Friday, June 7, 2013

Major Retrospective Of Marc Chagall

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was the sole venue outside Paris for a major retrospective of the work of painter Marc Chagall from July 26 through November 4, 2003. Marc Chagall included approximately 80 paintings and 40 works on paper, many never before seen in the United States, from all periods of the artist's career.

Organized jointly by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris and the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, the exhibition was the first comprehensive look at this artist since 1985 and offered a unique opportunity to reevaluate a body of work that is universally renowned but often underestimated.

Jean-Michel Foray, Director of the Chagall Museum in Nice and the Fernand Léger Museum in Biot, France, organized the retrospective; overseeing the San Francisco presentation is Janet Bishop, SFMOMA curator of painting and sculpture.

A fully illustrated catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition. It features approximately 220 pages and color plates of all of the works in the exhibition. The essay is by curator Jean-Michel Foray.

The work of Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is distinguished by its surrealistic inventiveness, as well as by the artist's use of humor and fantasy that draws deeply on the resources of the unconscious. Strong and often bright colors infuse his canvases with a dreamlike, non-realistic simplicity, while the combination of fantasy, religion and nostalgia conveys a joyous quality. One of the key themes addressed in the exhibition was how Chagall's conception of himself as a messenger from a better and more holy world drew him away from the modernist movements of his time.

Over the course of his career, Chagall declined to join an avant-garde movement three times: In Paris in 1911 he refused to formally align himself with the Cubists; in Moscow in 1920 he refused to join the Suprematist group; and in Paris in 1924 he refused to participate in the Surrealist group. The artist's choice to distance himself from these classifications has often removed him from critical analysis and consideration; thus, this exhibition will provide substantial new scholarship on the artist and his work.

Chagall was born in Vitsyebsk, Russia, the eldest of nine children in a poor family of Hasidic Jews. He was educated in art in Saint Petersburg and, from 1910-14, in Paris. A childhood in Chagall's deeply religious household inspired the subject matter for his many paintings depicting Jewish life, folklore and Bible stories.

He returned to Russia in 1915 and after the Russian Revolution was director of the Art Academy in Vitsyebsk and art director of the Theatre Juif (Jewish Theater) in Moscow. Chagall painted several murals in the theater lobby and executed the settings for numerous productions, many of which were featured in this exhibition.

In 1923, he moved to France, where he spent the rest of his life, except for a period of residence in the United States from 1941 to 1948. He died in St. Paul de Vence, France, on March 28, 1985.

Marc Chagall included work from four major periods of the painter¡'s artistic activity, the Russian years (1910-23); the French years (1924-40); the American years (1941-47) and the Vence years (1948-83), as well as objects ranging from his set decorations for the Theater Juif in Moscow to never-before-seen portraits of his family.

The Russian Years (1910-23)

The first segment of this section featured Chagall’s early works, in which he attempted to find a balance between his vernacular, Russian-Jewish culture and the culture of modernity he discovered in Paris in 1911-12.

From The Jewish Chagall: Marc Chagall Retrospective At The San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (image added):

The Wedding (1910) is one of his most adventuresome early paintings. The bold use of primary colors to indicate sky, rooftops and figures integrates all seamlessly into the composition. The totality of the composition reflects the unity of his conception of a modern couple's marriage in a totally traditional setting. A milkman is seen joining the wedding procession of traditionally clad villagers as the couple is led down the street by a klezmer band. On the far right the couple is ushered into the epitome of middle class aspirations, a door labeled in Russian, "Small Store."

The second section addresses Chagall’s renunciation of the abstract avant-garde and examines the décor he created for the Jewish Theater in Moscow. Chagall’s exploration of these two differing aesthetic cultures, that of the Russian Jews and that of the Parisian avant-garde, results in the development of the artist's distinctive and highly personal style. This section illustrated the genesis of Chagall’s idea of the artist as a messenger, which continued to be a theme throughout his career. The exhibition featured many significant paintings from this period, including

Introduction to the Jewish Theater, 1920,

and Music, 1920,

both from the State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow.

The French Years (1924-40)

This section of the exhibition is composed chiefly of works on paper and gouaches that have rarely been exhibited and show Chagall trying to understand and assimilate the culture of France, his new home. Featured works from this period included the paintings Angel with Palette, 1927–36, from the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and The Rooster, 1928, from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid and Chagall’s illustrations for the classical works of French literature, Les Fables de La Fontaine, and for the work of contemporary French poets. Also included were the artist's Holy Bible illustrations and a series of images drawn from the world of the circus. This section explored how Chagall balanced his open-mindedness to a new culture with the strong ties he felt to his Russian Jewish origins.

From The Jewish Chagall: Marc Chagall Retrospective At The San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (image added):

Time Is A River Without Banks (1930-39) climaxes Chagall's use of metaphor as he sums up a decade of tumultuous decline for the Jews of Eastern Europe. The images of a winged fish playing a fiddle atop a grandfather clock that floats over the river running through his hometown Vitebsk appear surreal and puzzling. And yet, the gravity with which they are depicted, hovering over lovers on the riverbank, commands our attention and invites us to speculate as to what it may mean.

The American Years (1941-47)

Chagall arrived in New York just as the Germans invaded Russia during World War II. This section explored how Chagall’s work developed a refined artistic tone as he returned to the idea of the "artist as messenger" he had begun to work with during the 1920s at the Theatre Juif.

From The Jewish Chagall: Marc Chagall Retrospective At The San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (image added):

Chagall's mastery of symbolic narrative is shown again in The Flayed Ox (1947). This painting was created in the immediate shadow of the Holocaust drawing upon his memories of his beloved grandfather the shochet... Here, however, the image is obsessed with the bloody flesh of the beast lapping its own blood. The shochet floats helplessly above the decimated shtetl, flames licking the background, as he envisions a legacy of blood and violence perpetrated upon the Jewish people.

The Vence Years (1948-83)

In 1948, Chagall moved to St. Paul de Vence in the south of France, where he spent the remainder of his life. Featured works from this period included his popular Mediterranean landscapes and his works dealing with themes and stories from the Bible. In addition, this section included a group of works on paper dealing with Biblical subjects that had never been exhibited as a whole.

From The Jewish Chagall: Marc Chagall Retrospective At The San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (image added):

In The Crossing of the Red Sea (1955) the Israelites are led by a graceful white angel crossing through the sea as they move towards the top of the canvas. They are pursued by a crimson mob of Egyptians while a chrome yellow Moses confidently guides the entire narrative. Moses is possessed by a sense of foreboding as he dominates the lower left, locked in a red/ yellow dialogue with the Egyptians while the Jews escape upward in a white and blue vision of the future. That future is intimated in the shadows above the horizon with images of King David and, surprisingly, Christianity looming ominously on either side of the angel. Chagall's Crossing is trapped between the liberation of the people, the fate of their beloved leader, and the triumphs and tragedies the future will hold.