For those used to seeing Marc Chagall's work on a grand scale - sweeping down either side of Lincoln Center's grand staircase in New York or across the ceiling of the Paris Opera - the quiet intimacy of a new exhibit of his early paintings comes as a surprise and a delight.
The Paris Museum of Modern Art has collected some 70 Chagall works, including paintings, photographs, sketches, and notebooks. Many are from private collections in Europe, Japan, and the United States and have never been seen in public. The works span the years 1907 to 1922, taking the artist from the outskirts of the Byelorussian town of Vitebsk in his native Russia, to St. Petersburg, and then on to Paris, a world capital churning with cultural ideas.
For novelist Ernest Hemingway, living in Paris at the end of this period, the vibrant French city was a place where even a poor man could live well and work. "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast," he wrote to a friend.
So it proved for the young provincial who, in photographs of his Paris years, always seems to be strangling in his starched collar and tie. When Moyshe Segal arrived in Paris in 1910, he adopted a French version of his name, Marc Chagall. He painted at night, on used canvases, fabric, even on his own clothing. During the day, he paced the city's museums, galleries, studios, salons, and cafes to learn all he could of color, composition, and light.
He used what he saw: the new colors of Fauvism, the geometry of the Cubists, the sense of light and composition of the Impressionists. But he never joined any one of the artistic "movements" of his day, and he never abandoned the images and the cultural roots of his Russian youth. In 1914, he returned to Vitebsk for a three-month visit, and ended up staying through World War I and the Russian Revolution, and a brief but intense Jewish cultural revival.
This exhibit of Chagall's work is anchored in a sense of place. The first group of paintings, completed during his year of study in St. Petersburg, echo the artist's first exposure to French Impressionists such as Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh. As a viewer walks around the corner to the first of the Paris paintings, the palette brightens. Here, the deep reds, greens, blues, and yellows that define Chagall's later, grander works take hold.
The depth and wonder of these colors doesn't reproduce well. On their own terms, painted even on a plank of wood, these colors would dazzle. When applied to laughing cows, leaping goats, floating women, or fiddlers on roofs, they create a world of whimsy and imagination that is accessible even to the small children who braved a Paris Sunday-afternoon crowd holding tightly onto their parents' hands.
The range of discussion around these paintings testifies to how broadly they touch thought. For some, discussion turns on color and composition; for others, explication of a symbol or saying. (The self-portrait of the artist with seven fingers is a play on a Yiddish term for a fast worker.) For one French toddler, tugging urgently on his mother's arm, the key issue was whether the lady floating in the air was going to fall. ("Perhaps," his mother said.)
The masterwork of this collection is a set of seven panels painted for what was to be a new Jewish theater in Moscow, a room large enough to seat 90 spectators. Chagall originally painted nine panels, two of which, along with a painting on the ceiling and the stage curtain, have disappeared.
These panels incorporated modern techniques and Yiddish idioms, and were designed to give an introduction to a new conception of Jewish theater. They were badly received by the nation's Bolshevik rulers, who quickly clamped down on the new liberties they had allowed to Jews. Chagall left Russia for the West; this time for good.
"These panels are among the strongest works of this century," says Daniel Marchesseau, who organized the Paris exhibition. "They are as powerful and important as [Picasso's] 'Guernica.' The only reason this has not been understood before is that they were lost and were not seen from 1920 to '91.
"Chagall was a Jewish politically engaged young Russian," he adds. "He lived through the Russian Revolution and a fantastic Jewish cultural renaissance. Chagall felt that these panels were a major achievement. These grandiose, iconic figures represent his own interpretation of what life is: Life is love."
Even for those who do not follow the detailed explanation of the panels provided, a sense of the joy of creating art - be it music, theater, poetry, or painting - is clearly evident here.
Family portraits, sketchbooks, letters, a glimpse of life inside the wooden houses and synagogues of Vitebsk, shown in the last room of this exhibition, seem familiar. The joyful bridegroom, the beautiful fiance, the uncle who plays the violin, the actor with eyes that burn, all these are faces from earlier paintings and, one senses, even friends.
* "Marc Chagall: The Russian Years, 1907-1922" is at the Paris Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 17.