February 20, 2013 18:58

Chagall, More Touching Than Ever

By Julien Beauhaire (translated by Lauren Hasty)

With « Chagall, Between War and Peace », The Musee du Luxembourg proposes a double analepsis of the 20th century and Chagall’s work, and an unprecedented opportunity to revisit the personal mythology of this great artist.
The exhibition tells the story of an encounter, between a major artist and his century. Marked by two devastating wars, the twentieth century revived the classical theme of the vanities - "We, between civilizations, now know that we are mortal," wrote Paul Valéry in 1919 in La Crise de l'esprit. When Chagall died in 1985 at 98 years old, he had traversed two fratricidal conflicts, permanent exiles and inner torment, but also decades of creative explosion. Far from a classical retrospective, the Musée du Luxembourg * presents an exciting chrono-thematic exposition of the painter’s work. For the exposition “Chagall, Between War and Peace” Julia Garimorth-Foray, co-curator of the exhibition asks the poignant questions: "How is history reflected in the work of Chagall?” and “How does the encounter between artistic imagination and reality operate?” The answers are not to be missed.
 Russia and Vitebsk
Within the circular scenography, broken up into four main sections, we visit and revisit Chagal’s themes of religion, couples and his natal city, Vitebsk. An univocal black or white observation favors a polysemic structure of chromatic color.
In 1915, when Chagall married Bella Rosenfeld ("I entered into a new house and since, I am inseparable"), he was forced to stay in Russia eight years because of the Great War. He immersed himself in painting, which he soon thereafter considered to be "a window through which he would fly to another world" (View from the window in Zaolchie, near Vitebsk, 1915). In Vitebsk, looking out this window, he sees a symbolic boundary between the inside and outside. However he quickly feels shut in and the need for air arises. "I was born in between heaven and earth," he says.
View from the Window in Zaolchie, near Vitebsk, 1915 © Adagp, Paris 2013
France between wars
A spiritual calling overcomes Chagall, and starting in 1923, while returning to France at the invitation of Ambroise Vollard, the artist begins illustrating the Bible. He does not see the book as holy scripture, but rather as "a dream of an ancient rabbinic exegesis, where there would be neither before nor after," says Julia Garimorth-Foray. Beggars from his hometown serve as models for the portraits of rabbis and the figure of the illustrious wandering Jew, pictured as the "Luftmensh", or flying man (Above Vitebsk, 1915-1920).
Three years prior to this event, he finished the stage for the Jewish theater in Moscow; the completed forty gouaches on the Bible and preparatory etchings show both a thorough knowledge of religious texts and a very personal interpretation; sometimes mixing of half-human, half-animal hybrid figures within the Christic representations, surrounded by Hebraic symbols (Menorahs, tallits, tefillins, etc.). It must be said that under his brush, Christ was transformed into a symbol of universal suffering (The Crucifixion, 1940). In 1940 anti-Semitic laws forced the painter to flee to the United States, to New York.
Above Vitebsk, 1915-1920 © Adagp, Paris 2013
War and Peace
War, persecutions, the exodus of those persecuted, and crime haunt his darkest paintings. Four years later, his wife died. Chagall no longer consciously dreamt. Traumatized, he stopped painting for a year. "Everything became dark," he says. Strangely enough, he then attached himself to pictorial depictions of marriage, the last homage to his beloved. His opera and theater undertakings give him hope, and finds peace along with war-ravaged Europe.
In 1948, Chagall returned to France, first in Orgeval then Vence and Saint-Paul de Vence. This was the time of serenity. Conflicts gave way to lighter, more colorful themes: series on Paris, returning to Vitebsk, etc. (The Dance, 1950-1952). The artist's technique becomes diversified: engravings, mosaics, and stained glass. And slowly, life and light take over, as if to recall the words of Tolstoy "Pure sorrow is as impossible as pure joy."
The Dance, 1950-1952 © Adagp, Paris 2013
* Until July 21st at the Musée du Luxembourg

Chagall : la bande-annonce par Rmn-Grand_Palais

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