IN 1985, Susan Compton staged an exhibition of the then
nonagenarian artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) at the Royal Academy,
and later in Philadelphia. It proved immensely popular, and was due
to close in London on 31 March. When the artist died at his home in
France at Saint-Paul-de-Vence on 28 March, it became known that one
of his last wishes had been for the RA to extend the exhibition for
one day, the proceeds to be given to the Ethiopian Relief Fund. It
was a typically humanitarian gesture by a man who had been born
into a devoutly religious Hasidic Jewish family, at Vitebsk.
As I visited the current exhibition at Albert Dock in Liverpool,
the news that Chagall's fellow-countrymen in his native Russia are
among those committed to arming the government forces in Syria was
very much on my mind. Would the Tate extend the exhibition for a
day to raise funds for Syrian refugees and for victims of the
appalling killings there? What would Chagall have them do?
There are some who love Chagall; others find his mischievous
compositions simple and dull beyond measure. A generation after his
death, he remains popular, with a recent exhibition in Paris at the
Musée de Luxembourg, and the vibrant Ben Uri exhibition "Chagall,
Soutine and the School of Paris", now at Manchester Jewish Museum
(until 24 November).
In one of the 1985 obituaries, William Feaver noted that
"Folksiness was the basis of his appeal." Writing in The
Observer the day before the RA exhibition closed, Feaver
perceptively noted a recurrent problem that a "sweet sentimentality
crept into his work and, as his fame and popularity increased, the
paintings began to represent not the world he had experienced but a
world of fond imaginings". For me, the more wistful the later works
become, the less engaging I can find them.
The Paris exhibition was broadly staged chronologically, which
helped me to see that, as long as Chagall separated his toying with
religious symbols from the dream world of the inter-war years, his
pictures do have a certain naïve appeal. Once he becomes formulaic,
my interest stops. Unlike Picasso or Titian, who, of course, lived
as long, his work soon begins to become too much of a production
The Liverpool show avoids this problem of perception by
restricting itself to a close examination of Chagall's early work,
although oddly a final room is staged as a sort of "What Katy did
next", with six later works from 1923 to 1967. Although he reached
the age of 97 and was productive to the end (again like Titian and
Picasso), this exhibition of some 70 works concentrates on the
second decade of the 20th century. The Manchester show similarly
examines the artists who worked in Paris in the first two decades
of the 20th century.
This is, therefore, about an artist who had left the
provincialism of Belarus for the cosmopolitan Tsarist world of St
Petersburg, in 1906. He later claimed in his autobiography:
"Without even knowing that there was such a place as Paris, I found
a miniature Europe in (Léon) Bakst's school." He followed his
paintbrush to Paris, leaving behind his fiancée, Bella. In the
spring of 1911, he found Cubism and the Modernist style of the
Ballets Russes all the rage.
One of his grandchildren has said that she does not recall his
ever being overtly Jewish, never frequenting the synagogue,
lighting the menorah, or sitting down for a sabbath meal. But she
may not have been old enough to hear him speaking Yiddish, which
was his first language.
He never lost the cultural baggage of his Jewishness, even if
his vocabulary became remarkably universalist very early on. As he
explained, in 1958, "If a painter is Jewish and paints life, how
can there help being Jewish elements in his work! But if he is a
good painter, there will be more than that. The Jewish element will
be there but his art will tend to approach the universal."
So, as early as 1910, he had produced an image of the
resurrection of Lazarus (Philadelphia), and in 1912 he was painting
the scene at Calvary, showing Golgotha (now at MoMA, New
York) at the Salon in the autumn. As late as 1918, after his
wartime return to Russia, he was still signing his pictures in
Hebrew, as the intimate scene of rabbis disputing a text (The
Study) showed, in Paris.
Liverpool Tate shows, however, this essential strand of
Chagall's work, and demonstrates his affectionate recollection of
his Hasidic roots. One of his first Parisian works on paper is the
struggle between Cain and Abel (private collection). The red earthy
brown background is almost that of an African landscape, while both
figures tense in fevered altercation; Abel wears a laurel-wreath
crown as if to signify innocent virtue.
Alongside it, The Awakening (1910-11) has a reclining
figure beneath a vaulted canopy. More William Blake than anything
else, the figure arches backwards while God's firmament is above,
realised in a single sweep of blue gouache.
And it is already in colour that one begins to sense the
liberation that he further explored in Paris. The startling beauty
of his 1911-12 Still Life (Utsunomiya Museum of Art,
Japan) takes it a long way from Cézanne, from whose tables he has
stolen both the pitcher and the apples. The oil lamp and
hand-decorated teacup bring back a Russia that we see again in the
samovar that is almost the only stable element in the painting
The Soldier Drinks (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New
York). This recalls the soldier billeted in the Chagall house
during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.
At a glance, the ink-on-paper drawing The Departure for
War (1914) is as profound a reflection on loss and foreboding
as any Italian or German Renaissance painting of Christ Takes
Leave of His Mother. His Homage to Apollinaire
(1911-12) takes some getting used to, as Adam and Eve, Siamese
twins already in the act of becoming, are set against a clock face;
but the smaller sketch for the enormous canvas (2 × 1.895m) makes
it easier to understand how Chagall saw creation.
The opportunity of his first solo exhibition took him to Berlin
in May 1914, from where he returned home. The outbreak of war
prolonged an intended three-month summer visit to eight years.
These form the rest of the exhibition, which reflects on the Paris
years in the context of Russia before and after the Revolution.
Chagall married his beloved Bella in 1915, celebrating the joy
of homecoming, as Maeterlinck does in his 1914 play The
Bluebird, in a painting of himself with her in a violet dress
(The Promenade, The State Museum, St Petersburg). It looks
for all the world as if she is a kite, tethered to one hand while
in the other he holds the oiseau bleu.
Flying figures are a common-place in his increasingly visionary
painting, whether in the Wandering Jew above the Orthodox cathedral
domes of Vitebsk (Over Vitebsk, 1922) or in the figure of
Music, one of the wall panels from the decoration for the
State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow (1920), which is really the
culmination of this remarkably wide-ranging
The four panels with the long mural Introduction to the
Jewish Theatre (1920), which measures 2.84 × 7.87m, have been
exceptionally loaned from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. These
reflect on the links between drama and faith, not just in the
artist's mind, but in our world.
Fortunately, these works survived the destruction of the
theatre, but it was not until 1953 that Chagall was able to sign
them. Sadly, the earlier mural commission from the Society for the
Encouragement of Jewish Art in Petrograd (1916) was cut short by
the Revolution. We only glimpse what it might have been in his
liberating sketch for Purim.
This exhibition was seen earlier this year in the Kunsthaus in
Zurich, and is brilliantly curated by Simonetta Fraquelli. The
views from the gallery over the roofs and docks below are certainly
in keeping with much of Chagall's vision of the world. Sadly, peace
remains as elusive now as it did throughout his long life.
"Chagall: Modern Master" is at Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock,
Liverpool Waterfront, until 6 October. Phone 0151 702