Thursday 29 August 2013

Chagall Modern Master at Tate Liverpool

Chagall Modern Master, currently showing at Tate Liverpool is the first major exhibition of this most Jewish of artists to be held in the UK for fifteen years. Chagall just happens to be my favourite artist and I have been fortunate enough to see two exhibitions of his work this year - the first being at the Mane Katz Museum in Haifa in April.

The Tate exhibition brings together works from various periods of Chagall's long and prolific career including his early years in Vitebsk, then in the Russian Empire, now in Belarus; his responses to cubism and other movements and the centrality of his Russian-Jewish identity to his work.

Born  as Moshe Segal, in Vitebsk in 1887, into an observant Jewish family he was educated first at a local Jewish school. When he reached 13 his mother had to bribe an official to allow him entry to the Russian High School which at that time did not admit Jewish children. During his time at this school he became interested in drawing eventually confiding to his mother that he wished to become an artist. In 1906, he managed to convince his parents to allow him to study at the Vitebsk studio of realist artist Yehuda Pen. Pen also numbered El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine amongst pupils. 

In 1910 Chagall moved to Paris to widen his experience and to develop his style. This was the first of many moves to Russia, back to France, the United States and finally back to France. However, throughout all of these moves his work constantly referred back to his home city with Vitebsk's church spires, synagogue, small painted houses and various characters appearing in many of his paintings. Over Vitebsk, featured in the current exhibition is a wonderful example of this. It shows an itinerant Jewish peddler literally "over" the city, floating or flying as so many of Chagall's subjects do. The term "over" has a double meaning in this sense as it was also used to refer to going from door to door, begging or peddling. As ever, an onion domed Orthodox church features prominently and on this occasion the city is covered in snow, adding to the poignancy of the peddler's poverty. I especially like this picture as it combines the two key and inseparable elements of Chagall's identity - Jewish and Russian.

Over Vitebsk, 1922
In later life Chagall spoke about his work capturing the memory of the destroyed life of the shtetls - small Jewish settlements wiped out during the Holocaust. It is possible to see some of these characters in his very early paintings. His Jew in Red from 1915 has always struck me as showing a feeling of foreboding. The picture is dominated by the image of an elderly looking Jew, with one eye open and one eye closed, perhaps referencing the struggles then going on amongst European Jews between those who wished to preserve tradition (the closed eye) and those advocating modernity (the open one). His expression and slightly slumped posture also suggest the many problems and persecutions faced by Jews in the Tsarist Empire, confined to particular areas and forbidden access to further education and to a range of professions. Behind him are a series of wooden, shtetl shouses with cubist overtones and strong reds and pinks, reflecting the colour of his beard, the redness being an uncanny prophesy of the flames that would consume most of European Jewry just a few decades later.

Jew in red, 1915
There was also a lighter side to Chagall's work and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the celebratory panels he produced for the Yiddish Chamber Theatre in Moscow. Produced in 1920, this series of panels depicting literature, music and drama, dance as well as an extremely large panel entitled Introduction to the Jewish Theatre are magical and for me, the highlight of the exhibition.

Following the 1916 Russian Revolution, Chagall was appointed a Commissioner of Fine Arts and became involved with the Vitebsk Theatre of Revolutionary Satire (TEREVSAT), designing both sets and costumes on a regular basis. He also undertook theatre design work in Moscow during this period. In 1920 he left his home town for good, moving to Moscow where he was recruited by art critic Abram Efros to design for the State Yiddish Chamber Theatre. His first commission was to design sets and costumes for three one act plays of Yiddish literary legend Sholem Aleichem. He also decided to decorate the entire room in which this very small theatre was located with a complete set of wall and ceiling murals on canvas in addition to a stage curtain. The curtain and the ceiling murals are lost but the remainder survive and are on glorious display at Tate Liverpool.

Chagall's theatre panels celebrate not only the Yiddish theatre, but also the richness of Russian Jewish cultural achievement. The panel to music shows a violin player with his beloved shtetl in the background. (I have to admit a large scale poster of this picture has been in my possession for many years - purchased at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 1995!) The panel to literature shows a bearded Jew writing Hebrew letters onto a scroll. These and the other works in this series show an inextricable link between the two cultures and Chagall's commitment to both. He makes an appearance himself in the main panel complete with his palette and in the company of vaulting violinists, tefillin wearing acrobats and the occasional goat. Just wonderful! 

Music, 1920
In 1909 our hero met Bella Rosenfield, the daughter of a well to do Jewish family and another native of Vitebsk. According to him it was mutual love at first site and they married in 1915, their daughter Ida being born in 1916. Bella and Ida appear in the exhibition in the painting that bears their names, sometimes also called Strawberries. His early paintings of Bella, many of which he also appeared in, show a passionate love affair but he also painted calmer, more domestic scenes including Strawberries. Painted in 1920 it shows a more relaxed side of life in Vitebsk. I love Bella's consideration of the plate of strawberries nearest to her and the way the crimson of the fruit is mirrored in her dress. Little Ida is safely in her child's chair, fastened in and unable to reach the table. The hint of red around her mouth suggest she might already have sampled the fruit which may explain the suggestion of contentedness on her face!

Their marriage lasted until Bella's untimely death in 1994. by this time they were living in New York, having escaped Europe by the skin of their teeth having been arrested by the collaborationist French  Vichy Government in Marseille in 1941. It was only due to the efforts of Righteous Among the Nations Varian Fry, that the Chagall family were released and avoided the fate of so many others.

The Strawberries or Bella and Ida at the table, 1916
The exhibition also includes a number of works from 1914, mainly using pen and ink and illustrating ordinary Vitebsk residents and the impact of the first year of the First World War on their lives. This includes scenes of husbands departing for battle, refugees displaced by the conflict and a wounded soldier being stretchered away from the railway station. The starkness of pen and ink emphasises the fear and pain of those pictured. This period represents a much less symbolic approach than is often associated with Chagall but this section of the exhibition also leaves a lasting impression. Another of my favourites is displayed with this group. Peasant eating from 1913, another monochromatic work shows a Jew eating from a bowl marked כשר - the Hebrew letters spelling "kosher".

Peasant eating, c 1913
And speaking of eating, it is only possible to give a small taste of this wonderful exhibition here, but rest assured it is well worth a visit to Liverpool before it ends on October 6th. An excellent catalogue featuring all of the pictures on show together with a series of essays. And as I wrote here Liverpool is worth a visit at any time!

You might also like Boris Aronson and the Yiddish Theate at the Ben Uri Gallery and Jewish Moscow

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