Marc Chagall (1887–1985) is considered one of the semenal artists of the twentieth century. He was nearly a hundred when he died in 1985 living through one of the most tumultuous periods in history. He witnessed a revolution, two wars and a period of exile in the US. Chagall was a contemporary to some of the most important avant-garde artists of the period and his legacy has placed a footprint of influence, which lives on today.
Now a series of exhibitions have opened in Europe which reassesses Chagall’s importance and relevance in the 21st century. The first is at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, which opens to the public today. Titled Chagall: Between War and Peace, it explores the dialectic of war and peace in the broadest sense, highlighting the essential aspects of Chagall’s work. By exploring the decisive episodes in his life, it helps us understand the link between his vision of the human condition and his sincere, sensitive pictorial technique, which, thirty years after his death, is still strikingly innovative.
Chagall: Modern Master which opens at Tate Liverpool 8 June and runs until 6 October will focus on the artist’s time in Paris before the First world War, his visit to Berlin and his exhibition there in 1914, and the years he spent in his native Russia around the time of the Revolution in 1917. Chagall’s experiences during this period reinforced his highly personal visual language. The universal, timeless themes of these early works – including love, suffering and death – alongside self-portraits and depictions of the circus, music and peasants, recurred and formed the core of his art for the remainder of his long career.
Purveyor of the surnaturel, Marc Chagall was at the forefront of the Surrealist movement in Paris. His dreamy paintings were said to be fuelled on absinthe and love for his first wife Bella, yet they were also the paintings of a refugee, who had watched the Russia of his childhood disappear after the Revolution.
Chagall: Modern Master, organised by Kunsthaus Zurich in collaboration with Tate Liverpool, will be the first major presentation of the Russian artist’s work in theUK for over fifteen years. Chagall’s paintings of Russian village life with its floating figures and animals are instantly familiar. This exhibition will demonstrate his acute awareness of the latest avant-garde artistic developments of the time and show his shift in emphasis from the naïve folkloristic narratives in his early work towards an understanding of how he combined Fauve, Cubist, Expressionist and Suprematist styles while articulating his native Jewish Russian culture.
Twentieth-century art largely repressed allegory and narrative. It was because Chagall did not follow the rules and codes (or even dogma) of modernist thought, while drawing nourishment from it, that he was able to stay figurative and bear witness to his time. He borrowed some of the forms of the avant-garde movements (Cubism, Suprematism, Surrealism) and sometimes seems to come close to them, but in the end remained independent. The parallel between the images of war and the images of peace reveals the complexity of an oeuvre which can never be reduced to a particular genre, but enfolds events, situations and the artist’s feelings. Depending on the circumstances, Chagall comes back to a few themes, enriching them each time with a personal dimension: his home town of Vitebsk, the Jewish traditions of his childhood, episodes from the Bible, including the Crucifixion, the couple and family life.
Chagall: Modern Master – Kunsthaus Zürich – 8 February – 12 May 2013
Chagall: Between War and Peace – Musée du Luxembourg in Paris 21 February – 21 July 2013
Photo: Marc Chagall, The Green Donkey, 1911 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002