Chagall, through the lens of Paris

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.

In his 1922 memoir, which covers some of the most vital years represented in this exhibition, Chagall wrote, “No academy could have given me all I discovered by getting my teeth into the exhibitions, the shop windows, and the museums of Paris.” But art in Paris could be as ideologically suffocating as politics in Chagall’s homeland.

In paintings such as the 1911 “Half-Past Three (the Poet),” one sees cubist gestures slicing through the image, with transparent planes and the reduction of the figure to an assemblage of surface shapes. A red table juts into the poet’s elbow like a knife edge, a bottle stands a kilter as if balanced by some parlor trick, and the ubiquitous fruit of so many cubist still lifes lies on a shard of the table seemingly disconnected from the rest.

But the figure’s head suggests Chagall’s resistance to what had become, by 1911, a new kind of artistic orthodoxy. A green face has twisted free of the neck and joins the body somewhere near the right eyebrow. The face has the mark of the mature Chagall, while the rest of the painting belongs to the world of what he called “the arrogant cubists” with “their square pears on their triangular tables.”

Chagall had studied with a prominent cubist, Jean Metzinger, and numbered important artists with deep connections to cubism, such as Robert Delaunay, among his friends and acquaintances. The exhibition quickly shows the limits and possibilities of the cubist worldview. Metzinger’s “Tea Time (Woman with a Teaspoon)” from 1911 is perfectly composed, perfectly clear in its fragments and disjointed volumes, and perfectly dull. Even worse is Albert Gleize’s 1914 “Woman at the Piano,” a tepid and decorative image that should have gone straight to poster art like some films go straight to video. But an abstraction by Delaunay, called “Three-Part Windows” from 1912, shows the pure visual experimentation that cubism had opened up.

If the exhibition maps the fallow ground of reflexive cubism, which Chagall mostly rejected (with occasional notable exceptions) in his pursuit of a style that some would hail as the precursor of surrealism, it is less clear about his relationship to the Ballets Russes.

Founded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909, the Ballets Russes may have been the single most important force in dance, scenic design and theater in the first half of the 20th century. Even before Chagall made it to Paris, he had met and briefly studied with Leon Bakst, one of the company’s visionary designers. But while the exhibition features work by Bakst, and a touchingly naive painting on rough burlap by another essential Ballets Russes artist, Nicholas Roerich, it doesn’t do much to elaborate on the company’s influence on Chagall beyond the generic sense that it liberated his sensibilities. That might be said of anyone who saw the company perform.

Still, it is some of the images collected in the room devoted to the Ballets Russes that make the strongest impact. For a ballet that never made it to stage, Natalia Goncharova designed a costume for St. John, his face rendered in the long, sad oval of an Orthodox icon, his body high-stepping to some unseen syncopation. Alexandra Exter, one of several female artists represented in the show, produced designs for the stage, and other images, that suggest a vision and talent equal to the most familiar names in the show.

The exhibit ends with work associated with Chagall’s 1923 return to Paris, after World War I. By then, he had tasted the frustrations of being an artist in the new Soviet Union and crossed swords with such ideologically rigid modernist figures as Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. Works by one or both would have made an instructive counterpoint to this show.

Already in the final room one can sense the beginnings of the cheerful ossification that would come over Chagall’s work as he survived, decade after decade, to become a living fossil of modernism. “The Watering Trough, 1923” features a pig with the Mona Lisa smile that make so many of Chagall’s animals seem benign and cartoonlike. Even a 1940 painting, “The Crucifixion,” which mixes Jewish and Christian elements and was meant, according to the museum, to “awaken the world to the perilous situation of Jewish people” in Nazi Europe, is curiously bereft of fury. Faces that should register pain are turned from view, and even Christ’s expression is lost in a smudge of dark paint. Often, it seems the only way Chagall has to register darker emotions is to darken his palette.

The same might be said of the dark background of “Oh God,” painted in 1919, which the exhibition argues was a pained response to a brutal dispute with the Lissitzky and Malevich while Chagall ran an art school in his native Vitebsk. But the face that spins on the neck in this image, just like the one in the supposedly ecstatic vision of the 1911 “Half-Past Three (the Poet),” is smiling just as sweetly and meaninglessly as so many other masklike Chagall visages.

Chagall, of course, wanted to be loved, by the world he left behind and the world he eventually conquered with paint and brush. He said so in 1922, in the last lines of his memoir: “And perhaps Europe will love me and, with her, my Russia.” Does anyone leave home for any other reason?

He was also curiously compartmentalized in his emotional and artistic life. His biographical writing has visions of misery as wrenching as anything in the works of Maxim Gorky, yet the hallucinatory, incantatory writing mutes the pain, like someone repeating in a low, soft, sweet voice: I’m miserable. With very few exceptions, genuine pain was too private ever to be expressed in his art.

The best thing about “Paris Through the Window” is the vision it gives of Chagall working desperately to earn the love he clearly craved. But even before the exhibition reaches its chronological conclusion, it’s clear that Chagall had won the battle. He was loved, in spades. And that wouldn’t necessarily be a boon to his art in the decades that followed.

Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle

Through July 10 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Philadelphia, Pa. philamuseum.org

 
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