There are few artists that sum up the monumental changes and events of the last century quite as succinctly as Marc Chagall. There have of course been artists to define events and define eras but Chagall’s consistency and unprecedented long life (living to the astronomical age for an artist of the era of 98) seem to lend him a certain advantage, especially in showing the scars, beliefs and effects of some of the century’s most trying and historic of moments. This evolution of the work in relation to history is brought to the fore in latest retrospective at Tate Liverpool simply because it is largely in chronological order, allowing for work to become “post” events or “pre” movements creating a charter of Chagall’s visionary moments and his reactionary moments.

Opening with his early work, some themes become instantly apparent. Though seeming to be inward looking towards his own past and ideologies, Chagall is clearly an artist who cannot but help be greatly influenced by the world around him too. There’s simply no way to shut off the incidents even from when he was younger and scarred by the century’s first war. His reaction to the avant-garde, cubism in particular, shows the artist exploring with confidence the forms that would later supplant into surrealism. Paris Through The Window (1913) instantly brings forth this curiosity. It has a Matisse-like fluidity though is of course before Jazz and Henri himself. The work shows a number of Chagall’s recurring ideas, namely that of the window to new worlds and ideas, sometimes to colourful utopias, sometimes simply as a place to sit one’s problems within.

Paris Through the Window also shows the artist’s desire to characterise creatures and show the multiple personalities of people in an abundantly physical way. These creatures and surreal forms of people make their way into a number of works including The Yellow Room (1911) and, most impressively, I and the Village (1911). I and the Village is the exhibition’s poster-boy in that it contains almost everything Chagall clearly cares for. Its people are sketched into a folkloric world that is equally traditional as it is utterly surreal. The landscape of this small place is full of typically Russian buildings but is also created on the faces of animals and people. In this sense, it seems thoroughly Freudian, building a landscape on the faces of people and filling them with a folkloric culture.

The people of Chagall’s painting seem unaware of their surroundings and limitations. They often express emotional release and intensity through impossible physical actions such as bending back over, stretching around or even floating. Man With Head Thrown Back (1919) shows this perfectly with Chagall even signing his name upside down at the top of the frame in order to play into the illusion. This freedom within the artist’s world is present in a large portion of the paintings; often hinting at more of a symbolic nature than a playful one.

One of the exhibition’s most interesting segments is The Sense of Self and Jewish Themes collection which provides an interesting array of both Jewish ideas and Russian culture. The Praying Jew (1913-1914) indicates a change of style, at least in surreal exploration. It is instead a gentle nudging of form with a relatively formal portrait as if Chagall is more interested in capturing the subject for reasons more along the lines of posterity. Jew in Red (1915) also presents itself in such a way but instead injects a wave of red, even making the subject’s beard a particular shade of impressive maroon. He’s also in possession of a single green hand, while his other is white. Again symbolism is rife within Chagall’s work but for what exactly, is uncertain.

This exhibition also displays some of Chagall’s larger work including the notoriously huge The Wedding Feast (1920) and his theatre work. Music, Dance and Drama (all from 1920) somehow lose Chagall’s sense of charming detail and become something else entirely. By stretching the ideas over far bigger areas, they thin out and form something new, certainly nowhere near as vivid. It is in the later works of Chagall then that the exhibition ends and it seems an apt place for the artist.

Towards the Late Work houses a handful of paintings ranging from 1924 to 1967. The paintings see an injection of black, almost morbidly so. The free association and surreal charm is still there but alongside it is something obviously darker and more uncomfortable. For the description of Red Rooftops (1953), the information card quotes Chagall on love and suggests a tie-in to love through the colour of red. Yet it seems far too optimistic a description. The characters are all downcast, unsure and confused. The place itself is far from the magical, folkloric realms of earlier. It appears in this later work that history has caught up with Chagall completely and the inescapable shadow of the Second World War, which casts itself so violently upon everything, finally descends over Chagall’s colourful, optimistic world.

Chagall is on at Tate Liverpool until the 6/10/13.

Adam Scovell

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