Spotlight on Marc Chagall
The text below is the excerpt from the book Marc Chagall, written by Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.
Through one of those curious reversals of fate, one more exile has regained his native land. Since the exhibition of his work at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow in 1987 and which gave rise to an extraordinary popular fervour, Marc Chagall has experienced a second birth. Here we have a painter, perhaps the most unusual painter of the twentieth century, who at last, attained the object of his inner quest: the love of his Russia. Thus, the hope expressed in the last lines of My Life, the autobiographical narrative which the painter broke off in 1922 when he left for the West – “and perhaps Europe will love me and, along with her, my Russia” – has been fulfilled. A confirmation of this is provided today by the retrospective tendency in his homeland which, beyond the all-in-all natural re-absorption of the artist into the national culture, also testifies to a genuine interest, an attempt at analysis, an original viewpoint which enriches our study of Chagall. Contrary to what one might think, this study is still dogged by uncertainties in terms of historical fact.
As early as 1961 in what is still the main work of reference, Franz Meyer emphasised the point that even the establishment of, for example, a chronology of the artist’s works, is problematic. In fact, Chagall refused to date his paintings or dated them a posteriori. A good number of his paintings are therefore dated only approximately and to this, we must add the problems caused to Western analysts by the absence of comparative sources and, very often, by a poor knowledge of the Russian language. Therefore, we can only welcome such recent works as that of Jean-Claude Marcadé who, following the pioneers Camilla Gray and Valentina Vassutinsky-Marcadé, has underlined the importance of the original source – Russian culture – for Chagall’s work. One must rejoice even more in the publications of contemporary art historians such as Alexander Kamensky and Mikhail Guerman with whom we now have the honour and pleasure of collaborating. Yet, Marc Chagall has inspired a prolific amount of literature. The great names of our time have written about his work: from the first serious essay by Efros and Tugendhold, The Art of Marc Chagall, published in Moscow in 1918 when Chagall was only 31, to Susan Compton’s erudite and scrupulous catalogue, Chagall, which appeared in 1985, the year of the artist’s death. On the occasion of the exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, there has been no lack of critical studies, but all this does not make easy our perception of Chagall’s art.
The interpretation of his works – now linking him with the Ecole de Paris, now with the Expressionist movement, now with Surrealism – seems to be full of contradictions. Does Chagall totally defy historical or aesthetic analysis? In the absence of reliable documents – some of which were clearly lost as a result of his travels, there is a danger that any analysis may become sterile. This peculiarity by which the painter’s art seems to resist any attempt at theorization or even categorization is moreover reinforced by a complementary observation. The greatest inspiration, the most perceptive intuitions are nourished by the words of poets or philosophers. Words such as those of Cendrars, Apollinaire, Aragon, Malraux, Maritain or Bachelard… Words which clearly indicate the difficulties inherent in all attempts at critical discourse, as Aragon himself underlined in 1945:
“Each means of expression has its limits, its virtues, its inadequacies. Nothing is more arbitrary than to try to substitute the written word for drawing, for painting. That is called Art Criticism, and I cannot in good conscience be guilty of that.”
Words which reveal the fundamentally poetic nature of Chagall’s art itself…
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