
At last my soul explodes, and wisely cries out to me: ‘No matter where! No matter where! As long as it’s out
of the world!’
– Anywhere out of the World, Charles Baudelaire (extract)
Vitebsk features again in The Grey House and Houses at Vitebsk (both painted in 1917).
Writing in the Telegraph in 2008, Serena Davies observed that:
By the time he died in France in 1985 – the last surviving master of European modernism, outliving Joan Miró by two years – [Chagall] had experienced at first hand the high hopes and crushing disappointments of the Russian revolution, and had witnessed the end of the Pale, the near annihilation of European Jewry, and the obliteration of Vitebsk, his home town, where only 118 of a population of 240,000 survived the Second World War.
These cataclysms produced art that shuddered through a series of stylistic shifts but retained one dominant theme. Chagall spent his life in near-constant mourning for the dying traditions of the Jewish people, particularly the shtetl life of Vitebsk’s Hasidic Jewry, with their emphasis on harmony between humans and animals. All his famous motifs, the figures from folklore, the donkeys, fiddlers and “old Jews”, are metaphors for this longing. They give his art a spiritual charge…
Chagall and Bella were living in Petrograd when the October Revolution of 1917 took place. Soon after, the couple returned to Vitebsk, where Chagall had been appointed Commisssar of Plastic Arts. The revolution had granted full Russian citizenship to the Jewish population for the first time, and had dissolved the Pale of Settlement. Chagall welcomed this new-found equality and the artistic freedom to which the Bolshevik revolution initially gave birth. This was an aspect of Chagall’s story which was completely new to me.
The penultimate room of the exhibition tells the story of Chagall’s encounter with Suprematism, the abstract art of geometric forms based upon ‘the supremacy of pure artistic feeling’ rather than on visual depiction of objects. The movement had originated with Kasimir Malevich in 1912, and now flourished in the brief period of artistic freedom and avant-garde experimentation that followed the revolution.
In 1918 the Bolshevik leadership appointed Chagall Arts Commissar for Vitebsk. As Commissar he founded the Vitebsk People’s Art College, delivering a passionate speech at its inauguration that called for a new role for art in society and emphasised the importance of allowing all forms of artistic endeavour to develop, not restricted to any one school or movement. Chagall recruited a range of teaching staff from Moscow and Petrograd, including his former teacher, a proponent of the Soviet-approved school of constructivism. He, in turn, recruited Kazimir Malevich, the founder of suprematism that rejected all reference to the physical world in favour of geometric forms.
Chagall’s attachment to the ‘real world’ meant that he did not personally espouse such a degree of abstraction, and soon Chagall’s vision of a school that would encourage every tendency fell foul of Malevich’s exclusive faith in abstraction. Malevich and his student followers seized control of the college in the name of suprematism, rejecting the delicate lyricism of Chagall’s painting style as irretrievably outmoded. The situation deteriorated quickly, and by June 1920 Chagall had resigned his post and left Vitebsk for Moscow, never to return.
The final room of the exhibition is an eye-opener. In 1920, two years before he finally left Russia, Chagall was asked to design sets and costumes for the opening night of the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow. It was one of the high points of his career. Chagall decided to go further, decorating the entire small room in which the theatre was located by painting a set of wall and ceiling murals on canvas, as well as a stage curtain. The wall panels – Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, Music, Dance, Drama, Literature, Love on the Stage and The Wedding Feast frieze – survive, while the curtain and ceiling mural are lost. They are all on show here, in a stunning display of monumental paintings bursting with vitality that present a panoramic vision of the Jewish theatre as the theatre of life.
The wall panels – Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, Music, Dance, Drama, Literature, Love on the Stage and the epic, eight metre-long The Wedding Feast frieze – are all here, vibrant, colourful and exuberant. Best of all, look closely at the bottom right corner of Introduction and yo see, above Chagall’s signature, the image of a man pissing on a pig. This is generally believed to be a comment directed at Malevich.
The exhibition concludes with a brief glimpse of his later works – in a room labelled, ‘Poetic and Prophetic Visions’. In his later years, Chagall discovered light in the south of France. He had settled in Vence, just north of Nice. Here his paintings became larger, more expressionistic and vividly coloured. It was in Nice, in the Chagall Museum, that I had my first, intense encounter with Chagall’s bright, joyous late work – large canvases depicting biblical scenes, stained glass windows, mosaics, and tapestries. The Tate presents us with a small selection of his late canvases.
Clock with Blue Wing (1949) reflects the mystery and poetry that were central to Chagall’s personal history, while Red Rooftops (1953) sees him returning to his roots as he watches over the mythical village of his childhood.
‘I have always painted pictures where human love floods my colours’.
Most striking in this last section is War, painted in 1964. I had seen work like this in the Chagall Museum in Nice. With its images of fleeing refugees, burning village and suggestion of Holocaust, it’s a reflection on the exodus, exile and death that marked Jewish experience in 20th century. Chagall shared in these sufferings but strove always to retain hope in humanity. The painting contains both Jewish and Christian imagery. The unfolding scene is observed by a white cow, symbol of innocence and echo of Hasidic beliefs.
Chagall: Modern Master is a tremendous exhibition, informative and enthralling. It reveals Chagall both as a modernist, imbibing influences from Cubism, Fauvism and other avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, and as a master painter, with his own unique and personal vision, rooted in his Russian homeland and his deep sense of Jewish history, culture and identity.