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Was Chagall Actually Any Good? The French and British Disagree.

A new show at the Jewish Museum in New York follows contrasting exhibits in Liverpool and Paris

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Marc Chagall, detail from “Between Darkness and Light,” 1938–1943, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 39 3/8 x 28 3/4 in. (Private collection. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)
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In that same spirit, the show at the Tate Liverpool is pedantically linear and proceeds on the assumption that the English public has absolutely no idea of what to make of Chagall’s work. The accompanying texts explain Hasidic Jewry, Chagall’s cosmopolitan cultural mélange, and his artistic cosmology in didactic fashion. Yet when the show, curated by Kunsthaus Zürich, is experienced as a whole, this choice, as well as the decision to limit the show to the paintings made in the formative years of 1911 to 1922, seems right and even inspired. The show arranges Chagall’s painterly evolution in strict order and concentrates on the debts he owed to his early teachers—Ballets Russes’ set designer Léon Bakst, and the Vitebsk artist Yehuda Pen, a purveyor of rustic, competent realism. The exhibit commences with a striking and rarely exhibited expressionist squiggle, “Self-Portrait (Head With Nimbus)” that Chagall executed on flimsy cardboard stock when he first arrived in Paris at the age of 23. It is followed by a passel of well chosen and well known early masterpieces such as “The Promenade” (1917) featuring the levitation of his adored wife Bella, and the proto-fauvist “Yellow Room” (1911, incorrectly named, as it is actually green). Art school in Paris was a time of heady experimentation, which was quickly supplanted by the short-lived routines of domesticity, and then by the horrors of history, with his return to Russia at the beginning of WWI.

The exhibit’s original contribution is in elucidating precisely the texture of Chagall’s formative influences immediately before, during, and after the Russian revolution. Upon his return to Vitebsk from Paris, Chagall went through a series of accumulative phases that closely matched the hyper-manic mutability of 1920s Russian art history. It was a period of intense artistic fervor that saw micro movements supplanting each other every few weeks and, occasionally, days. In those few years Chagall dabbled successively—as did everyone else—in futurism, acmeism, expressionism, cubism, and a string of now more obscure -isms. He essayed competent but derivative replicas of Malevich’s squares, inked unconvincing imitations of El Lissitsky’s self-portraits, and spattered around in Tatlin-like planar fields. Like many other works of that period the “Soldier Drinks” was a cubist appropriation so brazen that one might ascribe it to an Italian futurist like Luigi Russolo if one did not see Chagall’s name on it. The show demonstrates definitively that this phase of derivative sampling and defensive jettisoning of contemporary Russian influences was critical to the painter’s development. That period’s denouement is conferred with the majestic presentation of the Moscow murals in the penultimate room. Seen in the context of his revolutionary Russian sojourn, the murals make perfect sense. As a token gesture of counterpoint to the unexplored work of the next seven decades, the final room throws in a few paintings Chagall executed in his late career, such as 1953’s “Red Rooftops,” to take in before stepping out into the souvenir shop.

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The older, artistically self-assured Chagall on display this spring in Paris’ Between War and Peace was a different animal entirely from the painter’s youthful incarnation in Liverpool. The atmosphere and mood of the show also contrasted dramatically with the lively and vivacious dream world of the wizened rabbis, peddlers, flying cows, and jocular Jewish beggars of the happy Vitebsk period. The show’s setting in the heart of the French establishment at the Musée du Luxembourg signaled that this would be a different world entirely from the scruffy docks of Liverpool. And contrary to the spacious warehouse in the north of England, the hermetic halls of the regal Musée were densely packed with both visitors and canvases. Beneath reverently dimmed lighting, the paintings and drawings were arrayed one upon the other in an apt refraction of the period’s claustrophobia. Here, Chagall was on home ground, the curatorial choices were sensitive and tasteful, and there was little new context to explain to the guests. All three times I attended the show, lengthy lines of patient visitors snaked around the walls of the Luxembourg garden and past the stern-faced guards of the Senate late into the evening. The sophisticated, even disabused, crowd did not look like it was going to float out over the docks after the show.

The focus on Chagall’s wartime drawings and paintings illuminated the extent to which the experiences of the two world wars shaped his work and his vision. The show commences where Liverpool ends, with the immediate aftermath of his period of apprenticeship: In “Self-Portrait in Front of the House” (1914), the 27-year-old depicts himself as a slim and confident dandy in the midst of a triumphant homecoming from the metropole. It is here that Chagall fully integrated his French training with his folkish cosmology and his patrimonial Jewish symbology in pieces like “King David” (1915). Other period pieces, such as the snowy paean to his hometown “Over Vitebsk” (1915-1920), showcased themes he would recycle until the end of his life.

The New York show picks up where these European precursors left off: The peaceful lull was not to last long. The quickly executed ink sketches and watercolors of crippled WWI veterans and starving peasants that he had observed hobbling back from the front add a dose of grit that dilutes the often mawkish quality of his mytho-poetic vision. Both the Liverpool and the Paris exhibits contained plenty of works showcasing Chagall’s blend of Judeo-Christian iconography, though the Paris show features the more searing examples. In Chagall’s paintings of the two wars and of pogroms such as “La Guerre” (1943), a depiction of the conflagration of a shtetl, generalized war imagery and Jewish historical specificity melt into each other: Looking at one of the artist’s WWII paintings, I found myself mistaking it for a painting from WWI. Did a similar movement from specificity to generality happen in Chagall’s psyche? By the end of the show, Chagall is an old man ensconced in a Mediterranean villa, painting pastiches of his great works as well as colorful but familiar-looking expressionist landscapes whose now-dated style hearkened back to an era when painting still held the promise of making the world new.

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Chagall: Love, War, and Exile

The Jewish Museum in New York