In a twist, the city's Museum of Art combines his earlier works with his'School of Paris' contemporaries to reveal the artist in a communal phase. MarcChagall was an enormously popular 20th century painter, revered by the publicfor his rooftop fiddlers, biblical lore, upside down lovers and fancifulvisions of Jewish shtetl life in the old Russian empire. Art historians andcritics, however, have always had difficulty placing him among the manycurrents of modern art; to them, he often seemed unique, special, one of akind. Some also found him repetitive and sentimental.
But Chagall was not always a loner. In an innovative exhibition, thePhiladelphia Museum of Art has decided to concentrate on his younger yearswhen, far from unique, he and a band of mainly East European, mainly Jewish artistshoned their craft in Paris. The show, "Paris Through the Window: MarcChagall and His Circle," closes July 10. Made up mostly of paintings fromthe Philadelphia museum's own collection, the show, which displays Chagallalongside his contemporaries, goes nowhere else. The museum has a large collectionof Chagalls mainly through the legacy of Louis E. Stern, Chagall's Americanlawyer. "I wanted to give Chagall an edge," said Michael R. Taylor,the museum's curator of modern art. "He's usually seen alone. Here I puthim with ... the others, and he's more interesting."
Chagall arrived in Paris in 1911 atage 24. He grew up in a poor Jewish family in Vitebsk in what is now Belarusbut was then Russia and studied painting there and in St. Petersburg. Like manypoor artists in Paris and a few writers, he soon rented a cheap apartment andstudio in La Ruche (the Beehive) at No. 2 Passage Dantzig in the rundownslaughterhouse district near Montparnasse on the Left Bank.
With government blessing, La Ruchehad been constructed by a French philanthropist in 1902 to accommodate thethrongs of young artists drawn to the city that was now the world's center ofart. The building's name came from its cylindrical shape: 16 sides three storieshigh with scores of small studios looking on the city through large windows.
The French artist Fernand Leger oncelived there. But most residents were foreign and over the years included theItalian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, the Lithuanian painter ChaimSoutine, the Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, and many other Jewishartists.
Unlike Modigliani and Soutine,Chagall was not noted as a habitual client of the bars of Montparnasse. He wasengaged to a woman back home, Bella Rosenberg, and did not socialize as much asthe others. But he did absorb their ideas on art.
One of Chagall's first paintings in1911, "Half-Past Three (The Poet)," shows the influence of the fashionablemovements in Paris at that time. The subject of the painting was supposed to bea Russian poet who lived at La Ruche and often stopped by Chagall's studio forcoffee, but Taylor believes Chagall may have been painting himself as well. Thefigure of the poet is cubist with his head turned upside down, symbolizing,according to Taylor, "the head-spinning impact of his [Chagall's]encounter" with cubism. The colors also resemble those used by the Frenchpainter Robert Delaunay, who was well known to the artists of La Ruche becausehis wife, the painter Sonia Terk, was a Ukrainian friend of theirs.
The influence of Delaunay, who oftendepicted cubist impressions of the Eiffel Tower, is obvious in Chagall's 1913masterpiece, "Paris Through the Window," which gives the exhibitionits title. The painting is supposed to show a scene of Paris as seen throughChagall's window at La Ruche. It is a fanciful, delightful, explosive scene.
The Eiffel Tower is there, muchcloser and larger than it would have seemed from the window, and it is setagainst the bright and yet transparent blue, white and red colors of the Frenchflag. A parachutist seeps downward, a well-dressed man and woman floathorizontally and an upside-down train chugs ahead. A strange cat bays from thewindow sill. Within the room, Chagall puzzles us with a two-faced man. Taylor believesthe man is Chagall looking eastward toward the traditions of Russia andwestward toward the modern painters of Paris.
Chagall once said, "In La Rucheyou died or came out famous." By 1914, he had achieved a measure of famewith a successful solo exhibition in a gallery in Berlin. World War I broke outthat same year, trapping Chagall while he was visiting his family in Vitebsk.He spent the war years there, marrying Bella in 1915. From then on, he oncesaid, he would never declare a painting or print finished unless she approved.When the Revolution of 1917 pulled Russia out of the war, the new Communistgovernment named him commissar of art in Vitebsk.
During the Vitebsk interlude,Chagall began to introduce traditional Jewish themes into his symbolic, Modernistpaintings. This would set him apart from his old friends. In 1923, Chagall —now with a wife and child — made his way back to them in Paris.
By then, his contemporaries had left La Ruche, most moving into smallstudios in Montparnasse. Some were on the cusp of commercial success. Thewealthy American collector Dr. Albert Barnes discovered Soutine in 1923 andbought more than 50 of his paintings. Barnes also purchased several paintingsby the Bulgarian-born Jules Pascin, whose Gallic last name was actually ananagram of his real family name, Pincas. Modigliani had died of tuberculosis in1920 just before his portraits and nudes began to earn healthy sales.
Waves of anti-Semitism shook Francein the mid-1920s and 1930s, and one target was the large group of Jewishpainters and sculptors living in Paris. The French art critic André Warnoddefended them, writing, "Can one consider undesirable the artist for whomParis is the promised land, the blessed land of painters and sculptors?"
Warnod called this Jewish group"the School of Paris" and included Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine, Lipchitz,Pascin, the Ukranian-born sculptor Chana Orloff and the Polish-born MoiseKisling among its leading artists. They made up an odd "school" fortheir work was not similar. They were all Modernist in the sense that theyrejected Realist and Impressionist art, but none painted or sculpted alike. ThePhiladelphia exhibition displays samples of all their work. On one wall, forexample, a Soutine Expressionist portrait of Kisling in a red kerchief hangsalongside a quiet Kisling landscape.
The oldest Chagall painting in theshow is the 1943 canvas "In the Night" that portrays a wedding sceneof Chagall and his wife, Bella, in a snowbound Vitebsk. They are clasping eachother outdoors beneath a lamp that hangs from the sky while a comical cow leapsover a roof. Taylor calls the scene "a world of dream, illusion andfantasy." Bella died a year after Chagall finished the painting.
The Nazi German occupation of Franceduring World War II drove out Chagall and most of the School of Paris. Chagall,invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took refuge in the UnitedStates, remaining in New York for seven years. Kisling and Lipchitz also cameto the U.S. Orloff fled to Switzerland. Pascin had committed suicide in 1930.Soutine, the pain of an ulcer forcing him to abandon his hiding place insouthern France, reached a Paris hospital too late in 1943 to save his life.
Chagall returned to France afterWorld War II, finally settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence outside Nice on the Riviera.He became so active in his later years that New York Times art critic JohnRussell wrote that he "had arrived at something close to ubiquity."
Leaving his Riviera base from timeto time, he painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera and the murals of the MetropolitanOpera in New York. He prepared mosaics and tapestries for the Knesset inJerusalem. He took up the art of stained glass windows and produced them forthe United Nations building in New York, the cathedral at Rheims in France, theHadassah Hebrew University in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Chagall died in 1985 atage 97, one of the most beloved painters of the 20th century.