The Jewish State Chamber Theatre opened in Moscow five years into the Russian revolution. Its walls and ceiling were covered in huge paintings by Marc Chagall, who also designed many of its sets.
Exuberant figures from Jewish tradition and village life—the fiddler, a dancer, a wedding comedian—cavort across the geometric lines and curves associated with the art of the revolution.
Now they have been brought back together as the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the Tate Liverpool.
It focuses on the young Chagall’s artistic development from 1911 to 1922.
Chagall had lived in Paris, but returned to the Russian empire in 1914 and was trapped by the outbreak of the First World War.
Paris was a crucible for artistic experimentation—such as the bright colours of Fauvism, an interest in African art, and of course Picasso’s Cubism.
Chagall mixed these new techniques with Jewish folklore, for instance in his Fiddler on the Roof
He also repeatedly painted his home village in Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus (see picture).
Returning there Chagall painted the Jewish refugees he saw fleeing the war. Tragically he said this was to “keep them safe by putting them all in my canvasses”.
The revolution in 1917 unleashed a new wave of artistic innovation.
Chagall was made Art Commissar of Vitebsk and set up a new People’s Art College.
He also launched an agitational theatre company, and designed surreal sets and costumes for its productions.
But Chagall was never comfortable with the dizzying race to abstraction in art from the new Constructivist and Supremacist movements and eventually left for the West.
But he continued to paint the revolution and Lenin in sympathetic light even decades later.
The Tate exhibition aims to introduce Chagall to a new audience, and fight for his place as a “modern master”.
Chagall has divided critics. Some praise him as a “Jewish Picasso”.
Picasso said that “when Matisse dies Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is”.
But Chagall is sometimes seen as not being a pioneer. For instance, The Daily Telegraph asked “Did he really contribute anything of significance to the history of 20th-century art?”
This sells short the frenetic cubist portrait of Chagall’s musical brother David, or the nightmarish pre-surrealism of Mirror.
Total abstraction was as alien to Chagall as total realism.
Everything he created was driven by characters with real personalities.
Out of this he created a unique combination of strangeness and storytelling. And that alone is worth the trip.
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