It was inevitable, perhaps, that the headline on The New York Times’s front-page obituary of Marc Chagall would describe him as “One of Modern Art’s Giants.” This was the status which the press had routinely conferred upon the artist for as long as anyone could remember, and it would have been churlish—if not something worse—to deny him this outsize claim on the occasion of his death at the age of ninety-seven. It may, after all, have been one of the last occasions on which the claim could be made without risking ridicule. Posterity, which can always be counted on to observe a different code of etiquette in regard to fame of this sort, is unlikely to be so kind.
Yet if Chagall was never exactly the towering “giant” which his admirers had long taken him to be, he was certainly a better painter and a more interesting artist than his detractors—who were also numerous—were generally willing to grant. It was in fact Chagall’s reputation as a “giant” which came more and more to act as an obstacle to any clear understanding of his achievement. To that reputation he owed the large decorative commissions of his later years— commissions which proved, in all too many cases, to be unmitigated aesthetic disasters, and which had the effect of making the artist an object of contempt for anyone capable of distinguishing artistic quality from its meretricious counterfeit. The generation that knows Chagall primarily as the author of those ghastly murals at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for example, can easily be forgiven for regarding him as something of a hack. It was New York’s misfortune—and not only New York’s, of course—that such commissions came to Chagall when he was no longer in a position to do them justice, and it was Chagall’s misfortune that they came to loom so large in the public’s perception of his gifts.
But there is another Chagall, as we know. He is a smaller and more distant figure, to be sure, than the hyped-up colossus who, in the last three decades of his life (when his artistic powers were clearly on the wane), became a kind of mascot of government agencies, cultural bureaucrats, and religious publicists the world over; but this figure is a more authentic one. And it is to him that we must turn if we are to recover a sense of the artist’s special quality and power. In this other Chagall—the young and vigorous artist who had made his way from the provincial backwater of Vitebsk to the cosmopolitan art worlds of St. Petersburg and Paris in the first decade of the century—we shall find the originals, so to speak, from which all those later counterfeits were made and remade with such an easy, disspiriting fluency. We shall find something else as well—an artist of far narrower and more intensely inward interests than could ever be suspected from the anodyne public symbols and universalist sentiment which made the decorative projects of the later years so appealing, so popular, and so empty.
Much has been made—and properly made—of Chagall’s life as a Jew.
By a happy stroke of timing, the retrospective exhibition needed for the recovery of this more interesting and authentic Chagall was already in place at the time of his death on March 28. Organized by Susan Compton at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where I saw it in March, the exhibition goes on view this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—its only American showing.1 While it is anything but complete —particularly in the way it scants, for example, the artist’s immense graphic oeuvre, where some of the best of his later work is likely to be found—this exhibition is at once a fitting memorial to Chagall and something of a milestone in itself. Dr. Compton is a specialist in modern Russian art. She thus brings to this exhibition precisely the perspective which in the past has so often been missing from the study of Chagall’s art—a perspective which places the artist and his work firmly in the context of the Russian cultural milieu which exerted so great an influence on his artistic outlook. Much has been made—and properly made—of Chagall’s life as a Jew, of course, and Dr. Compton does not neglect this crucial element in the artist’s identity and in the subject matter of his art. But even this crucial matter is not easily separable from the Russian context, and it is especially to the illumination of the latter that Dr. Compton makes an important contribution. Hers is, I believe, the first major Chagall exhibition to give this subject its due. The essay Dr. Compton has written on “The Russian Background” for the catalogue of the exhibition, together with some of the detailed commentaries on individual paintings, adds a great deal to our understanding of the oeuvre as a whole. In the end we are fully persuaded that in some important respects “the Russian Chagall,” as Dr. Compton writes, “takes precedence over the adoptive Frenchman, or even the Jew.”
It certainly alters our view of the young Chagall to be made aware, as we are on this occasion, that until 1922, when the artist was thirty-five years old and had already produced the bulk of the work likely to retain a place among the classics of twentieth-century art, he had spent a total of less than four years outside his native Russia. For the better part of those four years (1910-14) he was in Paris, and, as everyone knows, his encounter with the Paris avant-garde brought decisive and permanent changes in his painting. Yet even in this pivotal stage of Chagall’s development he tended, not surprisingly, to frequent a distinctly Russian milieu—and this, in turn, had very specific consequences for both his art and his life. He was particularly close to the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars, who had lived in St. Petersburg for three years (1904-07) 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.2 In the studio building—the legendary La Ruche—where Chagall lived for a time, “there were so many Russian contributors to the Salon des Indépendants,” Dr. Compton writes, “that it was even suggested that they should form a separate exhibit.” And not ail of the Russians who inhabited La Ruche were 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. It wasn’t until 1923 that Chagall settled in France, and even then the first task he undertook oh his return to Paris was to produce a series of etchings based on Gogol’s Dead Souls.
The crucial turn in Chagall’s life and work occurs in 1922 when he uproots himself from his native Russia for the last time.
Thus, the crucial turn in Chagall’s life and work occurs not—as we have tended in the past to believe—in 1910, when he goes to Paris for the first time, but in 1922 when he uproots himself from his native Russia for the last time. From 1923 onward Chagall is a different kind of artist—an artist adrift in a dream of the past There is even something apt in the choice of Gogol as the author he illustrated at this important juncture in his life, for not only does Chagall at that moment take leave of the present in order to find refuge in the past but there is a sense in which it can be said that he, too, now turns to trafficking in dead souls. The present is never again quite as real for Chagall as it was before 1922. Perhaps another way of saying this is that from this time onward he severs his connection with history. Thereafter, like those floating figures who now become so ubiquitous in his paintings—is this, perhaps, their real meaning?—he quits the realm of earthly events to enter a world of timeless and homeless archetypes, which, the further removed from real experience they become, the more they succumb to an unalloyed sentimentality. After his exit from Russia—which was also, it is worth recalling, his exit from the Revolution he served as an artist and a commissar—Chagall made some periodic attempts to re-attach his art to the realm of historical experience, most notably in the paintings he produced in 1944 as a response to the Holocaust. But by then it was too late. He no longer possessed the means of bringing that effort to an effective realization. In a sense he never touched earth again.
The difference between this “floating” Chagall, aloft in a world of increasingly unreal archetypes, and the young artist who preceded him is so striking and definitive that in the exhibition at the Royal Academy, where each period was afforded a separate gallery, one had the sensation of encountering the work of a quite alien personality as soon as one entered the third gallery, devoted to “France 1923–41.” In the first two galleries, given over respectively to “St. Petersburg 1907–10 and Paris 1910–14” and “Russia and Berlin 1914–22,” one saw an artist vibrant in his response to the diverse worlds he inhabited, an artist keenly observant of both familiar surroundings and new experiences, and eager to provide a vivid account of them in his painting. At the same time, it is painting itself that is clearly the most highly charged area of experience for this young artist. The intensity of Chagall’s engagement with his medium is there in the earliest pictures—those dark and melancholy portraits and genre scenes, painted in St. Petersburg in 1908–10, which have nothing of the light, the clarity, or the complexity that came into his art once he immersed himself in the Paris art scene, but which sing, all the same, with a vitality and tenderness that remain irresistible. They are the pictures of a young man for whom painting has become the central experience of life.
France remains a largely unrecorded experience in his painting.
This headlong engagement is further intensified and brought to maturity in the pictures which Chagall produced with such dizzying speed and confidence in that first encounter with the Paris avant-garde. Let us remember that he was twenty-three years old when he arrived in Paris in the fall of 1910, and scarcely twenty-five when he painted Half Past Three (The Poet), Homage to Apollinaire, The Soldier Drinks, I and the Village, and The Cattle Dealer—his first masterpieces and almost his last. His entire experience until this time had been that of a Northerner, nurtured on the long, dark, snowbound ordeals of the Russian winter and the white nights of the Northern summer—a climate that is the natural habitat for the kind of introspective and melancholic expressionism that characterized the paintings of the St. Petersburg period. Upon a Northern sensibility of this sort we naturally expect the impact of Paris to have had the customary salutary effect—which it did, of course, but not always in the ways that might have been predicted. Chagall does not at this time become what Dr. Compton calls an “adoptive Frenchman.” That was a development which came later, in the Twenties, when his art was already in decline. In this first Paris period Chagall’s painting becomes, if anything, more deeply entrenched than ever in exploring his memories of Russia. Despite the Paris-from-my-window motif—a theme probably traceable to the influence of Robert Delaunay and never, in any case, a major one for Chagall—France remains a largely unrecorded experience in his painting. It never takes possession of his soul. What consumes his imagination is the life he left behind in Russia. What Paris gives him is a new way of encompassing that life in his painting.
Except in the case of Cendrars, for whom he always retained a tender and grateful memory, Chagall was notoriously ungenerous in acknowledging the influences—especially the avant-garde influences—which shaped his painting at a crucial stage of its development. Cubism, for example, he was later in the habit of mocking. Yet it was from Cubism that he derived the syntax of his greatest paintings. The entire design of a picture such as Half Past Three (The Poet) (1911) is unimaginable without that syntax, and so is the modeling of the face and the hands in The Soldier Drinks (1911-12). The whole subject is really beyond argument. The hard, crystalline quality of the forms in Chagall’s painting, together with their transparency—which has the effect of radiating an inner light—and the discipline of their control, all this owes everything to Cubist precedents, and it is nonsense to claim otherwise. The precedents in question might have been Le Fauconnier’s and Delaunay’s rather than Picasso’s or Braque’s—as Norbert Lynton suggests in his essay for the catalogue—but that is a subsidiary issue. Cubism of one sort or another is central to Chagall’s pictures in this period.
The question of Chagall’s color, which also becomes an important element in his painting for the first time in this period, is less easily resolved. Fauvism is often claimed as the principal influence on Chagall’s use of color, and it would be foolish to deny that Fauvist color played some role in the formation of his style. After all, it affected virtually every painter who followed closely in the wake of Matisse’s chromatic audacities. Yet the fact remains that Chagall’s color isn’t really Fauvist in quality. Mr. Lynton shifts the emphasis in claiming that “it is primarily and specifically Delaunay from whom [Chagall] learnt the art of . . . using colour not just brightly (after his often dark Russian paintings) but also lightly, strong enough to give sensations of light but also transparently, freshly, so that light seems to come through the canvas as well as from it.” This too is not to be denied. Yet it doesn’t solve the problem, for Chagall’s color isn’t really Delaunay’s either.
It seems to me there is a specifically Russian quality to Chagall’s color that is not accounted for in these explanations. No doubt Fauvism—and Delaunay, too—taught Chagall much about the importance of color, but they would appear to have contributed little to the particular quality of the color he came to use. My own hunch is that the key is to be found in Post-Impressionist color (Gauguin especially) as it was adapted to Russian taste by Bakst, Chagall’s teacher in St. Petersburg. There is a nocturnal, artificial, theatrical quality to Chagall’s color we do not find in Matisse or Delaunay—but it is pervasive in Russian painting of this period. It is color which has almost nothing of the sun in it—it is interior and mystical, it has more to do with lamplight and memory than with the sun-drenched color of the French landscape or cityscape. It is color which has virtually nothing to do with natural light—color which therefore easily lends itself to illuminating the scenery of dreams. This, it seems to me, is its real function in Chagall’s painting—to serve the interests of a dreamlike narrative.
Chagall was very touchy on the subject of “literary” painting.
Chagall was very touchy on the subject of “literary” painting. In Paris he was often said to be a literary painter—a “poet”—and he knew very well that in the avant-garde climate of the time, it was anything but a compliment. He was thus much concerned to deny the narrative character of his best paintings. But his was surely a tactical maneuver designed to outflank his “purist” critics. He could scarcely have believed it himself, for his whole conception of painting then and thereafter was inseparable from the narrative mode. It was indeed the narrative character of his painting which survived the loss of so much else when Chagall’s whole pictorial enterprise began to come apart in the Twenties. Alas, it was what accounted in large part for his prodigious success when all else was gone.
It would be a mistake, however, to base our judgment of the narrative element in Chagall on his later, quite shameless exploitations of it. In the paintings of his first Paris period it is his highly imaginative use of the narrative mode that accounts for what is most truly original in the work. That he felt compelled to deny the very source of his own originality tells us something about the real relation in which Chagall stood to the world of “advanced” art in pre-1914 Paris—it was, in fact, an extremely tenuous relation—but it does nothing to alter the centrality of the narrative mode in his own art.
The narrative element continued to be a source of strength in the paintings Chagall produced when he returned to Vitebsk in 1914. But the ground shifted for the artist once he left behind the heady atmosphere of the Paris avant-garde, and his art changed, too. In important respects, it drew back even further from the radicalism of the avant-garde.
Chagall had journeyed to Berlin in the summer of 1914 for the opening of his one-man show at the Sturm gallery. From there he travelled to Vitebsk to see his family and the girl he hoped to marry (and whom he did marry the following year)—his beloved Bella. If it was the coming of the First World War that at first prevented Chagall from returning to Paris, it was no doubt the Revolution that kept him in Russia after 1917. For the Revolution, which he welcomed with enthusiasm, made him a power in the new Soviet art world. In 1918 he was named Commissar of Art for Vitebsk and the surrounding region. He presided over a museum, an art school, and theater production. By 1920–21, moreover, he was also designing productions for the new State Kamerny Theater in Moscow. It was to the Revolution that Chagall owed his emergence as a “public” artist.
But the power and position which he now enjoyed were anything but secure. In art matters, no less than in other realms of revolutionary ideology, factionalism abounded, competition for preferment was fierce, and the debates often acrimonious. The avant-garde was given unprecedented authority under Lunacharsky’s short-lived reign as Commissar of Education, but did Chagall really qualify as a member of this new avant-garde? There were important figures in the expanding Soviet art establishment who thought not. In a cultural milieu that came more and more to look upon a doctrinaire commitment to abstraction as a test of revolutionary orthodoxy, Chagall’s figurative paintings—which were even more avowedly figurative than thitherto—looked old fashioned, a throwback, perhaps, to the despised bourgeois era. There were plots and intrigues and bureaucratic squabbles. Malevich, the leader of the Suprematists, was dispatched to Vitebsk to assist Chagall in his duties. There was a power struggle, and Chagall lost out. Whenever, years hence, Chagall could be heard denouncing abstract art, one could be reasonably certain that it was the power struggle with Malevich and his gang he had in the back of his mind.
Chagall’s own paintings in this period are of several kinds. The best of them—The Birthday (1915), for example—continue very much in the narrative Cubist vein he developed in Paris. But joining these pictures now are others, like David in Profile (1914), a portrait of his brother, that are more studiedly objective in style—they resemble, in fact, some of the portraits that emerged from the New Objectivity movement in Germany in the Twenties. In still others, of which the marvelous Bella with a White Collar (1917) is the outstanding example, the narrative and objective modes are combined. There is also in these years a more concentrated interest in Jewish themes. Chagall’s religious outlook does not succumb to the facile universalism he made famous in later years until he quits the scene of his childhood associations and family connections.
There are ample signs, even in this second Russian period, that Chagall had lost a certain sense of direction in his painting. The really achieved paintings come less often now and are less consistent in their strengths than the paintings he produced in Paris before 1914. But he remains recognizably the same artist who produced those earlier masterpieces.
What happened to that artist once he had left Russia for the last time is really terrible to behold. As one made one’s way around the remaining galleries at the Royal Academy, the descent into banality, ineptitude, and a facile, repetitious attitudinizing was rapid and unremitting. Chagall had never been a leader of artistic thought, but he had once been a painter of authentic feeling and original vision. From the early Twenties onward, all that was over. He became an artist attached to nothing more profound than his facility and his fame. Although from time to time he still attempted the gravest subjects—as in The Revolution (1937) and White Crucifixion (1938)—he was no longer equal to them. Longevity conspired with a ghastly fluency to produce a mountainous oeuvre of clichés.
This is not, of course, Dr. Compton’s view of the matter. She speaks of Chagall as “the greatest religious artist of our times.” She doesn’t, however, attempt to make a case for this extraordinary claim, and indeed, no very clear account of Chagall’s religious beliefs is adduced to support it. Perhaps it is just another way of giving the artist the status of a “giant” without having to defend the claim on purely artistic grounds. Norbert Lynton is likewise much occupied with Chagall’s role as a religious artist. What he offers us is a wildly misconceived rumination in which Chagall’s putative religious outlook is compared with that of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. It would be hard to think of a less rewarding line of inquiry into the “meaning” of twentieth-century painting than this one, which carries the whole subject straight into the realm of absurdity. Which is where, I think, it is destined to remain if we insist on regarding Chagall—or, for that matter, either Rothko or Newman—as a significant figure in religious art or thought.
Implicit—but unacknowledged—in this attempt to confer a kind of religio-aesthetic sainthood on Chagall is a realization that on artistic grounds alone there is little to defend or reclaim in the long stretch of years that reaches from the early Twenties to the artist’s death in 1985. The picture would not be quite so bleak, perhaps, if the best of Chagall’s graphic art had been included in this retrospective—but that is probably material for another exhibition.
It was Marc Chagall’s tragedy to become, early on in his long career, an artist orphaned by history. It is not for us to pretend that this tragedy had a happy ending.
- “Chagall,” directed by Susan Compton, was on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from January 11 to March 31. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it can be seen from May 12 to July 7.
- Susan Compton’s catalogue, Chagall ($12.95 paperback), includes, in addition to her own valuable texts, an essay by Norbert Lynton—“Chagall ‘over the Roofs of the World’”—that is particularly good on Chagall’s relation to Cendrars and the Delaunay circle.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 9, on page 1
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com