The many masks of modern art
It seemed, in the 1960s, that every home in America had at least one Marc Chagall lithograph or reproduction. And that every serious collector had a least one of his oils or watercolors.Skip to next paragraph
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Collecting Chagall threatened to become a national obsession -- and friends reported that much the same thing was happening in-Europe and Japan. Only Miro among the modern masters had a similar effect on collectors, decorators, or the average homeowner who wanted something both modern and colorful on the walls.
And that wasn't all. Chagall was commissioned to create large public works, including windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center near Jerusalem and for the cathedral at Metz, a ceiling for the Opera in Paris, and murals for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He was, in short, very popular and very much in demand.
The sad thing was that he was already past his prime, and that both the large commissioned works and the paintings and prints with which he was flooding the world art market at that time were only pale versions of the magnificent art he had produced between his arrival in Paris in 1910 and the middle 1950s.
It was not a case of diminished vigor --he is still hard at work today at 93 -- but of a slackening of creative imagination, a lessening of interest in the art of his art, and an increasing dependence upon its surface charms and its subject matter. Unlike Miro, whose paintings and prints have become simpler and more powerful as the years go on, Chagall has seemed more and more content to relax and to produce increasingly pretty and decorative variations of his early masterpieces.
It is, to my mind, one of the sadder tales of 20th-century art, and one that should constitute a warning to every artist -- major or minor -- who reaches a plateau of success in his work.
Chagall was born in the russian town of Vitebsk in 1887 and studied at the Imperial School for the Protection of the Arts until he moved to Paris. Once there he was drawn toward the most advanced movements of the day, took what he could from Fauvism and Cubism, and participated in the Salon des Independantsm and the Salon d'Automnem of 1912. His first one-man show was held in Berlin in 1914.
He returned to Vitebsk during World War I, became commissar of art after the Revolution, and founded and directed and Vitebsk Academy until his resignation from it in 1920. After living for a while in both Moscow and Berlin, Chagall returned to Paris in 1923 and held his first retrospective there in 1924.
His early work was based on three main ingredients: a rich memory of the folklore, ritual, and iconography of his Russian-Jewish background, a passionate love for rich, sumptous color, and a solid compositional sense augmented by a highly personal adaptation of Cubist formal principles. With these three cornerstones, Chagall could take his art anywhere and do almost anything with it. People could float through the air in it or appear upside down, cows could sit comfortably in the sky, fish could sprout wings and fly, lovers could lie in huge bouquets of flowers, Russian villages could exist comfortably on the vertical. All that and much more was possible because it was all done with great verve and flair -- and because it was subjected to strict compositional control. For all its exuberance and fun, Chagall's art at that time was as carefully grounded in geometry as any of the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque.
This is obvious in his "Green Violinist," a later (1923-24) version of a subject Chagall had painted as early as 1912 and again in 1919-20. In this work geometry plays as important a role as subject and color, and very much determines the nature and quality of what we see before us.