The many masks of modern art

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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.

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.

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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.

But it's geometry which playfully calls attention to itself rather than modestly sinking out of sight to serve as the painting's invisible scaffolding. For this is an art which puts as much emphasis upon its geometric skeleton as upon its subject matter. And which makes as much fuss over the near-abstract patterning and shape of the violinist's coat as it does over his humanity and character.

This is an art which plays both ends against the middle, and which carries it off with great aplomb, wit, and style. It's a highwire act in which the rich, deep sentiment of Chagall's Jewish heritage is played off against the crisp, pragmatic formalism of 20th century, post-cezanne art. And in which both, as a result, are given new dimensions of meaning.

Chagall, through his art, humanized Fauvism and Cubism, and brought some of the rich Jewish folklore of his Russian background to the attention of the world at large. And he did this with such joy and great good humor that his art, which at times touched greatness, always remained human and accessible.

Small wonder, then, that he should prove so popular, and that his paintings and prints should be known and loved throughout the world.

But there was trouble in paradise, and it took the form of a too easy facility, and Chagall's apparent belief in the myth of his own creative infallibilty. In the course of producing the increasingly vast numbers of paintings and prints his collectors began to demand in the 1950s, Chagall began to grow careless and casual in his approach to his work. But who was to tell at first, for his pictures were so full of fun and life, so colorful and warm, that this carelessness was generally perceived as one more bit of evidence that he was one of the few major contemporary artists who put human and sentimental values before formal ones. And that his repetition of subjects and forms, his increasingly sketchy technique, were proof of his genius rathern than an indication of painterly flaccidity and artistic evasion.

Whereas the power and effectiveness of his earlier work had resulted from his extraordinary ability to fuse exotic subject matter, sumptuous color, and strict compositional control into powerful and even, at times, magnificent works of art , these later works, increasingly dependent upon tried-and-proven Chagall images , a few scratchy lines, and a dozen or so areas of bright colors, ended up as little more than pretty and rather spry decorative works.

This is especially true of his color lithographs, which have become such a staple of the contemporary fine print market. Bright, colorful, open, and very expensive, these prints can be found wherever original prints are sold. Although they no longer have quite the status which the prints of Johns, Dine, Warhol, rauschenberg, for example, now enjoy, they still hold their own among vast numbers of serious collectors around the world, and are as much in demand as ever.

I'm not by any means trying to say that Chagall is not a very major 20 th-century artist, only that overproduction and carelessness have recently caused him to water down his art to the point where his later works are barely half as good as those done during the first 40 or so years of his career. He brings into sharp relief the fact that we must not allow our overall affection for an artist to becloud our critical judgment of his work. We do not honor an artist if we support him in his weaknesses and evasions --we honor him only if he is stirred to do his best.

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