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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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Marc Chagall’s great achievement of melding avant-garde advancements in “high” technique with “low” popular subject matter was a more or less unique accomplishment in the history of high modernist art. This spring and summer has seen a pair of very smart and very different Chagall exhibitions opening at different ends of Europe: a scrappy one in Liverpool and an officious one in Paris. The Tate Modern’s Liverpool outpost proffers us the thoroughly pedagogical Modern Master (through Oct. 15) and gives us a portrait of a brilliant young man on the make in the midst of WWI, the Bolshevik Revolution, and 1920s Paris. The Musée du Luxembourg’s grim but classically staged Chagall: Entre Guerre et Paix (Between War and Peace) is a condensed blockbuster examination of Chagall’s wartime and war-inspired efforts. Jointly the two shows form a compelling portrait of Chagall’s early and middle career and also illuminate the difference between the French and the English reactions to his work. And they come just as the Jewish Museum in New York opened Chagall: Love, War, and Exile last week, featuring work from the 1930s through 1948, years Chagall spent in Paris and then in exile to New York.

For all of Chagall’s painterly skill and impeccable Modernist provenance, the painter’s name remains a byword for folksy pandering. Yet his popular reception is deeply odd and unlikely, given how particular his Jewish, French, and Russian influences remain. His effervescent fantasias intimate uncanny visions familiar from childhood or a hazily recalled dream while tapping into something cognitively universal. The appeal to jejune nostalgia for childhood is an immutable part of the package, and the effect is inimitable when he pulls it off, even if critics tend to agree that he did not always pull it off later in his long and productive life.

For these reasons, the work sits uneasily with sophisticates and connoisseurs who want to dismiss it out of hand but can’t. In a provocative article titled “Was Chagall actually any good?” Richard Dorment, the Telegraph’s reliably perceptive art critic, spoke of a “whimsical fellow-traveler of Modernism who produced an overabundance of self-consciously poetic and rather sugary images,” and one whose “critical stock has inexorably declined.”

The differing reactions of the British and the French to the shows are similarly instructive. In contravention to the doughy skepticism of the British, the response of French critics has been a reversion to well-practiced effusions of flowery—in both senses—lyricism set to trumpets. Le Figaro’s critic effused that “Chagall died with flowers, much like Albina, Zola’s heroine in The Sin of Father Mouret, who committed suicide by asphyxiation with flowers from Paradou, these were accumulated in a chamber of love. Chagall, as the instinct-driven-young-painter-from-Vitebsk, also suffered from too much love.”

***

France welcomed Chagall with open arms, granted him his formative experiences (as well as his artistic education and passport), and quickly slotted her adopted son’s quirky vision into its artistic canon and consciousness. Chagall lived in France on and off for seven decades beginning with his bohemian art-student days in pre-WWI Paris and concluding with his death in Saint Paul de Vence a few months shy of his 98th birthday, in 1985. As a result, the French public, should it be interested, is quite spoiled for access to Chagall’s art. There are first-rate works gracing a half-dozen museums around Paris, with many others sprinkled liberally across major collections throughout France—not to mention the vast assemblage of his paintings held at the Chagall Museum in Nice (which is currently holding an exhibit devoted to his self-portraits). A major retrospective of his work also materializes every couple of years, the last one being 2011’s superior and illuminating Chagall and the Bible at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris.

The English, on the other hand, have not been as fortunate in their access to Chagall’s work. There has not been a Chagall show in England for more than 15 years, and the last retrospective was held the year he died and a mere few months before the advent of Perestroika, the beginning of the end for the Soviet regime whose bloody birth pangs he had witnessed and whose revolutionary fervor he participated in as a young commissar of art in Vitebsk. Arguably, the genre Chagall most excelled at was theater-set designer, and his major works—such as the Tretyakov Gallery’s astounding 1920 mural series Introduction to the Jewish Theater, commissioned for Solomon Michoels’ Moscow State Yiddish theater—remained stranded behind the iron curtain, a captive of cold war theatrics.

It is fitting then that the Liverpool exhibit seems to be a genuine event across Great Britain. Posters advertising the show were plastered all over London and other major cities on my last several visits. The English will finally get to see those Yiddish theater murals, which Chagall’s latest biographer, Jackie Wullschlager, praised as “worth the trip alone” in her effusive review of the show in the Financial Times. The exhibit is also part of a trend of a reviving British interest in the Russian avant-garde: Rodchenko, Popova, and Kandinsky have all had recent exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London, and a major Malevich retrospective is scheduled to follow next summer.

Liverpool is a peculiar but serendipitous place to find Chagall: A once-grand and bustling slaver port, it is now a textbook instance of the travails of de-industrialization. In fact, things got so bad by the late 1970s that Margret Thatcher’s Cabinet narrowly voted against simply abandoning and dismantling the decrepit city under the auspices of so-called “managed decline.” Walking through the greatly underpopulated town center one will run across a host of heroin addicts and drunks ambling past splendid Victorian architecture. Yet the town has indisputable charms and a deep aura of rootedness in regional English culture, reflected most famously in its signature incomprehensible Scouser accent, as well as in gracious displays of north English hospitality. (I have rarely been asked by so many passerby if I need directions in the space of a single hour.) If not quite the Vitebsk of the north, the nostalgia for a lost historical grandeur evoked by Liverpool’s crumbling infrastructure has something of the post-industrial shtetl to it.

Declared the capital of European culture for 2012, Liverpool has been fairly successful in rehabilitating its dissolute image and reemerging as a hub of contemporary arts and culture. The Tate Modern’s newly opened satellite expansion is situated in a converted red brick warehouse along King Albert’s Dock on the waterfront: The wide open, light-filled, and expansive warehouse space allowed for a sparse and luxurious arrangement of Chagall’s paintings that meshes well with their often airy quality. The panoramic views out of the museum windows, of the dockside and the Mersey River, interspersed between the paintings, offer a marvelous counterpoint to the topographical magic of Chagall’s painting. I listened in as a museum guide underlined the improbable clash of cultures between Chagall’s lushly colored fantasias and the grimy post-industrial dock world of northern England: “Unlike many great modern artists his work is beautiful and romantic and beloved,” he told the amused-looking Liverpudlians. “One can only hope,” he concluded with a flourish while pointing at a pair of stolid older gentlemen in tweed walking away from “Jew in Red” with a pleased expression on their faces, “that those two gentlemen will hold hands and float off across the docks together after the show!”

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.

***

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
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