Jean-Michel Foray (1942-2012), honorary general heritage curator.
Julia Garimorth-Foray, curator at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris
Chagall was nearly a hundred when he died in 1985. He had crossed most of the 20th century, living through one revolution, two wars and a period of exile, and rubbing shoulders with some of its most avant-garde artists. His personal experience of History, the memory of people he knew, his travels and his homeland shine through in his work. Twentieth-century art largely repressed allegory and narrative. It was because Chagall did not follow the rules and codes (or even dogma) of modernist thought, while drawing nourishment from it, that he was able to stay figurative and bear witness to his time. He borrowed some of the forms of the avant-garde movements (Cubism, Suprematism, Surrealism) and sometimes seems to come close to them, but in the end remained independent. The parallel between the images of war and the images of peace reveals the complexity of an oeuvre which can never be reduced to a particular genre, but enfolds events, situations and the artist’s feelings. Depending on the circumstances, Chagall comes back to a few themes, enriching them each time with a personal dimension: his home town of Vitebsk, the Jewish traditions of his childhood, episodes from the Bible, including the Crucifixion, the couple and family life.
Opening with the outbreak of the First World War, the exhibition seeks to illustrate four key periods in Chagall’s life and work:
Russia in wartime
After three years in Paris, Chagall went back to Vitebsk to join his beloved Bella, whom he married in 1915. The war took him by surprise. Although he was far from the front, he reported the brutal reality of wartime: troop movements, wounded soldiers, and Jews driven out of their villages. In the same way, he depicted his childhood surroundings, which he felt to be doomed, and painted a series touching on his relationship with Bella.
Between the wars
In 1922, Chagall turned his back definitively on Russia. After a period in Berlin, he returned to Paris where he had to make his name as a painter all over again. On the request of the publisher, Ambroise Vollard, he illustrated a number of books, including the Bible, a text with which he had been so familiar since his childhood that he later said: "I did not just see the Bible, I dreamed it." As well as landscapes, portraits and circus scenes, he painted hybrid creatures, half man-half beast, –perfect illustrations of the Chagallian bestiary –and many pictures of the couple as a metaphorical expression of his love of life.
Exile in the United States
In 1937, the Nazi authorities seized Chagall’s works in public collections in Germany and three of his paintings were shown in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. Political events forced Chagall to leave France. With Bella and Ida he moved to New York, where he found several other Jewish artists and poets in exile. Although far from the theatre of war, Chagall was well aware of the acts of barbarity devastating Europe and his native land. War, persecution, refugees, burning villages haunted his paintings and a sombre tonality invaded his work. He used the theme of the Crucifixion as a universal symbol of human suffering. His oeuvre in this period was particularly fertile and still shows the need to return to his roots. He pays tribute to his wife Bella, who died in 1944.
The post-war years and the return to France
Chagall moved back to France in 1949 and settled first at Orgeval and then Vence. Putting the past behind him, he worked on major cycles such as the series of Paris monuments, and explored other techniques (stained glass, sculpture, ceramics, mosaic, various engraving techniques). His use of colour changed perceptibly and his paintings from this period radiate with a blend of astonishing light and expressive tonalities.
This dialectic of war and peace in the broadest sense highlights the essential aspects of Chagall’s work. By exploring the decisive episodes in his life, it helps us understand the link between his vision of the human condition and his sincere, sensitive pictorial technique, which, thirty years after his death, is still strikingly innovative.
Picture : Marc Chagall, La danse (détail), 1950-1952, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’Art moderne/ Centre de création industrielle, Paris, Dation en 1988, en dépôt au musée national Marc Chagall, Nice © ADAGP, Paris 2013 / CHAGALL® © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot
An exhibition organised by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais