CHAGALL: known & unknown
In this exhibition, many little-known works by Chagall are presented along with his most famous. The human, the beast and the angelic co-exist in a world dominated by the spiritual essence of life, and the vivid colors marry the forms to create a magical harmony. This is one of the most important exhibitions of the season bringing together some of the most significant masterpieces of Chagall from private and public collections across the world.
from 14th March to 23rd June 2003.
Marc Chagall looked at the world with enchanted eyes and loving admiration, never loosing faith in man and God even after the great tragedies he witnessed in his lifetime, tragedies that produced two wars and a revolution claiming the lives of so many.
A figure willingly apart in the art scene, he personifies the dilemma many artists faced at that epoch: whether to take the path of the representational or non-figurative in their art. Whereas most of the artists of his epoch started with representational art and turned abstract as the only logical course, Chagall started by painting realist portraits, then tried his hand at Fauvism and Cubism, but came back to representational art.
Realist while a student at the Pen atelier in 1906, he became acquainted with the Parisian styles in Saint Petersburg studios under the influence of Leon Bakst of the Ballet Russes who was an orientalist in love with Persian miniatures. After his first visit to Paris in 1910, he experimented with Cubism (self-portrait with seven fingers of 1912-13, or Adam and Eve of 1912) bending it's rigidity to suit his own curvilinear universe. But after his second visit to Paris in 1923, he developed a highly personal imagery that distanced him from geometrical abstraction.
The path towards maturity was a lifetime struggle of pure reason versus a reality that he sensed to be too immense to reduce to geometrical compartments. He often painted the painter-poet with an upside-down head to emphasize that art is not in the domain of pure reason. His poets also lie on the ground, perhaps to show how they are a humble part of creation themselves.
The fashionable trend of the epoch was to rationalize, analyze and reduce reality to geometrical hierarchy. But this meant that in a perfectly rational world, Chagall's people, animals, angels and prophets would have no 'raison d'être'. His world was not a bubbling universe of matter-in-the-making governed by the laws of physics; indeed, it was the inverse. It was abstraction and spirituality incarnated or re-incarnated into man and beast, angel and poet to bring out their glorious days of love and desperate moments of sacrifice.
In his own words in a speech in 1963: With the appearance of Impressionism, a rainbow started to shine on our world. This world began to be colored differently and more intensely, but it seems to me that it became narrower than the naturalist world of Courbet. The same applies to Courbet's naturalism that became narrower than that of the world of Romanticism with Delacroix. He took the same stance when talking of Cubism and abstraction, adding that we are moving towards a progressive narrowing. And further in the speech he questioned: "isn't this pseudo-scientific data on nature limiting the source of poetry by emptying it of its spirit?"
Recreating at first the magical atmosphere of his hometown of Vitebsk, where the snow covered all that was unsightly and served as a unifying background, all through his life he transposed that fairy-tale effervescence wherever he traveled, even transforming the grays of Paris into an explosion of color. Vitebsk, at the heart of the Russian Empire's compulsory residence for the Jewish people, was where the dreaming poet was born in a mixture of Hassidic Jewish tradition with that of Russian folklore and literature. His personages belong to a moral community bound by charitable love and respect, and their profound humanity resembles that of Tolstoy's noble characters. Even his later religious themes of sacrifice and redemption share the same passionate flame of a Dostoyevsky. For him, what unites humans and animals in reaching the spiritual world, the mystical bridge between these two worlds is love, and the painter-poet is its messenger. Moreover, love is sacred and consecrated into his most preferred earthly themes, e.g. the wedding ('La Noce' of 1910, where in large areas of geometrical color, the festive crowd is put in focus, coming to life when light chooses to pull the individuals out from darkness).
His own life pattern was drawn with precision by the hand of destiny to make him a legendary figure, an artist who had an inexhaustible source of inspiration, both earthly and spiritual. Every move or event had an elevating or liberating effect on his life and work. The move to Paris from 1910 to 1914 and later in 1923, not only acquainted him with the epoch's avant-garde techniques through contacts with Delaunay, Soutine and Modigliani, but mostly taught him what freedom means, whether it be freedom from burdensome religious traditions, from dictatorship or from poverty. This freedom in harmony with tradition became the hallmark of his work from then on: the painting 'Dedicated to my fiancée' of 1911 is a merging of man and beast, new and old. This goes further with his 'Golgotha' of 1912, another juxtaposition, this time of the New and the Old Testaments.
Back in Vitebsk (1914-1919) freedom gave a certain lightheartedness or 'joie de vivre' where lovers fly with joy ('la promenade' or 'above the city' of 1917, a work that coincides with the Revolution and the abolition of the special status of the Jewish people, painted two years after his marriage to Bella).
At these revolutionary times, his enthusiasm prompted him to organize an art festival to bring art to the people in the streets. Yet the ardor of the beginning was to become short-lived, aggravated with artistic disagreements with Kasimir Malevich, one of his own hand-picked professors, and a power struggle within the Fine Arts School of Vitebsk of which he was the director since 1917. His painting style followed his state of mind, as if finding Bella had finally liberated his own inner style that was lighter and less rationally arranged.
During a couple of years of hardship in Moscow (1920-1922) Chagall tried to adapt his art to culture for the masses, making costumes and decor for the theatre and later painting murals for the Jewish Theatre of Moscow, executed in tempera and gouache on canvas, mixing the sacred and profane, real personalities of the theatre and the arts with imaginary ones drawn from memory. In these large paintings his technique is a curious mixture: a part of him had absorbed the Suprematist theories of Malevich that he openly refused, while the other part stayed faithful to his own inner world.
After a short trip to Germany in 1922, he settled for good in Paris in 1923. After freedom and disillusionment, therefore, followed a happy period of life in France with his wife where he mixed with his old circle of friends. This is reflected in his paintings, free from geometry and with the poet or his love back in the foreground ('Nude under the table' of 1927-28), and the blue of love and peace as the predominant color of his life.
Carefully avoiding the pressure from the Eluards and Max Ernst, who tried to persuade him to join the Surrealist movement (which he resisted, even though he was considered a precursor of the Surrealists by Apollinaire and Breton), Chagall worked mainly as an illustrator for the art merchant Vollard, realizing aquarelles and gouaches for monumental literary works such as the Bible, La Fontaine's 'Fables' and Gogol's 'Dead Souls'.
Having received an order from Vollard to illustrate the Bible, Chagall traveled to Palestine, Syria and Egypt. That trip resulted in the production of a large number of gouaches with religious themes: 'Angel with a palette' painted between the years 1927-36, is a portrait of himself as a heavenly messenger flying on the wings of color over his present and past life. The 1939 'Midsummer Night's Dream' was another allusion to 'Beauty and the Beast' and the tender love that united them with the red angel of passion darting above. This work is emblematic both of his style in it's purest form and of his belief that life's purpose is to unite through love even the most dissimilar of beings, and that love is born from purity and innocence.
His native optimism though was tried again by the Second World War that saw his exile in 1941 from France, his country of adoption, to New York. His 'Falling Angel', perhaps started in 1923 as a pure religious theme, was terminated in 1947 as an allegory of war: the angel is painted in the hot red color of blood, anguish and hell, tearing the sky and falling on an Earth that still contains purity and innocence, legend and poetry.
Having lost Bella in 1944, Chagall held a retrospective exhibition in New York after the War and then returned to France in 1947 where other retrospective exhibitions of his work were held in the Modern Art Museum of Paris, in Amsterdam and at the Tate Gallery in London. This was the time of recognition and acclaim as well as maturity. A particularly fecund period, Chagall executed some of his largest paintings, such as the ceiling of the Opera Garnier in Paris. Large paintings such as 'War' of 1964-66 or the 'Couple in a blue landscape' illustrate once again how he used color to bring out different sentiments such as the cold and deadly white beast of war (La Guerre) or the blue symbol of primordial ocean of love. The figures add the human, moral and spiritual dimensions to the abstract of the colors.
Chagall transported his own personal legend through his original imagery to bring a meaningful moral pattern to the wild fabric of existence, and this with the intense colors of joy and compassion. Working to the day of his death, his legacy is immense both artistically and spiritually.
1887: Marc Chagall was born on 7th July in Vitebsk, Russia, into a deeply religious Jewish family of 9 children.
1906: Given his obviously extraordinary talent for painting and his mother’s encourangement, he took up art studies in the studio of the artist Pen.
1907: Studied art at the Imperial School of Art in St. Petersbourg.
1908: Frequented Leon Bakst’s studio, an artist who worked as costume designer and scenario painter and decorator for Diaghilev’s ‘Ballet Russes’ in Paris. Chagall became acquainted with Parisian avant-garde art through Bakst.
1909: Met with Bella for the first time. The Russian Parliament offered him a scholarship to either Rome or Paris.
1910: He traveled to Paris where he was delighted by the unfolding art scene.
1911-12: He moved to ‘La Ruche’ where most artists lived and worked. Here he met with Apollinaire and Cendrars. He was admitted to the Salon d’Automne and exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants.
1914: Made his first personal exhibition in Berlin, on a recommendation by Apollinaire, at the ‘Der Sturm’Gallery. His work had considerable influence on the German Expressionists. From there he went back to Vitebsk. He was conscripted and stayed in St. Pertersburg during the 1914-1918 war.
1915: Chagall and Bella were married. His work was exhibited in Moscow.
1917: Outbreak of the Russian Revolution. Nominated as the Fine Arts Commissar, he founded the Fine Arts Academy in Vitebsk and hired a number of artists as art teachers, among whom was the painter Malevich.
1918: During the celebration of the first anniversary of the October Revolution, Chagall’s entire production for the show at Leningrad’s Winter Palace (the former Saint Petersburg royal palace that later became home to the Hermitage Museum) was bought by the Russian state.
1919-20 Chagall painted decorative murals for the New Jewish Theatre. In disagreement with Malevich, he resigned from his post of Fine Arts Academy Director at Vitebsk and moved to Moscow to resume the design of theatre decorations.
1921: He taught at the school of war orphans near Moscow.
1922: Chagall left Russia for Paris, stopping over in Berlin in vain to recuperate some of his paintings. He started his autobiography (My Life) and the etchings to illustrate the future publication.
1923: Settled in Paris, he was introduced to Vollard, the art merchant, who commissioned Chagall to illustrate Golgol’s ‘Dead Souls’, the first of three monumental book illustrations.
1924: A retrospective exhibition of Chagall’s work was held at the Barbazanges-Hodebert gallery in Paris. He visited Brittany.
1925-26: Traveled within France and began the illustrations of the Fables of La Fontaine. Exhibited in New York and at the ‘Granoff’ gallery in Paris.
1927: Painted gouaches commissioned by Vollard on the theme of the circus, and traveled widely within France.
1930: Began illustration of the Bible and exhibited at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris.
1931: To immerse himself in Biblical atmosphere for his illustrations, Chagall traveled to Palestine, Syria and Egypt, a trip that inspired him profoundly. His autobiographical work ‘Ma Vie’ (My Life) was published.
1932: Traveled to Holland to exhibit in Amsterdam.
1933: A major retrospective held at the ‘Kunsthalle’ of Basel, Switzerland. England was the next country he visited that year when his work was destroyed by the Nazis in Mannheim, Germany.
1934-39: Chagall traveled to Spain, Poland, Italy and Belgium, and received the Carnegie Prize in 1939.
1940: He stayed in Gordes in the Rhone Valley.
1941: Chagall took advantage of an invitation from the Modern Art Museum in New York to take refuge in the US, where he exhibited at the ‘Pierre Matisse’ gallery.
1942: Made costume designs and decorations for the ballet ‘Aleko’ of Mexico.
1944: Bella died suddenly from pneumonia just after the liberation of Paris by the allies.
1945: Designed decorations and costumes for the ‘Oiseau de Feu’ (Firebird) of Stravinsky, commissioned by the New York Opera.
1946: Retrospective exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art and Chicago Art Institute. Took up color lithography to illustrate ‘One thousand and one nights’.
1947: The war having ended, Chagall returned to France, where he was acclaimed with a retrospective that would later be shown in Amsterdam and the Tate Gallery of London.
1948: Settled in Orgeval, a western Paris suberb near Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and won the prize for etching in Venice.
1949-50: Settled in the South of France, first in Saint Jean Cap-Ferrat and later in Vence. Made ceramics that were shown in the Maeght gallery of Vence.
1951: He made his first sculptures. Exhibitions in Zurich, Bern, Haiffa and Tel Aviv. Traveled to Israel.
1952: Married Vava Brodsky with whom he traveled to Greece. Made illustrations for Daphne and Chloe and exhibited in Nice.
1953: Exhibitions in Turin, New York and Vienna.
1954: Exhibition called ‘Fantastic Paris’ at the Maeght gallery. Traveled to Greece for the second time.
1955: Exhibition in Hanover.
1956: Exhibitions in Basel, Berne, Amsterdam and Brussels.
1957: Traveled to Israel. His illustrations appeared with publication of the Bible. Exhibitions of etchings at the Paris National Library and at the Kunstmuseum of Basel. Stained glass windows completed for the church of Assy. Exhibitions at the Maeght gallery and the Biennale of Sao Paulo.
1958: He made the decors and costume designs for Daphne and Chloe at the Paris Opera. Gave conferences in Chicago and Brussels.
1959: He was made ‘Doctor honoris causa’ at the University of Glasgow.
1960: He started a series of stained-glass windows for the cathedral of Metz in France, and was made ‘Doctor honoris causa’ at the University of Brandeis.
1961: A series of 12 stained-glass windows made for the synagog of the Jerusalem Hebrew University Medical Center were on show in the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts before being installed the following year in Jerusalem.
1962-63: He made exhibitions at the Maeght gallery. An exhibition dedicated to ‘Chagal and the Bible’ was made in Geneva.
1964: He made exhibitions at the Gerald Cramer gallery in Geneva and at the Maeght gallery. The new cieling at the Opera Garnier, commissioned by Andre Malraux, was inaugurated in Paris, and a window in the United Nations building in New York was installed.
1966: He made two murals for the Metropolitan Opera House, New York: ‘Les sources de la Musique’ and ‘Le triomphe de la Musique’.
1968: The stained-glass windows were installed for the cathedral in Metz, France.
1969: He made the larger paintings of his mature phase, such as 'The couple in a blue landscape' situated in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
1973: A museum of his work was opened in Nice.
1975: He made 'the big gray circus'
1977-78: A major retrospective of his work between 1967 -77 was on show at the Louvre Museum, Paris.
1985: A major retrospective of his work held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence on 28th March, in the South of France.
Art Lovers Paris