Marc Chagall: Witness of war

Reviewed on 02/26/2013 | No Reviews

Photo: © Marc Chagall, AFP, © ADAGP, Paris 2013 / CHAGALL ® © Centre Pompidou, MAP

The universe of Marc Chagall is special and unmistakable: a world of fairy-tail populated by flying brides, cows, and goats in colourful skies. Since last week, the Musée de Luxembourg in Paris is showing another Chagall: “Between war and peace” is the title of the exhibition that tries to focus on Chagall as a witness of the tragedies of the 20th century.

Chagall, a witness of war and prosecution? Yes, says Julia Garimorth-Foray, curator of the exhibition. Simply because he witnessed the whole century.

Barbaric times

Chagall was born 1887 in Vitebsk, a city formerly part of the Russian Empire, and he lived through a revolution, two world wars and a period of exile before dying in France at the age of 97. In other words: He witnessed the barbaric acts of his time “and reacted in an engaged way”, says Garimorth-Foray.

Homme-coq au-dessus de VitebskMarc Chagall, 1925, private collection, © ADAGP, Paris 2013 / CHAGALL ® © collection privéechagall

The exhibitions starts with the outbreak of World War I. Visitors will indeed discover a lot of drawings showing wounded soldiers, Jews chassed from their villages. Chagall seemed to have a premonition of the disappearance of the Jewish world of his childhood: the fairy atmosphere of his paintings shows a world on the eve of destruction.

Bella, the love of his life

In 1922, Chagall leaves Russia and his wife, Bella, became omnipresent in his work:  ”Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me.” Together they have to leave France to flee prosecution and Nazism.

Is the approach convincing? To be honest: not really. Chagall stays the painter of early modernism. His work is a very individual blend of avant-garde movements and it is, of course, work unthinkable without its context. But his universe is too fantastic, too surreal to be simply taken as a witness of war and peace. It’s more complex.

Escaping his time

When Nazism was growing, Chagall worked obsessively on the Bible. The end of World War II fell together with Bella’s sudden death. And as news poured in through 1945 of the ongoing Holocaust at concentration camps, Bella became, in his paintings, omnipresent and somehow the symbol of the millions of other Jewish victims. In other words: Yes, his time influenced his work, but with his work Chagall tried to escape his time.

“Chagall, between war and peace” – UNTIL 21ST OF JULY 2013
Musée du Luxembourg
19 Rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris
01 40 13 62 00
Metro: Saint Sulpice   or Mabillon  
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