A major new exhibition celebrates the colourful work of a “Modern Master”
Marc Chagall is one of the best-loved artists of the twentieth century. He is known for his innovative style and celebration of his Russian and Jewish roots. Paintings like “The Promenade”, a dream-like image of a couple standing and floating over cubist, green hills and a domed church, now have a pleasant familiarity in their strangeness. But the bright colours and child-like forms do not mean that Chagall is not a simple artist.
A new exhibition, Chagall: Modern Master, in Liverpool’s Tate Gallery charts the artist’s early journey from Vitebsk, where he was born, to Paris and back to Russia. It is the first major exploration of Chagall’s work in Britain since the Royal Academy’s Chagall: Love and the Stagein 1998.
Crimsons, greens and ultramarines
The chronological arrangement of more than seventy works from museums and private collections around the world focuses on the crucial, creative period between 1911 and 1922. It takes in his early primitivism, his relationship with various avant-garde trends, his responses to war, and his enduring love of theatre.
Curator, Simonetta Fraquelli, says she hopes the new exhibition will “show how he was interacting with these movements and how he created a visual language of his own that he made unique to him throughout his long career.” Although he never subscribed to any artistic school, Fraquelli points out that as soon as he moved to Paris, his palette lightened, inspired by fauvist artists: “the earthy darkness of his early Russian pictures has been replaced with vermillions, crimsons, greens and ultramarines, which bathe the entire canvas…”
A red-smocked man lies under a pointillist tree and smudgy clouds in “The Poet with the Birds”, the first of many reclining poets, painted in 1911. The same year sees “The Green Donkey”, “The Yellow Room” and the mesmerising, kaleidoscopic “I and the Village”, borrowed from New York’s Museum of Modern Art for this show.
His paintings abandon naturalistic colour, scale, perspective and even gravity. Clearly influenced by the new artistic ideas sweeping Paris, Chagall rejected the formal confines of cubism: “Let them eat their fill of their square pears on their triangular tables,” he wrote in My Life. He saw himself as an outsider, “alone in my studio in front of my oil lamp”, seeking his own aesthetic path in the “logic of the illogical”.
Most contemporary of artists
Later, collages of gouache, graphite, ink, bronze paint and triangles of printed Cyrillic or Hebrew lettering, hint at more unexpected artistic influences. “He was looking at the constructivists and playing off them,” says Fraquelli.
Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery has lent the Tate six intriguing wall panels, originally commissioned to decorate Moscow’s Jewish Theatre in 1920, as a centrepiece for the show. Based around the theme of a wedding feast, these exuberant paintings are full of acrobats and musicians, green cows and dancing women.
Ekaterina Selezneva, head of international cooperation in the Russian Ministry of Culture has contributed an essay about these murals to the exhibition catalogue. “The pictures represent an unprecedented contribution to the art of stage design,” she writes. “But even more importantly, they show how Chagall succeeded in broadening the potential of the Russian avant-garde.” She quotes the theatre critic, Abram Efros, saying: “The Yiddish stage needed … the most contemporary, the most unusual, the most difficult of all artists. And so I mentioned Chagall’s name…”
Assistant Curator, Stephanie Straine, comments enthusiastically on the “amazing” cooperation of the Tretyakov Gallery: “They sent five painting restorers to Liverpool because the largest murals don’t travel stretched, but rolled up, so they have to be re-stretched by a team of specialists who travel with them.”
First show outside London
“They all absolutely loved Liverpool,” Straine adds “and they understood how important it was to have the exhibition here. There has never been a major Chagall show outside London before.” Fraquelli agrees: “There is an edginess and an interest in Liverpool. I hope young people will come to this exhibition.”
The show’s design opens up stunning views of the city from these fourth floor galleries. One side overlooks the docks and the cathedral, while the western galleries face across the Mersey to the art deco towers of the Queensway Tunnel. This is particularly apt since so many of Chagall’s paintings look out from inside, like the rainbow-coloured 1913 “Paris through the Window” where a parachutist falls past the Eiffel Tower towards a floating couple and a janus-faced man.
Above the sparkling water, with great permanent collections, including one of Naum Gabo’s constructivist steel heads, and trains from London in two hours, Tate Liverpool is a magnetic destination. Chagall’s work introduces a prism of scarlet, mauve and indigo. Picasso said of him in the 1950s: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”
The exhibition runs at Tate Liverpool from 8th June to 6th October 2013 and tickets are £10.00 (£7.50 concessions). More information is available at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/chagall-modern-master Manchester Jewish Museum, in a spectacular synagogue, is also scheduling an exhibition, 20th June – 24th November, exploring the works of a group of Jewish émigré artists from Russia (including Chagall) known as ‘The School of Paris’. http://www.manchesterjewishmuseum.com/exhibitions