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|Ideas from Russia, Lights from Paris
"Marc Chagall 1907-1917"
by John Mendelsohn
|[Originally published on 5-15-96]
In the latter decades of his 80-year career, Marc Chagall became the user-friendly modern artist par excellence, whose romantic and religious images verged on sentimental self-parody. The current exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum, "Marc Chagall 1907-1917," gives us a chance to see him in the first burst of artistic self-invention, before the lambs and flying lovers became practiced performers in an international road show of retrospectives and big-time commissions. To see Chagall in his first decade as an artist is to appreciate him both as a visionary fabulist and as a canny synthesizer of avant-garde styles who retained his strongly conservative tendencies. Played out in Chagall is the drama of an individual negotiating the threat of cultural obsolescence, attempting to trump its attendant dislocations with his own poetic derangements. Simultaneously, these early images reveal a somewhat problematic relationship to women, particularly to his wife, one at odds with his putative role as a champion of romantic rapture.
The exhibition of 100 drawings and paintings was organized with the Kunstmuseum Bern, and appears here in a some what reduced form, with the absence of some of the major works included in the original exhibition. Chagall's art is accompanied by a selection of family photographs, letters and illustrated books.
The work is divided into three parts, each corresponding to a stop on Chagall's artistic odyssey. The first includes pieces produced in his hometown of Vitebsk and in St. Petersburg, where he attended art school. The next sections move through his Paris years, 1910-1914, and then back to Vitebsk from 1914-1917. It is fascinating to trace the influence of new stylistic forces on his persistent obsessions of religion, woman as love object, and the dream life of the shtetl.
"God, You who are hidden in the clouds, or maybe behind the shoemaker's house, reveal my soul to me, the painful soul of a stuttering boy, show me my way. I do not want to be like everyone else, I want to see a brand new world." This childhood prayer, which Chagall quotes in his 1931 biography, embodies the intertwined impulses which begin in his earliest art. There is the genius for self-dramatization that is both out-sized and oddly innocent. There is the nostalgia for the ordinary, which only emphasizes a radical dissatisfaction with its limitations. The desire to recreate reality according the artist's inner necessity becomes of transcendental value.
The phrase "a brand new world" helps illuminate the oft-cited conundrum of Chagall's emergence as an artist from a family whose Orthodox Jewish beliefs proscribed the production of "graven images." The phrase embodies the anti-rationalist current of his family's Hasidism, which regards mystic fervor and spiritual joy as a means of serving God. And it intimates a hunger for the world beyond the village life, which was the first subject of Chagall's art.
As youth he insisted on attending a secular Russian school as opposed to a Jewish yeshiva, and his early representations of religious figures, often bent under the weight of unseen forces, seem pious, yet ambivalent and angst-ridden. The traditional world that was in reality already pressured by the forces of modernity could not remain in representation stable and familiar. Rather, art became for Chagall a highly charged theater of the unsettled communal unconscious.
The private ritual of mourning becomes a public performance in The Dead Man (1908), Chagall's first major work. Surrounded by candles, the body is laid out on the street, complete with crying wife and fiddler on the roof. With its oversized, abstracted figures, the image is shaped by the Russian neo-primitivism in vogue at the time, as well as the post-Impressionism gleaned from Leon Bakst's Svantseva School in St. Petersburg.
Chagall followed Bakst to Paris in 1910, despite the latter's refusal to employ him as a decorator. The influence of his new surroundings are immediately apparent. The drab minor key of The Dead Man is supplanted by a raucously vivid palette. Like a talented graduate student, Chagall began to absorb the current advanced styles, often through contact with their primary innovators. His new sophistication is seen in a series of small fluidly executed pictures that read like lessons in how to paint a Fauvist, Cubist or Orphist nude. Chagall's originality lay in his melding of these influences in the service of a personal poetics. In them he found "the revolution of the eye, this rotation of colors" (in the words of a contemporary critic) that corresponded to a dislocated vision of life in Vitebsk. It is striking that so many images from this Paris period are of shtetl life transformed in what Surrealist writer Andre Breton grandly called a "total lyrical explosion."
Chagall's first great Paris work,The Wedding (1911), is a phantasmagoric procession of bride, groom, musicians and guests, set in what is clearly a Cubist-inflected Vitebsk. From this period is the fantastic To Russia, to the Asses, and Others, titled for Chagall by the poet Blaise Cendrars. In the nighttime scene a flying milkmaid with head detached floats up to the cow (a symbol for Mother Russia), already on the rooftop, suckling both a calf and child. Even the more horrific images take on a characteristic sweet dreaminess, as in The Carriage (1913), where a fire that destroyed a part of Vitebsk's Jewish quarter becomes a fabulous aurora of red and orange surrounding a lone house.
Even the naturalistic scenes have the quality of a cozy cartoon, if crazily haimish (a yiddish word meaning "warm, comfortable, homey). Chagall recounts that he "brought ideas from Russia, but Paris gave them light." That light for him was at once avant-garde, nostalgic and analgesic. Despite radical means, a conservatism persists in the attempt to freeze in time an idealized vision of a world already undergoing rapid change, and on the brink of war and revolution.
Chagall returned to Vitebsk, just as World War I was breaking out and a proposed three-month homecoming turned into an eight-year stay. That period included his founding of the Vitebsk Art Institute after the Revolution and his eventual dismissal at the hands of Malevich and students of his Suprematist circle. Chagall's return marked the end of a four-year separation from his fiancee, Bella. Their love-stuck meeting is recorded in the exhibition catalogue. He says it is "as if she knew everything of my childhood...but I was meeting her for the first time. I was entering a house and I was inseparable from it."
Bella became a crucial presence in Chagall's paintings, along with their daughter Ida. The couple becomes the prototypical flying couple in The Birthday Party (1918), she still with one foot on the floor, he completely levitated, twisting back snake-like for a kiss. Disturbingly armless and somnambulant, he is just one example of Chagall's depiction of himself (or his alter ego) as a dependent in the thrall of a lover, wife or muse. The imagery, not surprisingly, extends back to the depiction of Chagall's parents, his mother imposing and dynamic, his father, depressive or sweetly smiling. In Adam and Eve (1911-12), the tondo shows a totemic couple as torsos emerging from a single body with female genitalia. In Study for Double Portrait with Wine Glass (1917), he rides on Bella's shoulders, his glass raised to toast Ida, who floats overhead. In Bella with a White Collar (1917) she became a looming colossus, while a tiny Marc and Ida play below. In Lover in Gray (1916-17) the couple both become monumental, with Chagall resting his head upon her chest. Beyond highlighting the quirks of a particular relationship, these examples point to a more general disposition toward recreating an original, regressive state, whether of mother love or idealized community, which forms a sine qua non of Chagall's art.
Images from the catalogue Marc Chagall 1907-1917 published by the Museum of Fine Arts Berne. Images are not to be reproduced without permission of the Jewish Museum.
JOHN MENDELSOHN is a New York artist who occasionally writes on art.