Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is one of the greates artists of the twentieth century and one of the most famous émigré artists to have left Russia. Chagall: Modern Master, now in its final week, is the first major presentation of the artist’s work in the UK for more than fifteen years. With over sixty paintings and a selection of works on paper from across the world, this exhibition explores the painter’s development from his time in Paris before the First World War and his visit to Berlin in 1914, to the years he spent in his native Russia around the time of the Revolution in 1917. 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. Our editor Theodora Clarke caught up with Stephanie Straine, Assistant Curator of the exhibition, which will run until 6 October 2013 at Tate Liverpool.
Theodora Clarke: Why did Tate Liverpool decide to exhibit the work of Marc Chagall?
Stephanie Straine: Chagall: Modern Master is the first Chagall exhibition to be held in the country since that 1998 show (Chagall: Love on the Stage) fifteen years ago. It’s also the first time that his works have been on display in Liverpool. It’s one of those cases where he is such a well-known artist, and yet you wouldn’t have been able to see this number of works by him before unless you lived in London.
TC: You mentioned that the last show was fifteen years ago – that’s a long time!
SS: Fifteen years seemed quite a scary amount of time when we opened the show, and I think Simonetta Fraquelli, our external curator, was shocked that it had been that long! It is a good time to revisit Chagall. The whole thesis of the exhibition is that Chagall is an artist who needs a critical reappraisal, particularly his early work. That’s why the exhibition focusses on the first ten years or so of his practice: from around 1911, when he moves to Paris, until 1922 when he leaves Russia for the last time. He then settled in France and became a French citizen. So it really is an examination of his formative period. All of the works in the exhibition focus on those years, with the exception of a final room that looks towards his works of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
TC: Why would you say that Chagall is such an important artist for the 20th century?
SS: I think it’s largely to do with how much he devotes himself to the medium of painting. Although he does engage with a wide range of media, such as stained glass and ceramics, that comes much later in his career. Really what he’s doing in this early period is intensively working through what it means to be a painter in the twentieth century. He is also one of the greatest colourists of the century. We have this quote from Picasso in the exhibition that goes: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” That demonstrates just how important and original his use of colour was for other artists. Personally, I also think he is important – and the exhibition explores this – because of his individual reaction to the movements of the time.
During the time that he was living in Paris from 1922 to 1941, that was the moment when, in the aftermath of Cubism, he was artistically exploring the repercussions of Cubism. Obviously what happens is the move towards abstraction. Chagall starts to use a new kind of pictorial language. He turns his back on all these other ‘isms’ that are essentially moving towards abstraction, in the service of his very representational, narrative style of painting.
It is interesting that he is living in Paris at a moment which we see as the birth of abstraction, but what he does is create a form that is incredibly dynamic, but never abstract. He creates a very lyrical body of work that is all about history, emotion and memory. That lyrical emotional layer is not something you find in a lot of the Parisian work of that period. It brings together the history of his native Russia with a very analytical form of painting. It’s a synthesis of Russia and France and their very different painterly traditions that makes him such a fantastic artist.
TC: Chagall grew up in Vitebsk (now in Belarus) and studied in St Petersburg. How important do you think it was for Chagall that he moved to Paris and was exposed to all of these different movements in modern art?
SS: I think it’s really fundamental. I have no idea what he would have done had he not moved to Paris. When he was living in St Petersburg he studied under Léon Bakst, who later worked with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in Paris. I think the fact that he left was important for Chagall in realising that if you want to be a serious, cutting-edge artist you need to go to Paris. There’s a real sense of ambition, a calculating drive to be the best possible artist he could be. You see that before he leaves Russia, because there were a lot of publications in Russia that reproduced works by French artists. But when he actually arrived in Paris, I think the impact was more than even he anticipated.
TC: How is the exhibition presented?
SS: It is roughly chronological, but because we’re dealing with such a short period of time we have also made each section thematically relevant. In the first section where is he looking towards Paris and at what Paris could offer him. You can see him trying out the painterly styles of Van Gogh and Renoir and trying to find his own voice. We have another section that looks at his relationship to Cubism, another with Orphism. Then there’s another dedicated to the time following his return to Russia in 1914, which focus on his marriage to Bella Rosenfeld, celebrating their love and their starting a family.
Then we move onto a section that highlights the period when he was appointed commissar for arts in Vitebsk and founded the Vitebsk Arts College. He became a bureaucrat on behalf of the new Communist regime and embraced it because it was such an important step, being given citizenship as a Jewish Russian for the first time. He was very optimistic, but then it all went a bit sour at the arts college after he brought in El Lissitzky and Malevich as faculty members. He worked closely with the people who were creating Suprematism and Constructivism in Russia, these different kinds of abstraction. Chagall’s work then seems very outmoded at this point. There’s a sense of him never quite belonging to the times. He was slightly displaced, which is interesting because now we can look back and see how radical it was to be a figurative artist.
TC: Tell me about Chagall’s relationship with the Soviet Union. Many artists did work quite closely with the new regime after the Revolution of 1917, creating propaganda images, who then later tried to distance themselves. What was Chagall’s involvement?
SS: I don’t think he was as involved as a lot of other artists were. But he did embrace the job he was given as head of the art college and also as head of the new Museum of Contemporary Art, for which he was asked to organise the one-year celebration of the October Revolution. He was head of the decoration campaign in the art college, making huge banners to demonstrate Vitebsk. So in that sense he very much embraced the motivations behind the Revolution. But I don’t think he went down the route of propaganda like many other artists did, partly because he left the art college in 1920.
He ended up instead going to Moscow to work as a stage designer for the theatre. That probably alleviated a lot of the pressure that was on other artists. Of course leaving Russia in 1922 and never coming back, until briefly in the 1970s, meant that he wasn’t really exposed to the demands of the State in the way that others were. But it is interesting to look at that moment where he rubs up against others and to see how he responds.
TC: You mentioned that Chagall was Jewish. How important was this identity to his work?
SS: It was quite fundamental, and it’s something I’ve learned a lot about in the process of working on this exhibition. I have been speaking to visitors at Tate Liverpool who are Jewish and they are able to point out all these different Jewish symbols in the canvasses. We have one particular work which is an absolutely incredible painting from the State Russian Museum called The Red Jew which they actually purchased after the Revolution. so it is an incredibly early purchase. It has as the background to the portrait lines of Scripture in Hebrew from Genesis. You can see in this picture that moment in 1914/15, during the First World War, when there is a German expulsion of Jews from Lithuania. Chagall is very aware of this renewed anti-Semitism in Russia. You can see his determination to identify himself as a Jewish artist at a time when it might have been safer not to do that. He had just come back from France and was beginning to become very well-known, and the first monograph work was published in 1918. Yet at that moment when he was becoming more famous as an artist he was very conscious of exhibiting as a Jewish artist.
TC: Many of his early images depict Vitebsk in the background. What would it have been like to be a Jew growing up there? Did he have any formal artistic training?
SS: There’s a story about his mother bribing a local official to let him into the official school. She made sure he would get the best education possible, and he was lucky that he avoided the fate of many other Jews by virtue of his mother’s tenacity. He also had a tutor early in his life who, although he was just a painter of rural landscapes, convinced Chagall that it was important to stay true to his own self-identity and paint what was important to him.
TC: I was reading about his works for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow and his stained-glass windows. He used a huge range of media in comparison to other artists. Do you show some of these varied works on display at the exhibition or is it mainly dedicated to painting?
SS: It mainly looks at drawings and paintings – his works on paper, gouache and oil painting. The murals themselves were actually painted on canvas, which is lucky because they would have been lost had they been painted on the walls of the theatre. He worked on the canvasses on the floor of the theatre, then stretched them and placed them in situ. So our exhibition is very much a two-dimensional, drawings and paintings show. That’s because, in this period of 1911-22, he hadn’t yet expanded into other media, partly because it was very difficult to get art materials at that time. In the room just before the murals themselves there are mainly small works on paper we have on display. He had the ability to work on a very small scale and yet create something incredibly powerful. What I’m hoping is that people who know his later work, and particularly his stained glass, will be able to see the relationship between those later works and what he does earlier in the theatre company in Moscow.
TC: What would you say is the stand-out piece of the exhibition?
SS: I’d say the murals are the real highlight, because they very rarely travel from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. They really are the high point of this period in his career, and mark the culmination of artistic achievement in Russia before he left in 1922. They are also very important because they show the weaving together of his understanding of the avant-garde and of modernism plus the importance of Jewish culture on this really ambitious scale. So it’s the highlight of the exhibition for me because it weaves together all these other elements that the rest of the exhibition explores. There are a many visual references, especially in the largest panel which is 8m long. He has included a self-portrait and portraits of all of the dancers and actors in the theatre company. He shows a real lightness of touch and a warmth that he’s bringing to the characters. It shows his understanding of them as real people.
TC: You have also secured Homage to Apollinaire (1912), which is a very famous work. What was the relationship between Chagall and these major figures of the literary avant-garde in Paris?
SS: Homage to Apollinaire has been lent to us from the Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. I think it’s the most important work from that period. Apollinaire visited the studio in 1912. Chagall’s circle in Paris was made up of more literary than artistic figures –like Apollinaire and the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars who actually titled a lot of Chagall’s canvasses from Paris. It’s quite interesting that he purposefully chose to associate with poets and people of a literary persuasion, rather than other painters. You can see that in how he himself identifies as a poet in his work. We have The Poet Reclining (1915) from the Tate’s own collection, which is a self-portrait of the artist on his honeymoon. He refers to himself not as a painter or an artist, but explicitly as a poet. I’m sure that has much to do with the influence of people like Apollinaire and the impact they had on him.
TC: In his autobiography My Life Chagall discusses his life as a penniless artist in his Paris studio. Was he a popular artist in his lifetime or did the recognition of his genius only come later?
SS: He lived until 1985, so he found huge fame and renown in the latter half of his life, after the 1940s. He had relocated to Paris and then managed to get passage from Portugal to New York in order to escape the German invasion of France during the Second World War. It was in New York that he was recognised by art dealer and gallery-owner Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse. That was the moment of his arrival in New York. Being represented by a very famous gallery cemented his reputation, especially with a show of his work in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). A retrospective on the last ten years of his work at an institution such as MOMA was really important. But by the time he passed away in the 80s his reputation had slightly lessened. What’s interesting is to now go back and look at his early work and see how very radical he was at that moment in time.
TC: What is the major difference between the Tate exhibition and other showings of Chagall’s works? It seems to me that you are focusing on the avant-garde period when he was engaging with Parisian movements and what was happening right at the turn of the twentieth century?
SS: Yes, exactly. We’re looking at Chagall amidst the avant-garde in Paris, and then back amidst the Russian avant-garde and how he responded to the challenge of Lissitzky and Malevich. He’s looking at abstraction and finding it’s not really for him, but he can take elements from them all. It’s not unusual to focus on those works, but it certainly is unusual to build the whole argument of the exhibition around it.
TC: What was the original idea behind the show? Was it designed to showcase works in Tate’s collection or to collaborate with other museums?
SS: There isn’t a great deal of Chagall in Tate’s collection. We only have two works on display that are owned by Tate. It was more a realisation that a great deal of these works have never been seen in the UK – there are quite a few in this exhibition that weren’t seen at the Royal Academy in the 1980s. It was also about bringing an artist to Liverpool whose works would potentially be very difficult to ever see here again. They form the centre of a lot of important collections such as the Pompidou Centre, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Guggenheim Museum – it’s not easy to ask for these items. It was really the desire to bring together a large number of world-class Chagall works when it was still possible to do that. Obviously the older they get, the more fragile they become.
TC: In the Royal Academy’s 2008 exhibition, From Russia, there were several problems with borrowing works from Russian museums. Did you have any similar issues?
SS: This is the first show I’ve worked on where I’ve dealt with Russian museums, and actually it went really well. Both of the institutions which we worked with – the Tretyakov in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St Petersburg – were incredibly generous and recognised the importance of this exhibition for scholarship.
TC: As for what’s coming up next at Tate Liverpool, I’ve heard about a new exhibition Art Turning Left (8 November 2013 – 2 February 2014). Are there going to be any Russian themes in the show?
SS: There will be some Russian works in the show. I know there are some by the Russian contemporary collective Chto delat and definitely some by Lissitzky and quite a few other avant-garde artists. The exhibition covers a long period of time from the eighteenth century to the present day, and will look at the impact of politics on artistic production – you certainly couldn’t cover such a topic without looking at Russian art of the twentieth century.
Chagall: Modern Master
8 June – 6 October 2013
Organised by Kunsthaus Zürich in collaboration with Tate Liverpool.