Sunday, 23 June 2013

Chagall – modern master of mystery

Paris Through the Window, 1913
Alcohol was involved, but even given a beer or two, I cannot recall ever having seen a grown man – and a rather cynical one at that – almost in tears as he described an art exhibition to someone else.

But that was precisely the reaction as someone (and no, it wasn’t The Other Half) described the Liverpool Tate’s exhibition of works by Marc Chagall to a colleague.

Most particularly, it was a reaction to two paintings by the artist, representing himself and his wife, Bella.

The first of these was Lovers in Blue from 1914, when Chagall returned to both Russia and his finance after three years studying and working in Paris.

Then in Promenade (1917-18), he pictured Bella flying above him like a kite, moored only to the Earth by holding his hand.

Promenade, 1917-18
For my acquaintance, both of these paintings conveyed a depth of love and joy that left him profoundly moved.

Now I won’t try to claim that the exhibition had that sort of impact on me, but it is most certainly fascinating and, if you get the chance, well worth a visit.

One of the things that the Tate Liverpool has captured is a real sense of the evolution of Chagall’s style.

This journey begins, in effect, with a 1910 painting, Birth, and another, of same title, with theme and very similar composition, from 1911.

The difference, though, is substantial, and reflects the surge forward in style that a move to Paris brought with it.

The former is a scene of Jewish peasant village life that Chagall had grown up surrounded by in Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus.

The second doesn’t have that sense of place, but is less a ‘primitive’ representation and far more an Expressionist one.

In both, though, the main figures remain the mother, the midwife, the father and the infant.

The Yellow Room, 1911
Further paintings from the same era follow, including several nudes. One of the interesting things to note here is that, a look back at the 1910 Birth has the new mother’s genitals visible, bloodied.

The later version has the mother’s leg bent up so that her genital area is hidden.

And this is repeated in many more of the nudes on display at the Tate Liverpool, even though, in 1913’s Nude in Movement (above right) the use of the hand to cover the genitals almost makes the painting appear to be of masturbation.

Yet in a painting of two male nudes from the same era, there is no effort to cover the genitals.

I and the Village, 1911
But by this time, the modernity of palette and the style are clear, with influences of van Gogh, Matisse and various others also visible.

Chagall took all these, absorbed what he needed and discarded the rest. It’s a journey that reminded me of that of Survage, which we discovered last year, moving from classicism to Cubism and then back, with differences woven in.

For me, two of the highlights were Paris Through the Window, from 1913, and I and the Village, from 1911, both of which have a playfulness and whimsy that is a substantial difference between Chagall and the Surrealists.

So many of Chagall’s images are fantastical, and he twists reality and loads his canvases with symbolism, but it’s a different subversion of reality than, say, that of Dali or Magritte.

And with the latter in particular, the use of planes is fascinating. In 1911's The Yellow Room too, he plays with perspective and colour – and there are echos here of van Gogh.

Lovers in Blue, 1914
Another thing that struck me: not only in Lovers in Blue from 1914, but also in Self-Portrait from 1913 from the same year, is how feminine Chagall made himself look.

Taking the former, if you didn’t know the work or didn’t read a description of it, you’d be hard-pushed to know which figure is the man.

And with the self-portrait (not in the exhibition, but in Tate Introductions: Chagall that I picked up later), it’s hard to view it as a ‘conventional’ representation of a heterosexual, non-transexual male.

Self-portrait, 1913
So was Chagall deliberately representing himself in a feminine way here – or not so deliberately?

Not only are there several representations of motherhood in this exhibition, these are works that are, on occasion, influenced by the icon art of Russia.

But while Chagall’s Jewish background is often at the forefront of discussion about him and his work, Vitebsk’s population was roughly half and half Jewish and Christian (Orthodox), and there are plenty of nods to both those cultures in his work, and to their linked beliefs and relationships.

Departure for War, 1914
One of the paintings on view features the Christ family within the setting of typically Chagallian village. The twist here is that the baby Jesus sits on Joseph’s knee and is bearded, while Joseph is clean shaven.

This is also where we cross into works that are far from having the life-affirming quality that often seems to be central to views of Chagall.

In Departure for War (1914), for instance, the woman not only looks like a Madonna, there is something sensual too, as the departing soldier appears to be kissing her breast, which has a cross on it – an act that again nods at motherhood.

War, from 1964-66, equally offers plenty to consider – and once more we tip into a number of different things. One theory is that this represents that Holocaust.

What we can see for certain is that it pictures a village in flame, together with villagers fleeing, some in a cart.

The dead lie in the snow, arranged as though to echo the crucified Christ figure on the right of the canvas; a naked woman stands in the flames, arms raised – unusually, genitals unhidden, and with a lick of flame appearing almost to penetrate her.

War, 1964-66
Close by, is a goat – a figure that occurs frequently in Chagall’s work – and a symbol in Judaism for atonement and in Christianity for Satan/the damned.

Another woman lies in the snow, holding a young child and cradled by a further figure, while yet another woman is seen in the foreground with another infant.

Behind the cart is a figure that recurs in Chagall’s work, a man in a long coat, with a cap and carrying a sack over his shoulder.

He appears too in the snowy scene, Over Vitebsk (1922), where the Tate Liverpool’s notes suggest that he may represent the Wandering Jew. He also crops up in White Crucifixion of 1938, which has the crucifixion at its centre, with representations of persecution all around it (this is not in the exhibition, but from Tate Introductions: Chagall).

The Soldier Drinks, 1912
In The Soldier Drinks from 1912, a soldier’s cap is blown off by a blast outside, while the tiny figures below suggest the importance of memory: in the soldier’s case, a precious moment with a woman flashes before his eyes, as he feels the danger so close by.

What this exhibition leaves you with is a sense of the mysteries of Chagall’s work – so saturated is it with symbols and with a sense of myth and tradition, that’s it’s difficult to read.

And for all that Promenade is a joyful representation of a relationship (and he pictured himself soaring with Bella more than once), and for all that paintings like I and the Village have a lyrical quality, works like War are visions of something very different, and seem to be asking questions about just what our traditions and myths and symbols can cause.

But that is the benefit of being able to visit an exhibition like this, and getting the chance to view a substantial body of an artist’s work, rather than a couple of pictures among many by other artists.

One of the coups of the exhibition has been to get Chagall's murals for the State Yiddish Chamber Theatre, now at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, to Liverpool, where they dominate a room.

The exhibition is essentially chronological, and this room follows the likes of Departure for War and The Soldier Drinks, and is itself followed by War

This roller-coaster of life is as good an illustration of anything that in Chagall’s case, his work is complex and multi-faceted and ranges across human experience. Encompassing everything from my acquaintance's response to the pictures of war, Chagall's oeuvre cannot simply be described as 'folk art', but has a universality that explains its continued appeal.

And the Tate Liverpool has done an excellent job in providing an opportunity to experience that – and all without a single ceramic or sculpture or stained glass window.

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