Stand outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera and look at the two giant murals Marc Chagall painted in the mid-1960s. Angelic figures and exotic animals float through a sea of sumptuous red and brilliant yellow, the work of an 80-year-old man repeating himself. Chagall, by then a beloved painter without much to say, was simply grinding out Chagalls. Large cultural institutions, which needed blandly meaningless public art, knew that even sad Chagalls are happy, and they swarmed to the artist like flying cows to the flame.
“Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle,” which opened March 1 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explores a very different Chagall. It tracks the early encounter of this desperately poor, culturally isolated Jewish Russian artist from Vitebsk with the art of Paris, from just before the First World War until the Second World War scattered the diaspora of Eastern European genius that had gathered there in the first decades of the 20th century. It shows him grappling with cubism and the stylized exoticism of Ballets Russes, the dance company that planted the flag of Russian culture in what was then, arguably, the capitol of Western artistic life.
It also places him in the context of a fabled artist community known as La Ruche, a rounded building on the edge of fashionable Paris filled with affordable studios that incubated much mischief and many talents. Between 1911 (when he arrived) and 1914 (when he returned for what became an extended stay in Russia), Chagall crossed paths with Alexander Archipenko, Fernand Leger, Jacques Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine — all represented in this exhibition, curated by Michael Taylor. It was, as one resident wrote, “a great cauldron, seething with vitality.”
The title of the exhibition, “Paris Through the Window,” refers in part to the windows of La Ruche, which had sixteen sides, forming a stubby cylinder filled with wedge-shaped studios, an artistic inversion of the panopticon. It is also the title of one of the largest and most powerful Chagalls in the show, in which a strangely human cat and a two-faced man are framed by an open window, with the Eiffel Tower, the roofs of Paris and an upside-down train chugging behind them.
Although the exhibition is mainly drawn from the Philadelphia Museum’s holdings, this work was borrowed from the Guggenheim in New York. Given the focus of the exhibition, it would be exciting if they had also found a way to exhibit Chagall’s “Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers,” another view through the window but more richly suggestive of the artist’s Russian identity and the competing claims of cosmopolitan aspiration and nostalgia for a world of muddy streets, brawling peasants and close communion between barnyard animals and their owners. But that work isn’t represented here.
“Paris Through the Window” might also refer to the way in which Paris was a subject, a battleground, a place of opportunity and yet a foreign land, remote and often culturally inaccessible to many of the artists who sought their fortune there. It was thrilling and yet stifling.