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Marc Chagall

by Donald Kuspit
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So many of the artists in "Marc Chagall and His Circle" at the Philadelphia Museum -- including Marc Chagall himself -- seem stuck between Modernism and Traditionalism, if Traditionalism means making a work that the backward, narrow-minded Many instantly “get” (not always in every subtle detail, but as a “scenic” whole), and if Modernism means making a work only the free thinking, forward-looking Few “get.”

It is the difference between making a work in which line and color underpin, enliven and submit to an image, and making a work in which they rebelliously rise up in autonomy, insist on existing for their own pure sake. The image becomes “excess baggage,” as Georges Braque suggested. It is the difference between making a work for the “advanced” cognoscenti, and for the “retarded” people. When Richard Serra said that “art was not for the people,” in spiteful and hubristic defense of Tilted Arc (1981), when it was removed from public space as an offensive eyesore -- and as socially irresponsible -- he stated the Modernist attitude succinctly.   

On the evidence of their works, Chagall and the artist company he kept -- Alexander Archipenko, Robert Delaunay, Jacques Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Louis Marcoussis, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine, Moise Kisling and Ossip Zadkine (among others) -- were torn between humanist Traditionalism and de-humanizing Modernism. More particularly, they were torn between objectifying representation and subjective abstraction.

As Kandinsky said, “spiritual” abstraction defensively retreated from the external and social to the internal and personal. Kandinsky conceived of it as a sanctuary in a materialistic society, where emotions could be cultivated for their own sake. As such, it was superior to the unfeeling society in which it was made.

Most of the artists tilt more towards one rather than the other -- not because they were undecided between them, but because they were unable to integrate them, to make a work that is convincingly traditional and convincingly Modern at the same time. They wanted “both/and” rather than “either/or,” but they didn’t know how to make “both/and” work -- so they ended up with “neither/nor.”

Were they hybrid postmodernists, more ahead of their times than anyone has realized? Some certainly seem like tired Traditionalists looking for a Modernist fix -- others like Modernist beginners looking for Traditionalist respect. Adults regressing to the childhood of art, children pretending to be adults -- it is not always clear which. Sometimes, as with Metzinger and Gleizes, Modernist pure form -- meaning secondhand Cubist planes, deftly arranged in an image while skewing it -- seems dominant.

Sometimes, as with Modigliani and Soutine, a Traditionalist image -- of a human being or a human scene -- is given a Modernist edge (a bit of distortion, as in Modigliani’s signature elongations, or a surge of exaggeration, as with Soutine’s painterliness), but the image remains intact. Given an unfamiliar expressive edge -- brought to uncanny esthetic life -- it nonetheless remains “everyday” and familiar. All of these works convey uncertainty about both Modernism and Traditionalism. None of the artists are “masters” in the traditional sense, and none seemed completely comfortable let alone at home with Modernist abstraction; they were “experimenting” with it, that is, trying it out, adding it to their images as trendy esthetic gloss, which is not exactly to master it.
They weren’t completely convinced by Modernism, and most were relatively beholden to Traditionalism despite their determination to break with it -- to be “up to date”-- which is why their art seems peculiarly “half-baked”: half-baked formalism and half-baked imagism.

This “problem” is exemplified by Chagall. On the one hand, he makes Traditionalist-type images for the Jewish people -- his people, the Hasids in the shtetl where he grew up, the rural village of Vitebsk -- and on the other hand, he makes Modernist-type images for his artist and poet friends (many of them Jews, like him), all drawn to cosmopolitan Paris, which was then the creative epicenter of the art world. It was a world in which new art was tolerated, and in which artists were expected to make new art (newness was, then, still considered new). Works like Over Vitebsk (1914), Purim Part 1 (1916-17), Purim Part 2 (1916-17), The Watering Trough (1923), In the Night (1943), Man with Lulav embody the former; Paris through the Window (1913) and Half-Past Three (The Poet) (1911) embody the latter.

The communal Jewish works are “unrefined,” not to say “raw” and “primitive” -- they have an odd affinity with Emil Nolde’s “raw,” “primitive,” “unrefined” images (which were made about the same time) -- but they have sophisticated Modernist touches, such as the broad red plane in the two Purim pictures. Their narrative character and fantasy figures gave them surreal appeal -- Guillaume Apollinaire had come up with the idea of Surrealism around this time -- however much they were “interpretations” of real experience and people. This carries over into the Parisian pictures, but they are more obviously Modernist, as their Cubistically fragmented space and “self-contradictory” figures (as their upside down heads suggest), also surreally absurd, indicate. But the more one looks at it, the more the Modernism -- the abstract surrealism? -- seems like trendy window dressing on the narrative. Oh God (1919) epitomizes the conflict between Chagall’s Jewishness and secular (atheistic?) Modernism.

Chagall endured the conflict, struggled with the opposites, came closer to reconciling them than any of his artist friends. He may have. Writing about “Kafka’s Jewishness,” Clement Greenberg asked, “Might not all art, ‘prosaic’ as well as ‘poetic,’ begin to appear falsifying to the Jew who looked closely enough? And when did a Jew ever come to terms with art without falsifying himself somehow? Does not art always make one forget what is literally happening to oneself as a certain person in a certain world? And might not the investigation of what is literally happening to oneself remain the most human, therefore, the most serious. . . of all possible activities? Kafka’s Jewish self asks this question, and in asking it, tests the limits of art.”

So does Chagall’s Jewish self -- however different it is from Kafka’s: more upbeat and joyous, like a Hasid dancing, than downbeat and depressed, like a self-hating Jew, which is what Greenberg said he [Greenberg] was, and implied Kafka to be (however Jewish it may be to hate oneself and be depressed in a hostile world -- that is, to defensively internalize the world’s hatred, and make the emotional best of it by using it to energize oneself and analyze the world, which means to understand its effect on oneself and thus to survive and outsmart it).

In both the Jewish Vitebsk and Modernist Paris works, Chagall “investigates” what is literally happening to himself in a certain world -- very different worlds. He uses art to convey his humanness, remaining true to its traditional social purpose of humanistic remembrance. At the same time, in both types of narrative, he uses Modernist abstract methods, suggesting that he believes in art for the sake of art -- art that in celebrating itself forgets the literal world, forgets what is literally happening to human beings, forgets that Jews are hated and isolated in ghettos and shtetls and often murdered in pogroms. It is worth recalling that the Jewish Schoenberg broke with the Christian Kandinsky (who admired his music) because of an anti-Semitic remark that Kandinsky allegedly made.

Chagall never falsified himself, never denied his Jewishness -- never tried to assimilate, however assimilative Modernism may seem (he may picture Paris, but his work never has a “Parisian look,” the “radical chic” look of Impressionistic and Post-Impressionist art) -- nor did Schoenberg, whose atonal music is filled, as Adorno suggested, with Jewish suffering, and, more broadly, conveys modern anxiety.

Chagall may have given us the first Jewish Modernist art, and even the first Christian Modernist art, for his images of the crucified Christ wearing a tallis reminds us that Christ was a Jew. It was, after all, a Jew who performed the miracle of raising Lazarus -- himself another Jew -- as Chagall’s Resurrection of Lazarus (1910) asserts, for the event occurs in Vitebsk.    

“Paris through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle,” Apr. 7-May 1, 2011, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA, 19130.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art.