The crowded canvas of Marc Chagall’s 1913 painting, Paris Through the Window, is replete with astonishing images. A sphinx-like cat shares the “City of Light” with an upside-down train and a daring sky-diver floating to the earth from the Eiffel tower on a primitive parachute. Look closely at the Janus-faced figure in the foreground and you will see a detail that is easy to miss. There is a small golden heart, held in the palm of the hand of this enigmatic man.
Chagall dismissed attempts at drawing comparisons between the imagery on his canvases and events in the contemporary world. Though there was a successful parachute descent from the Eiffel Tower in 1912, Chagall’s vision was essentially poetic, rather than literalist. But there is hardly a more evocative symbol of the lives of Chagall and his compatriots in Paris just before World War I than this man with his heart in his hands.
Chagall’s signature painting lends its title to an exhibition now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle surveys the vibrant paintings, sculptures and prints created by Chagall and fellow artists such as Alexander Archipenko, Jacques Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, Chana Orloff, Jules Pascin and Chaim Soutine, who lived and worked in Montparnasse during the last golden years before the apocalypse of 1914.
The Chagall exhibit, like the Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris exhibition which the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted in the spring of 2010, is noteworthy on several counts. In the current economic climate and tense political situation, few international exhibits are being presented. The vast Matisse/Picasso exhibition, staged by MoMA in 2003, seems like a distant era. But the Picasso and Chagall exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, drawn largely from the museum’s own collection, demonstrates what intelligent curators are able to do. Less can be more, though it should be acknowledged that Chagall’s Paris Through the Window is on loan from the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Both of these exhibitions also stress the inter-related nature of art during the revolutionary decades of the early twentieth century. Chagall and his compatriots in the Bohemian hang-out of La Ruche, the “Beehive,” may not have worked “like two mountaineers roped together,” as did the Cubist duo, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. France was still recovering from the Dreyfus Affair, when Marc Chagall first arrived in Paris in 1910. Anti-Semitic feeling in conservative circles of the French government and military had sent a patriotic French officer of Jewish birth, Alfred Dreyfus, to a hellish prison sentence on Devil’s Island, before he was exonerated in 1906. Yet, the artists of La Ruche were overwhelmingly Jews.
Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal in 1887. Chagall grew to adulthood in the province of Belorussia near the city of Vitebsk. Much of the Jewish population of the Tsarist Empire was located in outlying regions like Belorussia and the Ukraine. That made them easy targets for a horrifying cycle of violence that climaxed in the deadly pogrom in the city of Odessa in 1905. The concentration of Russia’s Jews in these provinces, however, created a distinctive way of life. Rich in religious faith and deep-seated cultural traditions, Jewish life in Eastern Europe was noted for an earthy, ironic humor, quick-thinking adaptability and resolution in the face of adversity. Each of these elements of Jewish culture would influence the work of Chagall and his circle.
In the Russian Empire, Jews were almost entirely excluded from elite cultural life and higher education. One of Russia’s greatest artists of the 19th century had been the Impressionist painter Isaac Levitan, a rabbi’s son from Lithuania. But Levitan was already an established artist by the time that anti-Jewish measures were intensified by the Tsarist regime following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. For Chagall, Lipchitz, Soutine and others of a younger generation than Levitan, successful careers in the arts meant leaving Russia for a place where outcasts and outsiders could thrive.
That place was Montparnasse, the artists’ haven on the left bank of the Seine. The sense of liberation that Paris offered was tempered by the struggle to survive. Of life in “The Beehive,” the three-story building where he and many of his compatriots lived and worked, Chagall later quipped, “In La Ruche, you either came out dead or famous.”
Fortunately for Chagall, the revolution of Modern Art was already well-advanced when he arrived in Paris. A full menu of artistic “isms” was there to select from – fauvism, cubism, expressionism – with a sympathetic mentor to assist him. This was the French painter, Robert Delaunay. Married to a Russian artist, Sonia Terk, who later became an influential fashion designer during the 1920’s, Delaunay experimented with a new form of Cubism that integrated color and content with the dissolving forms pioneered by Picasso and Braque. Delaunay’s Orphic Cubism is on view in his 1909 painting Eiffel Tower. The Parisian landmark, curiously, is viewed through a screen of tropical foliage. This odd choice of pictorial elements pointed the way to Chagall as he sought to create his own personal statement in art. Poetic vision and the language of color, powerfully expressed by Delaunay in his evocations of the Eiffel Tower, would take pride of place in Chagall’s lyrical evocation of life and love.
In Half-Past Three (The Poet), Chagall showed how readily he had embraced Delaunay’s rich color palette and willingness to impart narrative elements to a cubist work. Just what the blue-clad poet with upturned head is doing is of course open to a variety of interpretations. The abundant range of suggestive details for the viewer to assess became signature elements of Chagall’s oeuvre. The poet, writing in the Cyrillic alphabet of Chagall’s native Russia, is surrounded by the temptations and stimulants of modern society. Wine, coffee, an impish cat – these are all elements of daily experience at the cafes of Montparnasse. But do they have a deeper or symbolical importance? What is the significance of the heart-shaped cavity in the poet’s abdomen? What does the angle of the poet’s inverted head portend – inspiration or bewilderment?
These are questions that, perhaps, only a poet can answer. It is significant that two of Chagall’s closest comrades during the pre-1914 years were the modernist poets, Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, both of whom wrote in an allusive style leaving much to the imagination of the reader, exactly as Chagall’s paintings did for the viewer. It was Cendrars who supplied the title for Chagall’s Paris Through the Window.
Chagall and other Eastern European artists were indebted to the Italian-born Amedeo Modigliani, who was the first prominent Jewish artist to make a mark in avant-garde Paris. Modigliani first came to Paris in 1906, sketching and painting in an experimental mode, as he endeavored to create a personal style all his own. He succeeded with African-inspired sculpture, partly through the influence of Constantin Brancusi. Although Modigliani’s chronic ill-health forced him to abandon sculpture, resonances of his work in this medium can be seen in Portrait of a Polish Woman.
Despite his self-destructive personal habits, Modigliani was a generous friend and positive influence for the Eastern European artists, especially Chaim Soutine, when he arrived in Paris from Lithuania in 1913. Modigliani also set a tone for secular-themed art, which most of the Eastern European artists, Soutine, Jules Pascin and others embraced. Pascin, born Julius Mordecai Pincas in Bulgaria, followed in the bohemian footsteps of his friend, Modigliani, eventually winning notoriety as the “Prince of Montparnasse.” The brilliant painting, Portrait of Madame Pascin (Hermine David), dating to 1915-16, however shows Pascin’s exceptional gifts as an artist and willingness to probe the human psyche – when he chose to. Lost in reverie, her thin hand clasped before her blank eyes and brooding, face, Madame Pascin, is a memorable evocation of the inner mysteries of humankind.
Portrait of Madame Pascin, like Soutine’s portrait Woman in Red, demonstrates how thoroughly most Eastern European artists assimilated to the prevailing standards of life and art in France.
Chagall was a major exception to the ready embrace of western modes of art and thought by artists from Eastern Europe. However much he might borrow a stylistic element from Cubism or Orphism, Chagall maintained a spiritual element in his art that was in keeping with his Jewish and Russian heritage.
Russian culture was beginning to have a reciprocal impact on Western Europe, as can be seen in the costume designs by Leon Bakst for the 1911 ballet, Le Dieu Bleu, presented by the Ballets Russes. Bakst, the artistic director for the company, designed sets and costumes based in the folkloric traditions of Russia. Born Lev Rosenberg in Grodno, Belorussia, in 1866, Bakst was a major influence upon Chagall. He taught Chagall at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting in St. Petersburg before they both sought their fortunes in France. A powerful role model, Bakst demonstrated that an artist could succeed in the West, while remaining rooted in the culture and traditions of the East.
In 1914, Chagall returned to Vitebsk to visit his fiancé, Bella Rosenfeld. The outbreak of war cut him off from returning to France. The exhibition documents this period with paintings of war casualties and civilians in the city of Smolensk anxiously reading newspaper accounts of the fighting.
But 1915 brought personal happiness, even as Russia lurched from defeat to disaster. Chagall married Bella Rosenfeld, beginning a life of shared joy and trial that was to be cut short in 1944 by Bella’s death in the United States, where they had gone to escape the Nazis. Chagall began a series of paintings recalling his marriage with Bella that he was to continue until shortly before she died. One of the last of these, In the Night, painted in 1943, shows the embracing couple as if time had stopped and they were united in an eternal moment of happiness.
That indeed was Chagall’s point of view and he transferred much of this reverential sentiment to works such as Purim, painted in 1916 as a study for a never-executed mural. He painted the world that he had known as a child to preserve some memory of it from annihilation. Indeed, Chagall’s Jewish heritage was under assault almost from the time of his birth. Tsarist pogroms and the devastation of World War I’s Eastern Front, which was largely fought in the Jewish-populated provinces of Russia and Poland, were followed in due course by the Nazi Holocaust. By the time Chagall painted In the Night in 1943, Vitebsk was a charred ruin and most of its Jewish population murdered by the S.S. or sent to their deaths as part of Hitler’s Final Solution.
The grim reality behind these vibrant paintings needs to be emphasized because Chagall’s later work, after the avant-garde Paris years, is often dismissed for failing to evolve or respond to the changed circumstances of the 1930’s and 40’s. It was, of course, Picasso who painted Guernica as a rebuke to Nazi atrocities, not Chagall. And it was Felix Nussbaum, killed in Auschwitz, who painted some of the most searing depictions of concentration camps, during a brief interlude of freedom before he was captured and sent to his death.
Yet, such comparisons are manifestly unfair to Chagall. His evocations of the lost world of the Jews of Eastern Europe were an affirmation of human life in the face of scientific barbarism. The Nazis certainly regarded Chagall’s paintings as a threat. Purim was confiscated in 1937 from the collection of Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany. Chagall’s 1923 painting The Watering Trough was likewise seized and included in the notorious “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition staged by the Nazis in 1937. Fortunately, these two works, so evocative of Jewish life and humor, were spared destruction when the government of the Third Reich decided to offer some of the “Degenerate Art” for sale or exchange in the international art market.
Chagall’s refusal to follow the secular path of other artists in the La Ruche circle thus takes on an added significance. Religion always figured in his art. From early works like Resurrection of Lazarus, painted in 1910, which invests a miracle performed by Jesus with a manifestly Jewish aura, to the stained glass windows he designed in 1960 for the synagogue of the Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, Chagall aimed to invest human life with a touch of divinity.
That is one possible explanation, at least, for the golden heart, held in the palm of the hand of the Janus-faced man in Paris Through the Window. Chagall always had part of his vision field fixed beyond the here and the now. This enabled him – and us – to see a lot further than the Eiffel Tower when he looked out upon the City of Light.
Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building (March 1 – July 10, 2011)