Who deserves to sit alongside Chagall?

by C.B. Liddell

There are many ways to view the lush, colorful, dreamlike and apparently naive art of Marc Chagall, one of the undoubted greats of 20th-century painting. “Marc Chagall and the Russian Avant-garde, from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou” at The University Art Museum, Tokyo University of Arts, makes a brave attempt to set him within the context of his times, something that doesn’t quite work with a painter who, more than most, unquestionably followed his own secret muse.

The exhibition, which is certainly impressive to look at, presents several other Russian avant-garde artists from the time: Natalia Goncharova, a primitivist who later turned to cubo- futurism; Mikhail Larionov, the originator of the seldom-appreciated Rayonist movement; and the abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky, who, as the paintings here display, was also a fairly good figurative artist. There are also a few excellent cubist-inspired sculptural works by the likes of Alexander Archipenko, Jacques Lipchitz and Ossip Zadkine, and an odd selection of what look like futuristic architecture models by that incurable avant-gardist Kasimir Malevich.

These are all people with whom Chagall was associated in various ways or who at least breathed the same early-20th-century air of revolutionary foment. But this aside, there is very little in common in artistic terms. Chagall’s precursors were French symbolists such as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, while his closest artistic fellow travelers include the likes of Georges Rouault, Raoul Dufy and Paul Klee, painters who shared his artistic lyricism and love of color.

The artist with the best claim to sit alongside Chagall at this exhibition is Goncharova. Like Chagall, who continued to draw inspiration from his working-class Jewish background throughout his career, Goncharova’s early primitivist works, such as “Les porteuses” (“The Porters,” 1911), reflect themes of Russian daily life. But the big difference is that Goncharova’s paintings of peasants lack emotion. Painted in hot, lurid colors with brash compositions, we get the sense that the painter is just striving for an effect.

Because of the evident mismatch between Chagall’s paintings and the other painters on display, the best way to read this exhibition is as a contrast between Chagall’s introspective emotionalism and the outward-looking avant-gardism represented by the other artists.

Avant-gardism’s competitive group dynamics often led artists to lose touch with their inner muse and their public, and to focus instead on trying to outdo each other. An analogy can even be drawn with the sect-driven nature of revolutionary politics in this period, where the interests of the common people clearly came second to the ideological innovations, bickering and maneuvering engaged in by Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Anarchists, Trotskyists and Stalinists.

The exhibition unwittingly makes this point with its structure: sections one and two include Chagall’s “Le pere” (“The Father,” 1911) and “A la Russie, aux anes et aux autres” (“To Russia, Asses and Others,” 1911). Evocative, emotional and visionary (in a non political sense), these paintings are both fine examples of the style that Chagall developed as a young homesick painter in Paris, who was clearly listening to his own muse.

Section three of the exhibition, however, shows a different side. Titled “The Return to Russia,” it shadows the period from 1914 to 1922, when Chagall returned home to marry his sweetheart, Bella, only to be trapped by the outbreak of World War I and caught up in the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. As an unwitting member of the avant-garde, Chagall was automatically seen as part of the new postrevolutionary cultural elite and he was offered the position of commissar of visual arts for the country, which he managed to refuse.

It was at this time that Chagall came into contact with most of the other artists in this exhibition, and the effect on his art does not appear to have been salutary. The examples on display show his work losing its flexibility and sense of emotional freedom. In “Paysage cubiste” (“Cubist Landscape,” 1918-19) he even reverts to an arid and derivative cubist style.

It was only after he returned to Paris that his art started to flourish again, following the lines laid down during his first stay. One of the best works in the exhibition is “L’apparition de la familie de l’artiste” (“The Apparition of the Artist’s Family,” 1935). Driven by a deep nostalgia, mixed with love for Bella and perhaps a little guilt about abandoning his roots, he developed his trademark style, a Surrealist but sentimental amalgam of iconography from Russia and Paris wrapped together in warm, dreamlike colors.

N.B. The English titles in this article are not official translations. “Marc Chagall et l’avant-garde russe dans les collections du Centre Pompidou” (“Marc Chagall and the Russian Avant-garde, from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou”) at The University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts, runs till Oct. 11; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-5 pm Tue.-Sun. (till 8 p.m. on Fri. from Aug. 1-31), closed Mon. and Aug. 21. For more information, visit www.geidai.ac.jp/museum/ exhibit/current_exhibitions_en.htm