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.