Meet a Young Modernist Who’s Named Chagall

About the art of Marc Chagall, which is currently the

subject of an important exhibition at the Jewish Museum, almost every reader of

this column is likely to have an opinion. Chagall was not only famous in his

time but remains popular today. His work is now as familiar to us as that of

Picasso and Matisse, and he lived longer than both. He wasn’t much given to

shunning the limelight, either; he courted attention, and received it in large


In his later years, moreover, he was lavished with

commissions for murals and other ambitious decorative projects that made him an

international celebrity. These ranged from the Metropolitan Opera and the

United Nations in New York to the First National Bank in Chicago, to the

Knesset in Jerusalem, the Paris Opera and a couple of cathedrals in France. It

was no wonder that when he died in 1985 at 97, the front-page headline in The New York Times declared him to be

“One of Modern Art’s Giants.”

This is anything but a universal view of Chagall’s

achievement today. For some of us, he is a decidedly more equivocal figure-an

artist of high accomplishment, to be sure, but one whose genius had in most

respects expired long before the man himself. For critics of this persuasion,

it has often been a tiresome chore to distinguish the quality in Chagall’s

copious oeuvre from the quantities of

sentimental dross he also produced with such effortless facility. The dismal

murals he created for the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center are only

the most familiar of the many projects that proved to be damaging to his

reputation as an artist.

Whatever our critical judgment of Chagall may be, however,

there can be no question but that the exhibition which has now been organized

at the Jewish Museum is essential to any serious understanding of the man and

his work. For this exhibition of Marc

Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections recalls us to a stubborn

fact: that until 1922, when Chagall was 35 and had already produced the bulk of

the work that is likely to retain a place among the classics of 20th-century

art, he had spent a total of less than four years outside his native Russia.

This is not to minimize his life as a Jew under the Czarist

regime or the specifically Hasidic influence on the kind of imagination that

Chagall brought to his work. About both of these subjects the curator of the

exhibition, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, provides an illuminating account in the

excellent catalog of the show. Yet as another contributor to the catalog,

Evgenia Petrova, reminds us: “Before 1930, no one who wrote about Chagall or

exhibited his works in museums and exhibitions ever separated him from Russia.”

It was in Russia that Chagall became an artist. It was under

Russian teachers (two of them Jews) who had themselves been trained at the

Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg-Yehuda Pen, Leon Bakst (originally

Lev Rosenberg) and Nikolai Roerich-that Chagall received his own training. And

it was in Russia that he acquired his first patron, whose support enabled Chagall

to establish his first period of residence in Paris (1910-14).

“During the spring of 1910,” writes Ms. Goodman, “Chagall’s

foremost teacher, Leon Bakst, left St. Petersburg for Paris to join Sergei

Diaghilev’s ballet company. Chagall also felt the desire to visit the art

capital of Europe. In exchange for a single painting and one drawing, his

patron, Maxim Vinaver, offered Chagall a stipend that enabled him to spend

almost four years in Paris. And it was here, in the years before World War I,

that he developed his unique style.” It was thus in Paris that Chagall became a

Russian modernist.

For even at this pivotal

turn in Chagall’s development, he tended to frequent a distinctly Russian

milieu. He was particularly close to the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars, who had

lived in St. Petersburg for three years (1904-7) and spoke Russian. So did the

woman Cendrars married, Féla Poznanska, to whom Chagall was also close. He was

drawn into the circle of Sonia Delaunay, who was Russian, and her husband

Robert Delaunay-probably the most important single influence on Chagall’s

painting in this Paris period. In the studio building-the legendary La

Ruche-where Chagall lived for a time, there were many Russians in residence,

not all of them painters. One of them was the writer A.V. Lunacharsky, who, as

Lenin’s first Commissar of Education, subsequently appointed Chagall to the

position of Commissar of Art in his hometown of Vitebsk.

Over the last two decades or so, there have been a number of

exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic that examined certain aspects of

Chagall’s early artistic development. As recently as 1992, the Solomon R.

Guggenheim Museum exhibited the murals that Chagall created for the State

Jewish Chamber Theater in Moscow in 1920, the first and certainly the finest of

all Chagall’s mural projects, and these are once again included in the current

show at the Jewish Museum. Yet everything else in this exhibition of Early Works from Russian Collections ,

which covers the years 1908-20, is being exhibited in this country for the

first time, and it gives us an uncommonly close look both at an uncommonly

precocious talent in its early stages of development and then, in the last two

galleries of the show, at the first flowering of a modern master.

The show also gives us a

look at something else we haven’t seen before: the paintings of Chagall’s first

teacher, Yehuda Pen, a highly accomplished academic realist who specialized in

Jewish subjects. (Among Pen’s other students, by the way, were El Lissitzky and

Ossip Zadkine.) Nothing could be further from Chagall’s gift for poetic

invention in painting than Pen’s meticulously prosaic attention to detail in

his portraits and landscapes. Yet he was obviously an inspired teacher who gave

Chagall (among much else) the courage and the means to pursue his artistic


It is interesting to note, moreover, that from the outset

Chagall was never himself a realist. The gift for fantasy, caricature and the

folkloric is in evidence from the beginning, though not a command of the

complex pictorial structures that elevate Chagall’s best painting to a higher

level of accomplishment. That had to wait for Chagall’s encounter with Cubist

form and Fauvist color in Paris.

It is thus in the

next-to-last gallery of the exhibition that we encounter Chagall as a modernist

master for the first time-and, alas, almost for the last time. Except for the

murals he created for the Jewish Theater in Moscow during his Soviet period,

Chagall was never again to produce masterworks on the order of Over the Town , The Promenade , The Apparition

and Jew in Bright Red (all dating

from the war years 1914-18 in Russia). This was an amazing period for any

artist to live through, with the outbreak of war in 1914 and revolution in

1917, and yet the paintings Chagall produced during this period of violent

upheaval are among the most assured and, in the case of the pictures of the

artist and his bride-he married his sweetheart in 1915-the happiest he ever

made. Only a mind like Chagall’s, which gave priority to fantasy and dream over

the harshest realities of history, could have produced such happy paintings in

the midst of such widespread carnage.

The murals for the Jewish Theater are far more somber, and

the largest of them, the Introduction to

the Jewish Theater (1920), is the only work of Chagall’s that even

obliquely reflects the influence of the artist who became Chagall’s principal

antagonist during his Soviet period, Kazimir Malevich. In the soft-edged arcs,

circles and other geometrical forms in this vast mural, Malevich’s Suprematist

abstraction is itself rendered as a kind of dreamscape. One can only wonder how

conscious Chagall was of this influence on the mural, for he otherwise loathed

everything about Malevich and his ideas.

For these and other reasons, Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections has an

interesting story to tell, and it remains on view at the Jewish Museum, Fifth

Avenue at 92nd Street, through Oct. 14.