This summer can be rightfully considered the summer of the Russian avant-garde. Taking over from the Centre Pompidou, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao continues to explore the subject by staging the monographic exhibition Chagall: The Breakthrough Years, 1911–1919 generously supported by Fundación BBVA. The show focuses on the years when Chagall experienced his first major international breakthrough and features over 80 rare paintings and drawings, mostly from the Kunstmuseum Basel and Solomon Guggenheim’s collections.Curated by Lucia Agirre, the exhibition is nothing short of revelatory, as it provides a major insight into Chagall’s formative years in Paris and Vitebsk that shaped him into the painter we know now.The organisers of the exhibition wished to reconsider this artistic period in Chagall’s life. The initiative came from the Kunstmuseum Basel.
“An artist is a magician, he has a great heart. He extracts beauty, finds freshness in everything and makes the elements obey him, “– these words by Chagall, probably, capture the quintessence of his views on art and his own role as an artist. This outlook finds its roots in the Hasidic folklore of Chagall’s native Vitebsk, as well in the poetry, spiritual and intellectual atmosphere of the fin de siècle Paris. It was later strengthened and encouraged by the revolutionary spirit and great hopes stirred by the October Revolution, short-lived as they were. The new exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao invites the viewer into the secret laboratory of the artist’s spirit: we observe how Chagall was inspired by the French artists he came into contact with in Paris, while still struggling to translate his heritage into modernist idiom. And this is exactly how he found his own artistic language. Walking through the exhibition space we observe Chagall actively engaging into artistic dialogue with Henri Matisse, the Delaunays, Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger and other contemporaries.
Being of humble origins, nothing initially promised such a spectacular career to a young boy born in Vitebsk on 6 July 1887 into a poor Hasidic family and named Moishe Shagal. Born a Jew, he was growing in a very confined world of a Belorusian stetl, where access to Russian culture and art was limited by his own community and the government policy of relegating Jews to ghettos. “I felt at every step that I was a Jew—people made me feel it” — wrote Chagall about his childhood years. A picturesque city of churches and synagogues, Vitebsk was dubbed the “Russian Toledo”, but the best young Chagall could have achieved there was to become a labourer, like his father. Art was frowned upon and not considered a serious “practical” occupation. However, the boy’s persistence and his parents’ faith in his artistic ability (aided by a bribe of 50 roubles to the school director), brought the young Chagall to a Russian school and then to art classes given by Yehuda (Yuri) Pen. Pen operated a small drawing school in Vitebsk, which was also attended by future artists El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine. Generous as Pen’s offer was (he offered to teach Chagall for free), academic drawing was not what the boy aspired for.
In 1906 he set off to St. Petersburg where, eventually, he became a student of Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. There, in the capital, he discovered experimental theatre. Bakst, who introduced Chagall to the works of Gaugin, Matisse, Monet, Manet and Cezanne, also became a role model of Jewish success for the young artist.
In May 1911, having secured the financial support of Maxim Vinaver, the lawyer and artistic patron who fought for equal rights for Jews, Chagall left St. Petersburg for Paris. Initially, he rented a studio in Montparnasse, but soon moved to La Ruche where “the artistic bohemia of every land” lived side by side. There, he met Sonia and Robert Delaunay, who introduced Chagall to poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire soon became champion of his work and dubbed Chagall a “supernatural painter”. Chagall responded in kind by dedicating to him Homage to Apollinaire — a very mysterious symbolic painting depicting the birth of Adam and Eve according to the Jewish oral tradition of Genesis, in which God created man and woman as a single body. Beside them he wrote Apollinaire’s name as well as those of Blaise Cendrars, a Swiss poet and novelist, Ricciotto Canudo, an Italian journalist and playwright considered the father of film theory, and German gallerist Herwarth Walden, all members of Chagall’s inner circle.
Chagall’s Jewish identity provided great inspiration in his life, and much of his work can be described as an attempt to synthesise Jewish traditions, symbols and beliefs with modernist art and its principles.This also made it difficult for researchers to position him within the prewar avant-garde: Chagall experimented with Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism at that stage. Moreover, early in his childhood he was exposed to Christian imagery, and for this reason, constantly drew on the visual language of icon, as can be seen in the Flying Carriage, 1913 which is heavily influenced by the Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah iconography. Russian culture was part of his identity, too, which he acknowledges in representing his family sitting at the samovar (as in the Yellow Room, 1911) or battling the elements in winter (as in Winter, 1911 -1912). This way, he finds his family a constant source of support and inspiration, humorously represented in the sketch A Painter and His Family, 1910. So, Chagall draws on many visual and intellectual sources, while remaining one of his kind.
In Paris, he imbues everything he sees. He is praised for his outstanding sense of colour and original visual language. According to Breton, “with him alone, the metaphor made its triumphant return to modern painting”. Chagall hopes for success and lives his artistic dream in Paris. He perceives Paris as “his” city but does not forget his roots. At this stage his paintings resemble flashes of memories from his provincial life in Russia blended with iconic fragments from his life in Paris. Paris through the Window (Paris par la fenêtre), 1913, from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is exactly this type of work. I was also amazed at how strong the influence of the Delaunays stands out in Chagall’s paintings of this period.
The works also demonstrate Chagall’s outstanding ability as colourist — the quality he was constantly admired for, and which he even further enhanced by his own unwillingness to restrict colour to reality. Rather, colours represent what objects and people bring to his soul. For this very reason, animals may look like people and people may have green faces.“ I had never wanted to paint like any other painter. I always dreamt of some new kind of art that would be different. In Paris, I at last saw as in a vision the kind of art that I actually wanted to create. It was an intuition of a new psychic dimension in my paintings,” — wrote he later in his memoir. And yet, the curator Lucia Agirre, passionately cautions the viewers against the cliched perception of Chagall’s works as “dreams” and “phantasmagorias”. She insists that the artist was talking about the real world in his own individual way by mastering his ability to merge the power of his imagination with reality. The holistic picture he creates of the world involves the participation of different kinds of art, speaking through the language of colours, sounds, voices, rhythms and movement.
Chagall remained in Paris until 1914. He woke up a famous artist after the exhibition in the Der Sturm gallery organised by Herwarth Walden. After a short stay in Berlin in 1914 he headed to Vitebsk to attend his sister’s wedding and visit his fiancée Bella Rosenfeld whom he eventually married in 1915. The almost immediate outbreak of World War I meant that Chagall’s planned return to Paris was no longer possible, and his short stay in Russia turned into a long eight years confinement. Although entrusted to friends, many of Chagall’s early works were irretrievably lost during these war times in Europe. These paintings no longer available, Chagall tried to restore some of them from memory, as can be seen on the example of the Pinch of Snuff (1923-26) and its subsequently recovered original predecessor One Says: The Rabbi .
During the World War I many Jews were accused of collaborationism by the tsarist government and were displaced or fled from their homes. The exhibition follows this period of artist’s intensive self-reflection triggered by the circumstances. His works on paper investigate his own identity and reveal intense emotions fed by personal experiences of war, as testified by the Infirmary, 1914, Soldiers, 1914, Departure for War (Le départ pour la guerre)1914 and Wounded Soldier (Le soldat blesse), 1914. After their marriage the Chagalls moved to St.Petersburg where the artist began exhibiting in Moscow and St Petersburg. His works started attracting serious collectors who began to acquire his work.
“When speaking about the war, he makes black and white drawings in ink, which is quite surprising, for it is not something we consider to be typical Chagall’s work. And also when you see how he presents his relationship with Bella, he does so in a completely different way: he depicts these small intimate scenes with a language more concentrated and less expansive than the Chagall we saw in Paris. Meanwhile, we see how he approaches themes of his own culture. He in certain way goes back to Jewish themes, and he does this in a period when it was extremely difficult to be Jewish”, — commented Lucia Agirre.
Some of his most important works from this period are the four portraits of old Jewish men depicted in green, red, black and white, and mistakenly known as the Four Large Rabbis.They are shown together at the current exhibition in Bilbao for the first time since they were created. As written in the catalogue of the exhibition “this group of paintings not only represents a high point in Chagall’s early work but in his oeuvre as a whole”. He is “wrestling to make a connection between …intense emotion” and “the search for new formal solutions, which he ultimately convincingly synthesises”. All paintings come from private collections and are on a long-term loan to Kunstmuseum Basel except for the ‘Red Jew’ which belongs to the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
The October Revolution saw the fate of many Jews initially reversed. Chagall was part of the revolution because it changed status of Jews in Russia. He returned to Vitebsk with his family in 1918, as he had been appointed by Lunacharsky Commissar of Art in Vitebsk, where he founded the People’s Art School. In 1919 his works were exhibited at the First State Exhibition of Revolutionary Art. Excited by the new opportunities and revolutionary ideas,Chagall wrote that Art could be written with a capital A “only if it is revolutionary in its essence”. However, the artist grew increasingly marginalised with the passing of time, and in 1922 he left Russia for Paris.
The exhibition at the Museum Guggenheim Bilbao not only offers the highlights of Chagall’s early years, it also revisits the European history as witnessed by the painter, and also places emphasis on the relationships between Chagall and such great European collectors as Georg Schmidt, Solomon R. Guggenheim and Karl Im Obersteg, the latter being one of the most important early supporters of Chagall in Basel. Kunstmuseum Basel holds lots of long-term loans from Im Obersteg collection.
As commented by Lucia Agirre, curator of the exhibition, this exhibition offers a rare opportunity to explore the early period in the artist’s career which tends to be overlooked by much greater exhibitions. “Here we talk of only eight years. And usually it is impossible to see these paintings, drawings at bigger exhibitions. They would also be displayed in a different way because this time frame is relatively short in comparison to the whole life of the artist”. Although very short, and therefore seemingly negligible, this time is the most decisive in Chagall’s career.
When asked about Russian museums, who also loaned some works to the exhibition in Bilbao, Agirre, who constantly refers to the comprehensive Guggenheim Bilbao show Russia! spanning the history of Russian art from icons to Socialist realism, remarked that Russian museums were always very helpful: “We have pieces on loan from the State Russian museum and from the Tretyakov gallery. It is not the first time that we collaborate with them. They have been kind and easy to work with and they hold fantastic works by Chagall there, because they had been acquired by the state before Chagall left for France, and because, luckily, there were people in these museums who were happy to buy his works”.
So, the next step you need to take is, probably, book a flight to Bilbao….