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Marc Chagall at SFMOMA

Bay Area residents have the enviable position of living in close proximity to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the only US venue of the Marc Chagall retrospective. The exhibition features 153 paintings and works on paper created by the artist from 1907 to 1970 and will run through November 4th. It provides a comprehensive and rare look at the unique oeuvres of this Russian-born painter. Chagall had a long artistic career during which he was exposed to various art movements but he maintained an independent stance. 

While in Paris as an art student, Chagall neither aligned himself with the Cubists nor with the Suprematists from Russia. He later declined to join the Surrealist group in 1924 when he returned to France. What is evident in the SF-MOMA retrospective is that while Chagall borrowed from various artistic styles, he created a highly personal and distinctive body of works.

The exhibition is divided into four artistic periods from 1910 to 1983. The Russian years from 1910 -1923 include the four years (1910-14) that Chagall spent in Paris. His paintings during this period reflect the fragmented style of the Cubists like The Acrobat, Jew in Red and Adam and Eve.

Back in Russia, Chagall opened the Vitebsk Academy of Fine Arts but differences with other teaching staff forced him out of the Academy. Outraged by this incident, Chagall and his family moved to Moscow where found employment at the Moscow Jewish Chamber Theater. Among his works there are four panels representing the Allegories of Music Dace, Theater and Literature. These canvases are the embodiment of Jewish folk life and show Chagall's emerging personal style that is rooted in allegorical, religious and cultural themes. A green-faced fiddler standing on a rooftop symbolizes music.

The fiddler is an essential figure in Jewish celebrations and the color green denotes hope and survival. Moreover, a fiddler on the roof signifies the precarious position Jews hold in society. This painting was the inspiration for the musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

The French years (1924-40) include among others, illustrations for the Fables of La Fontaine and the Bible. Chagall, a Hasidic Jew, was criticized for employing Christian iconography in his paintings, but he persisted in doing so to demonstrate the suffering of the Jewish people. White Crucifixion is a poignant reminder of violence against the Jews. Christ is wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl and below the cross is a menorah (a ceremonial, seven-branched candelabrum symbolizing the seven days of Creation. Scenes of Jewish persecution surround Christ, from a village set ablaze by Nazis to fleeing Jews and a burning torah. Through this painting, Chagall conveys to the viewer that Christ is only one of many who has endured persecution and that this persecution of the Jews has become timeless and cyclical.

At the invitation of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall and his family moved to New York in 1941. These American years (1941-47) are marked by his return to the idea of the "artist as a messenger". It was during this period that Chagall's wife, Bella Rosenfeld, died. Chagall said of Bella, "She has been haunting my paintings, the grand central image of my art."

In Autour d'Elle, Chagall's palette is dark and he paints himself with his head upside down, expressing his own topsy-turvy world while Bella weeps quietly in one corner. In the center of the canvas is a crystal ball revealing his hometown of Vitebsk.

After the war, Chagall settled in the south of France where his craft flourished for the next four years. In Lovers in the Red Sky, lovers floating in space are reminiscent of the artist's whimsical pieces such as The Promenade or Introduction to the Jewish Theater. (View Lovers in the Red Sky here: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/64.6/.

Chagall died in 1985 at the age of 97, leaving behind an artistic legacy that defies categorization; rich in color and fantasy and sprinkled with contradictions and symbolism. All these elements blend harmoniously to chronicle Marc Chagall's artistic journey. 

*This article was written and published in the Manila Bulletin USA in September 2003 and reposted here from my old website.


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