EXHIBITION REVIEW: Marc Chagall: The Origins of the Master’s Creative Language at State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow by Theodora Clarke
Picasso once said: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” Marc Chagall, the iconic modernist painter, is considered one of the foremost Russian artists of the twentieth century. A new exhibition of his work at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow explores the artist’s universal appeal, his use of colour and the influences on his imagery. As an artist Chagall faced challenges in pre-Revolutionary Russia, such as the anti-Semitic regulations that prohibited Jews from attending art schools. However, despite a lack of professional arts training, he went on to become one of Russia’s most successful artists, both at home and in the West.
In this exhibition several little known drawings, watercolours, goaches and etchings by the artist are presented. Amongst these are some famous illustrations to La Fontaine’s fables and also the Bible. Religious iconography played an important part in the artist’s life and we are presented with several different variations of Biblical themes. In total over 150 works are displayed which are drawn from a number of Russian museums and international collections. The range is broad from early sketches drawn in Vitebsk to collages the artist produced in Paris.
Chagall drew from life despite the dream-like or fantastical quality to many of his works. You can find recognisable objects and real-life places in many of his pictures. He depicts his wife Bella, his hometown of Vitebsk, his local orthodox church, the view out of his apartment window, the Eiffel Tower and numerous religious symbols. He himself stated: “It is not true, that my art is fantastic. I’m realist and I love normal life on the Earth!”. Included in the exhibition are several vitrines which present religious objects such as the Torah scroll and Menorah candelabra. Hung nearby are brightly coloured watercolours which depict Jewish imagery and illustrations of the Bible such as the Fall of Angels.
This exhibition explores how Chagall’s style evolved during the different periods of his artistic career spent in Russia and then France. After the Russian Revolution, he became head of the Vitebsk art school working alongside Malevich. He subsequently lived in France for many years. What is most fascinating is to chart the development of Chagall’s art following his emigration to the West. Indeed, one focus of the exhibition is to emphasise the international character of Chagall’s work.
The first room alludes to Chagall’s interest in native folk art in Russia. A number of vitrines display luboks, or folk prints, which are paired with drawings by Chagall. These juxtapositions serve to demonstrate the role of native art in influencing Chagall’s work. One early example, from the 1890s, depicts flying figures and serves as a visual reminder of the artist’s later visions of Bella flying across the sky or the pair of them suspended above the Vitebsk skyline.
There are also numerous illustrations by Chagall for different publications included in the exhibition. Prominent amongst these is his designs for Nikolai Gogol’s famous novel ‘Dead Souls’. One drawing depicts both artist and writer side by side. In the work on paper, owned by the Tretyakov, Chagall is presented hunched over his palette holding several paintbrushes. Sitting next to him Gogol bends over a piece of paper whilst writing a poem. The show also features several albums of the young artist from the archive of the French poet Blaise Cendrars. He became a great friend and was responsible for introducing Chagall to many of the leading avant-garde artists in Paris. The influence of French Cubism and Picasso is evident in the series of collages presented in the exhibition. In his works Chagall chooses to cut up pieces of fabric and then glue this material to paper thereby creating small figures.
During his lifetime the Russian artist created a huge and varied body of work which included paintings, prints, theatre sets and stained-glass windows. His glass works are presented in a unique format here. Seven large light installations are projected onto the walls of the exhibition. The arch shaped stained glass windows are dominated by the primary colours of blue, yellow and red. They are creatively lit so as to re-create the luminous effect of being in a church. Chagall is well known as an artist for his innovative use of colour and this clever installation shows off his experiments with coloured glass to good effect. The final section of the exhibition presents a small case filled with Chagall’s sketchbooks and notebooks as a young man.
A significant section of the exhibition is devoted to Chagall’s family collection. Thus we have a unique opportunity to see a set of family portraits that have never previously been displayed in Russia. The series ‘My Life’ (1922) also acts as an illustrated autobiography of the artist. A major work is his ‘Self-Portrait’ of 1914 which depicts the artist in front of his house. In the painting Chagall presents himself as a young man in a black suit and bowtie with no indication of his profession. He is a picture of respectability in front of his home. On the adjacent wall hang several scenes of his wife Bella at home. A number of small, intimate images of domestic interiors featuring members of his family dominate this section of the exhibition. The themes of love, family, music and religion are present in pictures throughout the show.
In this show we are able to follow Chagall’s journey as he experiments with different artistic mediums. We are presented with different recurrent visual themes such as his Jewish heritage and his love for his hometown in Vitebsk. This exhibition serves to remind us why Chagall remains so popular as an artist both in Russia and abroad.
Marc Chagall: The Origins of the Master’s Creative Language
Until Sept. 30 at the State Tretyakov Gallery, engineering building, 12 Lavrushinsky Per., m. Tretyakovskaya, www.tretyakovgallery.ru
Open Tue.-Sun. 10 am-7:30 pm, closed Mon; ticket office closes at 6:30 pm