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Courtney Traub

Now On in Paris: Marc Chagall, Between War and Peace

By May 16, 2013

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Chagall chicken man

Image: Marc Chagall, "Rooster Man Above Vitebsk", 1925. Private collection. ŠADAGP, Paris 2013.

Marc Chagall is often misapprehended as a surrealist painter who figured a dream world weirdly distanced from social or political realities. In his most famous and widely reproduced works, floating, vaguely contorted lovers embrace amid cartoonish, grinning goats and roosters; trapeze performers dangle in circuses that seem decidedly anchored in a dream realm.

An exhibit on until July at the Musee de Luxembourg greatly widens our understanding of Chagall's work, including his determined engagement with some of the darker political and social forces of the 20th century, as well as with his own Russian Jewish religious and cultural heritage. "Chagall, Between War and Peace" shows a much wider cross section of the Russian-born, French painter's work; as you move from room to room and gain an understanding of Chagall's personal and artistic development, it becomes clear that the artist did not shirk reality. He used a language and iconography of dreams and fantasy to better understand and respond to it. Neither was he purely a "surrealist": art historians tend to place him outside of the twentieth century's most important schools (Cubism, Suprematism, Modernism) to situate his work as an inventive, hybrid agglomeration of styles and moods.

The exhibit is curated in chronological order, taking us through four main periods, all explored through the tense framework of "war and peace". Some 100 works are included. We begin in 1915 in Russia, plunged in the shocking events of World War I and its mechanized, dehaumanizing violence. Paintings from this period depict people being displaced, wounded soldiers, and other horrors of the war, but also show Chagall's tenderness for his native village, the Jewish community and traditions that tied him to it, and for his wife, Bella.

A second section explores the artist's life and work between the World Wars. In the early 1920s, Chagall was back in Paris from a stay in Russia, and flourished in the city's vibrant and experimental artistic scene. This section shows his fascination with Biblical mythology and allegories, drawing from a broad Judeo-Christian iconography. In addition to the religious-themed paintings, we see in this section the elaboration of Chagall's curious bestiary-- his near-obsession with depicting certain animals (roosters and goats appearing the most frequently in his dream-inspired scenes) and seeming to double for the young couples figured in the paintings. The animals appear as the animus behind Chagall's notion of enduring love, the kind that survives through historical tumult and tragedy.

The third section shows Chagall's works produced after he was forced to flee Nazi-controlled France in 1937. It depicts the horrors of World War II, despite the artist living overseas and far away from the frontlines. This somber period of Chagall's work saw a new emphasis on images of burning villages, refugees, and a palette featuring blood reds and murky browns, in lieu of his usual cool blues and greys. The section also features a series of paintings in which Chagall uses the story and imagery of Christ's crucifixion to allude to the massive human losses occuring in Europe. Finally, it shows Chagall grappling with the loss of his wife, Bella, who died in 1944. He would continue to paint her for many years to come, struggling with his grief.

In the final rooms of the exhibition, we move into the post-war period. Chagall has returned to France, and his work seems marked by a new sense of peace and equanimity. He begins working with new mediums-- stained glass, mosaic, engraving, ceramics, etc-- and experiments with light and color in bold new ways. The last section seems to synthesize many of the artist's ambitions and techniques developed over his life, and show a striking maturity and singularity.

The last works, monumental canvases showing more circus-like scenes, floating lovers and bestiaries, are infused with a sense of joy and serenity, as if Chagall were asserting the value and endurance of human love and work in spite of tragedy.

One word of practical advice: this exhibit has drawn large crowds and reservations online are highly recommended. I had to wait over an hour outside in a winding line to get in, despite having a press pass.

Exhibit: Marc Chagall, Between War and Peace
Through: July 21st, 2013
Location: Musee de Luxembourg
Hours: Every day from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m; Late nights until 10 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays
Visit the official website

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