Art On the wall above my television hangs Marc Chagall’s Paris Through the Window. A couple of years ago, long enough that I don’t remember which year, I began covering my walls with framed images and as their contribution to the effort my parents bought me this present for Christmas because they “knew I liked Paris” and there it’s hung ever since, a welcome glanceable distraction whenever a given film or television programme bores but isn’t quite terrible enough to turn off. In truth, I was never been quite sure if I've liked it. The pastel colours have a slightly deadening effect on the imagery and although I appreciate certain aspects of the it, the abstract Eiffel Tower, the strange cat bird mammal, it didn’t seem to quite cohere for me and still doesn't even after all these years.
Well, Paris Through the Window (1913) is in Tate Liverpool’s summer exhibition, Chagall: Modern Master and standing in front of the real thing, much larger, with its more vibrant technicolor, I realise what I’ve been missing these past few years. The blues, whites and reds of the picture frame evoking the tricolore. The blue man, his face looking back and forth (a notable Chagall motif reflecting his past and future). The parachutist, incoherently lost in the background of my print almost leaping out of the canvas in actuality. It’s a brilliant, brilliant painting, in an exhibition full of brilliant, brilliant paintings and another demonstration to me that no matter how good the reproduction of a piece of art might be, it will never, ever, replace the original and in this case is the difference between watching Empire Strikes Back on VHS and then the big screen.
Except, and this is often the case with divisive artists, it’s not easy to explain exactly why you, or rather I, like Chagall. As one of the attendants suggested to me yesterday during the press view, he's an artist who defies the synopsis, there are a dozen different things happening in many of his paintings all at the same time and he’s an artist who repays the lingerer. The same attendant pointed to an element of one painting I’d entirely missed despite having spent ten minutes looking at it. Like all great art, there’s a breathlessness to being in its company, the gasp moment which also happens when we step into edifistic cathedrals like Liverpool’s own Anglican, or hear the bassoon at the opening of The Rites of Spring or watch the dream world bending in on itself in Inception. Awe! That’s the word. Awe!
Luckily, nothing we’re provided with about Chagall’s biography dims this awe, simply magnifies it. For a start, Chagall was a non-conformist at time when artists were desperately trying to define themselves. Russian born in 1887, by the turn of the century Chagall had begun his studies as a realist painter in Yehuda Pen’s studio in Vitebsk before moving to St Petersberg to the school of the grandly titled Imperial Society for the Encouragement of Fine Art, the Hermitage Museum and other places learning about the works of the great masters. Within five years he'd moved to Paris just as cubisms was getting off the ground. Then, after planning to visit the mother country briefly, found himself trapped there for eight years due to the Great War, during which he became a teacher himself, and he comes in contact with the constructivists.
Chagall, at this exciting nexus point in the history of art, looks at all of these different movements, all of these ideas, and absorbs them into his own style to produce something different. So while it's possible to infer most of these movements in his work and a few others, there’s a Chagall element throughout which makes them all the more exciting. His work become less interesting when he’s trying his hand at pure cubism, as he does in some uncharacteristic sketches of nudes, or constructivism, which are even more half-hearted where he’s clearly just going through the motions and extracting the waters by creating what amounts to glorified doodles. His fellow artists must have noticed because disputes with the core constructivists led to his resignation – from the art college he established.
But the fact that he recognised, utilised but rejected all of these different schools, still means that this exhibition is almost a short history of art. As curator Simonetta Fraquelli explained in her brief explanation before lunch, she chose to focus her exhibition on this particular decade of the artist's life because it is when his style was forming, when his motifs were developing, his thematic concerns and exactly what it is which makes his work recognisably his. His strength and its strength, is that we can look at his work to explain to us what cubism is and much as isn’t. Chagall is still a teacher, even after all these years, even in this early work. He lived through until 1985 incidentally. The shop has limited editions of a book and cd he produced in conjunction with Bill Wyman. Bill Wyman!
All of which is fine, but what about the paintings, why do I like the paintings? Mostly it is the details, the “random” details. Chigall said, “If I create from the heart nearly everything works. If from the head, almost nothing.” Well said. Early in the exhibition we’re confronted with The Holy Family, which apes the structure of a nativity painting, but has the Christ figure in the vicinity of the male figure and depicts him as a fully grown pre-crucifixion naked man which to some extent could be seen as an intellectual exercise but looks as though its thrown together, as though the artist was desperate to get this image onto the canvas. Chagall’s Jewish faith suffuses much of the work, oscillating between devotion and cynicism and this seems to be a mix of the two.
Chagall repeated various iconography across his life. He painted humans and animals in bright green but not always in the same painting. So there’s a small sketch called The Green Donkey which features a green donkey, obviously, but when a goat turns up in his I and the Village, the image which features on Tate’s advertising for the exhibition, it’s painted white and it’s Chigall himsel,f because this is presumably one of his self portraits, who’s bright green, locked in a staring contest with the beast. When he paints the moon it’s almost always with a smiley face lightly sketched in on top. He has a recurring motif of figures on their side – there’s a Jewish couple on Paris Through the Window in this position which I’d entirely failed to notice until it was pointed out to me today (along with the upside down train).
Chagall features himself in the work a lot, floating within or above the scene, painting pallet and brushes in hand. Perhaps we’re supposed to assume that these are his dreams, that he’s almost justifying their surrealism for his audience. In some cases this projects forward to comic artists. I was reminded of those moments in Spider-man strips, when Peter Parker’s internal turmoil would be depicted as the various facets of his life, beating criminals, failing exams, hovering across the shoulders of an extreme close-up of his head, half covered by his superhero mask. Perhaps we could interpret some of these paintings as showing Chagall's pre-occuptions, and by putting himself within their space, he’s taking ownership of them. It’s notable that when he’s addressing more universal concerns, he absents himself.
Typing all of that up makes it sound utterly nuts and it is, but gloriously so and presumably why Chagall’s stock in the history of art has never been quite as unequivocal as those “great masters” he studied himself. But standing before something like the transcendent Lovers in Blue for the first time, in which something almost but not exactly like Yves Klein blue is wrapped around a self portrait of the artist dressed a pierrot and his wife Bella suffused which such devotion, it glows, and it’s impossible to not wonder why? How could you miss this. But then I can’t really understand why Alain Resnais’s difficult Last Year at Marienbad isn’t a popular classic so my priorities are almost as surreal as some of Chagall’s artistic choices, which is me suggesting that I understand why you might not love his work.
Lovers in Blue is glazed so the back wall of the gallery space is reflected onto it if looked at from a particular angle and on that back wall is The Promenade, another portrait of the couple in which Bella is shown blowing in the air from her husband’s hand rather like a kite. It’s a poignant juxtaposition, an inadvertent mixing of the two images. That’s possible because of the decision by the Tate not to partition off the gallery spaces too much. Unlike most majors, the first gallery is entirely open, including the windows looking out onto the rest of the Albert Dock and Mersey creating a conversation with the paintings which themselves often reference window frames and the outside, not least Paris Through the Window. There’s plenty of seating too in this exhibition. People like to know these things.
Plus he’s unafraid to be humorous. Loads of these paintings are funny. Man With His Head Thrown Back shows a man bent backwards in an almost impossible way. Chagall has signed this upside down, so throughout our interaction with the work, we’re wondering if it has been hung upside down. When faced with this, I assumed what can best be described as the Question of Sport picture board position so that I could indeed see the painting in what might just be the right way up, quickly realising that Chagall has produced a painting called Man With His Head Thrown Back which may only properly be seen with our own head thrown back the obvious problem being that in throwing our head back, we’re making a nonsense of the composition because the man is standing on the floor.
The exhibition closes with a little shop (I like a little shop) but before that is a small space that glances forward to Chagall’s long career. It’s a disorientating experience because we’re missing the interstitial tissue, the part of his biography which led from his more romantic approach to creating murals for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre, including Love on the Stage in which the shapes of dance are turned into a kind of faux-cubism, to the stark, monochrome horror of Saltimbanques in the Night. Who are these clowns supposed to be? Even the shots of colour can’t hide the dourness of thing. What else did he paint in 1957 and was it all like this? With his hallucinatory history of the Jewish people in the 20th century across the wall from it, War, it’s a very moving but very downbeat end to the show.
By then, I was a bit overwhelmed anyway. It’s almost too much. When I reached those final works, I knew it was over and I was sad, so sad that as I stood in front of the last of paintings I was seeing for the first time, the beautiful Clock with Blue Wing, I almost wept. Yes, really, because this may be the last time I see it outside of prints and postcards. It’s from a private collection, just as many of the works here are from private collections, or originating in Moscow. Their visit to Liverpool is fleeting. The problem with awesome culture is that there never seems to be enough time, but that’s the final thing I like about Chagall. It’s that he created work that we have to spend time with and in doing so provided the no-so-raw material for an exhibition that I really didn’t want to end.
Chagall: Modern Master at Tate Liverpool: Exhibition runs 8 June – 6 October 2013.
Tickets: Adult £11.00 (without donation £10.00), Concession £8.25 (without donation £7.50). Audio guide available £3.00.