If ever there was a time for a Chagall reassessment, it’s now. Accused of wearing his heart on his sleeve a little too willingly, the man’s stock value’s plummeted in recent years. But a saunter around Chagall, Modern Master, at Tate Liverpool reveals a man in love with beauty, romance, the pull of home, the richness of Jewish history, and the joy of colour. And, after the dead-eyed cynicism of Glam! Chagall’s honesty, and transparency acts like a palette cleanser on the soul, and a real tonic for world-weary senses.
Chagall’s pick and mix approach to isms – Fauvism, Cubism, Constructivism, Orphism – results in a show that appropriates many of 20th century art’s ticks and styles, but raises the game, wilfully mashing up vivid colours within Cubism’s usually muted palettes, or Jewish iconography with the avant-garde.
Much of this retrospective focusses (rightly) on Chagall’s early work, when the artist moved from his hometown of Vitebsk, in what’s now Belarus, to the salons of Paris, via art school in St Petersburg.
It’s a journey etched out in the increasingly confident, fantastical and buoyant canvasses: much as David Hockney documented decades later in his Rake’s Progress series – we see an artist whose eyes are opened, as colour, spectacle and big city life floods in.
Little wonder the Hasidic Jew from small-town Vitebsk’s early canvasses are giddy, kaleidoscopic and head-turning. They’re the artistic equivalent of a gap-year diary: full of shock, awe and wide-eyed wonder.
The exhibition opens with sombre, moving depictions on the impact of war in his Jewish Vitebsk community, weaving in Jewish folklore, savage Russian landscapes and his trademark primitive depictions of farm animals and peasants.
The move to Paris saw Chagall work towards a new language of pictorial iconography – upside down goats, flying, Mary Poppins-like couples, inverted railroads and pastoral scenes saved from whimsy by their vivid, angsty colours.
Chagall returned to his homeland as war broke out, a stay that extended a full eight years, and saw him marry his childhood sweetheart, Bella, and embrace his Jewish culture more deeply.
It’s this period of contentment that sees Chagall at his most romantic: The Promenade (1917) depicts husband and wife, hands clutched, with Bella floating serenely above the green grass of home. It’s a gorgeous, happy, blissful evocation of two becoming one. It’s a statement that shows, while war may ravage his homeland, peace was reigning in his heart.
Chagall’s second Russian period saw the creation of this exhibition’s stand out pieces: the murals he painted for the Yiddish Chamber Theatre in Moscow in 1920. One can only imagine the effect these would have had (coupled with the ceiling mural and curtain paintings, now sadly lost) in this womb-like theatre. They’re reassembled here for the first time, and dance with joy.
The artist’s later works are represented by just four large-scale canvasses, perhaps the most poignant of which is Red Roofs (1953) – a dreamlike evocation of Vitebsk, bathed in the blood-red hues of love, the hearths of home and the comforting glow of happy memories, keeping him warm in his old age. Fires that never really abated throughout the artist’s long life.
If Chagall is guilty of anything, they were only ever crimes of passion. And this wonderful, life-affirming exhibition exonerates him completely.
Chagall, Modern Master
8 June – 6 October 2013
Adult £11.00 (without donation £10.00)
Concession £8.25 (without donation £7.50)
(c) Pic, Tate