‘Chagall: Modern Master’ at Tate Liverpool

by rebeccaswirsky

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‘It’s time for another generation to enjoy Chagall,’ explains curator Simonetta Fraquelli, at the new retrospective of the painter held at Tate Liverpool. Indeed, it is much hoped that Liverpool’s electic, vibrant mix of young people will take Marc Chagall to their hearts. The artist was born Moyshe Shagall, in Vitebsk, Imperial Russia (now Belarus), in 1887, and his exuberant, circus-like murals and canvases reinvented for the modern world familiar tropes from nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.

Marc Chagall, 'Paris Through the Window', 1913.
Marc Chagall, ‘Paris Through the Window’, 1913. © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013.

Chagall’s standing over recent years has arguably wavered. The last major UK retrospective, held in 1985 at the Royal Academy, was also curated by Fraquelli. This time round the focus of the survey is Chagall’s output between 1911 and 1922, in a bid to appeal to a new audience with this period’s splashy colours and infectious motifs of goats hanging upside down and prancing over village roofs.

Part of the exhibition’s concept, claims Fraquelli, walking our pack of journalists through the impressive room dedicated to his designs for theatre, is to recreate a space similar to a Moscow apartment block – something with an entirely different feel to the RA’s Sackler’s Wing. Chagall loved looking out from windows at city vistas, and Tate Liverpool’s airy windows, alongside which many paintings are positioned, would have been duly appreciated by the artist.

Marc Chagall, 'Drama', 1920.
Marc Chagall, ‘Drama’, 1920. Tempera, gouache and opaque white on canvas. 212.6 x 107.2 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013.

Despite his paintings’ rumbunctiousness (and their touch of meglomania, in works such as Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, 1920, where the artist is depicted as being carried by a peforming troup), Chagall equally surprises and delights in sotto voce details. In a small series of nudes, rendered with muted browns and faded oranges in 1911–12, vitality rather than grace or decorum is channelled through the poses. Just as discretely emphatic is the barely-there couple kissing, delicately contained within the bolder boundaries of a man praying, in Drama (1920). Or the way the artist’s signature in Half-Past Three (The Poet) (1911) mischeviously climbs up rather than across the canvas, carefully rendered in alternating primary colours.

Despite his troubled times which saw the Russian Revolution and two World Wars, Chagall’s irrepressible spirit found a home not only with his beloved wife, Bella, but in the joys of a figurative world he refused to renounce despite surface affiliations to Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism, Primitivism, and Suprematism. By holding no ties to any particular movement, expressing himself through the many forms of these different schools, Chagall assembled on canvases a composite of modes, arranged to suit his own liking.

It’s for this meshing of these visual worlds and for his positioning at the intersection between Modernism and Yiddish storytelling – with one foot (paintbrush) anchored in geometric language and the other in Yiddish culture – that Chagall deserves to be remembered, not just with affection but with due art-critical consideration. And it’s in its acknowledgment of Chagall’s confidence to never be beholden to one movement or methodology, but to take the best parts from any, that the exhibition excels.

Marc Chagall, 'Introduction to the Jewish Theatre', 1920.
Marc Chagall, ‘Introduction to the Jewish Theatre’, 1920. Tempera, gouache and opaque white on canvas. 284 x 787 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013.

Chagall’s granddaughter Meret Meyer was present at the opening, and when I questioned her on her favourite painting, she instantly replied, Clock with Blue Wing (1949), because it ‘brings together the Wandering Jew, issues of immigration, the past, all of what he stood for.’ If Chagall stood for Modernism and its encompassing schools, as well as the sensibility of Jewish folklore – asking in 1917, ‘why couldn’t we [the Jewish people] also give the world a specifically Jewish art?’ – he also stood for an awareness of humanity’s suffering that extended beyond his own tribe. It’s perhaps this awareness that is his singular trait, the one school to which Chagall uniformly adhered.

As he once said, ‘If I create from the heart, nearly everything works. If from the head, almost nothing.’

This review was first published in June 2013 on the online Royal Academy of Arts Magazine