Love, color and God
Chagall retrospective is an experience not to be missed
Before you even step off the elevators onto the fifth floor at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, the paintings by Marc Chagall beckon, pulling you closer to drink in all the luscious color he imbued into his work. The City may be a bit of trek, but it’s worth the miles to take in this retrospective of 146 paintings and works on paper by Chagall, the only exhibition of its kind in the country.
The exhibition features oils, gouaches and collages culled from private collections and museums here and abroad and encompasses the work created throughout the many environs of Chagall’s life as a Russian Jew, born in 1887, who emigrated to Paris in 1911 after training in St. Petersburg and his subsequent hopscotch travels that sometimes trapped him during wartime. As his artistic style evolved, Chagall’s persistence in eschewing the pervasive and strong artistic trends around him seemed to reflect his life as a Jew existing in a Christian culture.
In his hometown of Vitebsk, Chagall realistically documented village activities. Once in Paris, he delved into Cubism like his contemporaries Picasso, Léger, and Braque, although he viewed abstraction as art “born in a world without God.”
Indeed, the Bible was one of Chagall’s favorite themes, with some works curiously featuring depictions of Christ, while others are laden with Jewish symbolism—a marked contradiction. “Golgotha (Calvary),” a 1912 oil, depicts a crucified Christ framed by a fractionated Cubist sky that glows chartreuse to teal to evoke an eerie yet ethereal atmosphere.
A visit back to Russia trapped him when World War I broke out. His work reverted to a fairly realistic style as he portrayed the people and world around him. In 1915’s “The Jew in Red,” Chagall’s amazing touch with color is ever striking, with the velvety look of the wizened old man’s crimson beard. His technical expertise also shines in the stylized folds of fabric of the man’s utilitarian coat.
In Russia, Chagall wed Bella, who was to become one of his favorite models. Fantastical scenes of Bella and himself flying above Vitebsk, as in “Au-Dessus de la Ville (Above the Town),” or replacing Biblical characters in scenes delineated Chagall further from the European avant-garde as he married personal and religious symbols in his own Cubistic/Futurist style.
During that time Chagall was also busy as the appointed fine arts commissar and co-founder of an art academy, until he moved to Moscow to design sets for the Jewish Theater. His narrow frieze of a Jewish wedding banquet and allegorical panels of Dance, Music and Literature blend dynamic whimsy with traditional Jewish folklore. Even though he switched mediums, from oil to gouache, tempera, watercolor and pencil, using less color, Cubist features and a flat perspective coalesced to breathe life into Chagall’s fanciful visions.
A 1922 return to France found Chagall surrounded by Post-Impressionism. “The Rooster” (1929), the enticing piece beckoning, rich and succulent in color, as one steps from the elevator reflects that impact, but the content—a young woman affectionately astride a rooster while minuscule lovers perch on her foot and others row in boats in the background—reveals a surrealistic penchant, too.
In a 1941 escape from World War II Chagall journeyed to New York, which he christened "Babylon," and the Catskills, then trekked back to post-war France, where he worked on pieces detailing scenes from the Bible, the circus and lovers, familiar themes throughout his career. Although this exhibition is an amazing chronicle of Chagall’s work and life, it’s missing documentation of the mosaics and stained-glass windows also born under his talented hands until his death in 1985.