Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk (1915-20), oil on canvas, 26-3/8″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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When I mentioned to friends that I was going to be writing about the painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985), their reaction was, invariably, a rolling of the eyes. This response isn’t difficult to understand. If Chagall has not become an embarrassment on the scale of Salvador Dalí, his standing as an artist has fallen considerably. Mention of his name is likely to bring forth images of a Russian-Jewish mythology characterized by a ripe sentimentality and woolly expanses of blue, rose, and pink, the pictorial equivalents of cotton candy. While Chagall’s position as a master of early modernist painting remains fundamentally undiminished —the austere and enchanting Over Vitebsk (1915–20) is a mainstay of MOMA’s permanent collection for good reason—his reputation as a lovable hack has all but superseded it.
So when a volunteer at the Jewish Museum informed me last year that an upcoming Chagall exhibition was going to be “a blockbuster” I feared the worst. Not just because I felt that Chagall’s oeuvre couldn’t withstand such an exhibition, but because such exhibitions are often dubious enterprises in themselves. While the blockbuster does make for good museum PR and better box office, whether it provides the best environment—or even an environment—for looking at art is debatable. Peering over the heads of a half-dozen gallerygoers for a glimpse at a painting does not, after all, make for an ideal aesthetic experience, especially when the viewer is faced with the prospect of 399 more such “experiences.” Artists, even our greatest ones, are not necessarily well served by the format: Miró squeaked by in a blockbuster that made his contribution to twentieth-century art seem less vital than it is. Matisse, being Matisse, survived such a rigamarole, but how possibly could a smaller talent like Marc Chagall?
As it turns out, Marc Chagall 1907–1917 isn’t enough of a blockbuster. It focuses on the early years of the artist’s development, when the young Russian was working at the top of his form, and Chagall, at his best, is a substantial talent indeed. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum is based on one that appeared at the Kunstmuseum Berne last winter and comprises over a hundred works, about half the number seen in the Swiss show. Such a diminution is bound to have profound consequences for an exhibition, but even viewers not apprised of this information will find the New York show sketchy. Chagall 1907–1917 ends abruptly just as it is beginning to find its own rhythm. Judging from the catalogue, the Swiss exhibition was not only bigger but richer, including several key Chagall paintings not in the New York show. It should be emphasized, however, that the show at the Jewish Museum is far from bad. While it is too modest in scale and scope to qualify as a blockbuster, Chagall 1907–1917 is, nevertheless, a happy event.
The exhibit begins with Chagall in Russia, where the signature elements of his style begin to bud. Born in Vitebsk, a rural town in White Russia, he was the eldest of nine children of a Hasidic family. Because of the traditional Jewish suspicion of representation, Chagall’s interest in the visual arts drew both disapproval and consternation from his mother and father. But his resolve must have been formidable, for it was in 1908 that he entered the Svantseva School in St. Petersburg, then under the direction of Leon Bakst.
Two years later Chagall made his first trip to Paris, a four-year stay that came as a revelation to the young painter. His valentine to the city, Paris Through the Window (1913), not included here, is one of the signal images of modern art. It was there that Chagall traveled in the company of some of the most notable figures in twentieth-century art. Among his friends and acquaintances were Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Jean Metzinger, Sergei Diaghilev, Roger de La Fresnaye, and Fernand Léger. Such company, one feels, motivated (and disciplined) Chagall, and if his art remains unclassifiable its influences are not undetectable. He borrowed from Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and the Delaunays’ Orphism without becoming an adherent to any one style; Chagall spent not a little time in the Louvre as well. In My Life he wrote, “Have you ever heard of traditions, of Aix, of the painter with his ear cut off, of cubes, of squares, of Paris? Vitebsk, I’m deserting you.” The heady enthusiasm in Chagall’s rushing flow of words is infectious, and it’s there to see in Chagall 1907–1917.
If Chagall left Russia physically to live in Paris, he never did so emotionally or spiritually: Vitebsk figures in much of the work he created in France. His distance from family and Bella Rosenfeld, who would eventually become his wife, undoubtedly fed his fondness for his home town. Indeed, Chagall’s sense of self was so rooted there that he would come to consider Paris his “second Vitebsk.” This may sound like the mooning of a romantic and homesick artist. Yet looking at Over Vitebsk or The Flying Carriage (1913), one gets such a particular feeling of the place—where magical events are as prosaic as milking the cow—that it’s impossible not to feel bewitched by them. Chagall is the rare sophisticate who manages to tap into the emotional sturdiness of folk culture without belittling or, at least in these paintings, over-sentimentalizing it. As an artist he was a product of both modernist Paris and the shtetl, a hybrid of the urban and the rural, the new and the old. This is what makes his best work compassionately earthy and utterly fantastic. It is what makes Chagall Chagall.
Over half of Chagall 1907–1917 is made up of works on paper—small scale watercolors, ink drawings, and gouaches. This may be due to space limitations, but more likely to the reluctance of museums and private collectors to loan their Chagall paintings. It is, of course, understandable: paintings aren’t only fragile, they can also be personal and public treasures. This emphasis on works on paper, however, gives Chagall 1907–1917 an informal tone that is to its benefit. It is fascinating to watch an artist work things out on paper or often just play—three scratchy ink drawings from 1907, depicting the artist in his bedroom, are irresistible. True, the gouache studies for some of his better known paintings feel like stand-ins for the real thing; but, as the exhibition reveals, Chagall was a natural with gouache, its fluidity suited to small scale spontaneity and a style that depended on drawing. So if important paintings are missed—I would have liked to have seen the Philadelphia Museum’s Poet or Half Past Three (1911) and the Stedelijk Museum’s Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912–13) included here—it doesn’t detract from the very real merits of the works on paper. Besides, I’m not convinced that the gouache Study for Paris Through the Window (1913), with its delicate dappling of purples, whites, and blues, isn’t a better work of art than the oil painting based on it.
There are also some fine paintings to be seen here. New Yorkers will be pleased to reacquaint themselves with MOMA’s Over Vitebsk and Birthday (1915), the Guggenheim’s Soldier Drinks (1911–12), and the Met’s malleable Market Place, Vitebsk (1917). Self-Portrait with White Collar (1914) is striking and serious, and Behind the House (1917) is wistful, the painting of a man who has been inside for far too long and is pining to get out. The Poet Reclining (1915) depicts the artist uncomfortably ensconced at the bottom of the composition, decidedly at odds with the painting’s pastoral farm setting. Yet its total effect is lyrical and haunting. At first glance, Festival Day (Rabbi with Etrog) (1914) appears to be a comic account of the rigors of conscience, but its icy light and piercing pinks and purples turn it, instead, into a rather severe depiction of spiritual crisis. Festival Day has a gravity that would have been the envy of Max Beckmann.
Not all of the paintings are as good as these, however, and if Chagall proved to be innately adept at gouache, his skill with oils came only with perseverance. In some of the early paintings, like Father (1910–11) and The Wedding (1911), the paint sits on the surface of the canvas lumpishly; in these works, anyway, Chagall’s color sense is patchy, unformed. When Chagall explores the facture of modernist brushwork and composition, his enthusiasm is real, but the resulting paintings can be contrived. The Cubist-influenced division of space in Cavalry (1912), for instance, is an imposition on the image rather than an integral part of it, and the same is true for the soldier’s face in the otherwise laudable The Soldier Drinks. And when Chagall creates a broken field of green, white, yellow, and red brushstrokes, as in the bottom right of The Flying Carriage, he really isn’t painting; he’s just letting us know how much he loves the Fauvist pictures he’s probably just seen.
Much of the beautiful painting to be seen in these pictures occurs when Chagall lightens up on the Cubism and handles oils in a manner closer to Rembrandt than to any “wild beast.” One sees this in The Lovers in Gray (1916–17), a portrait of the artist lying in the crook of Bella’s arm. It is a clunky painting, the figures’ almost Egyptian rigidity is awkward and the intimations of tenderness unconvincing. (Check out the joyous The Birthday, hung nearby, for a telling comparison.) But here Chagall’s Cubist devices are subdued and become his own. The soft planar divisions of Bella’s red blouse sit within the image rather than on top of it, and the painterly passage that travels from her blouse to its patterned collar through to Bella’s neck, with its modulations of velvety roses, pinkish grays, and chalky whites, is breathtaking.
Bella with White Collar (1917) is another curious picture with masterly paint-handling. It’s a vertical canvas with Bella, towering over the top two-thirds of the image like a veritable King Kong, posing behind a forest wherein a miniature Chagall walks their baby daughter, Ida. The strangeness of the image may derive from the fact that the portrait of Bella was based on a photograph while the remainder of the image came from Chagall’s imagination. On the whole it’s a lopsided picture, and an extraordinary one. For it is the self-portrait with his daughter that is the emotional hub of the painting. Chagall’s forest is a fluctuating and droll invention—a landscape that conjures the surrealist bumptiousness of Miró with the cartoon whimsy of Dr. Seuss—and the depiction of himself and Ida is suffused with gentleness, captured in understated brushwork and expressive off-whites, light greens, and dry pinks. (Chagall was often at his warmest when his colors were at their coolest.) As installed in the Jewish Museum, one has to squat in front of Bella with White Collar to really savor this section of the image, but any back pain incurred because of it is warranted. The bottom third of Bella with White Collar is as sublime a bit of painting as one is likely to find in the modernist canon.
On a subsequent trip to the Jewish Museum to visit Chagall 1907–1917, my cavils about the size and scope of the exhibition seemed niggling. Why fault an exhibition of terrific pictures, especially one that is as sensitively installed and as welcome as this one? Chagall 1907–1917 isn’t as definitive as the splendid Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater seen at the Guggenheim SoHo in 1992, and I still would have liked to have seen the Berne show. But it displays the charms of Chagall’s singular genius to good effect and should do much to restore his reputation. There is much to delight over in Chagall 1907–1917; it shouldn’t be missed.
© 1996 Mario Naves
Originally published in the May 1996 edition of The New Criterion.