Chagall: Modern Master at Tate Liverpool

By Emily Beeson | 12 June 2013

Exhibition review: Chagall: Modern Master, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, until October 6 2013

A photograph of Dame Vivienne Westwood
Marc Chagall, The Green Donkey (1911). Gauache on board© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Focusing on his early career, this exhibition, the first to showcase Marc Chagall's work in the UK in 15 years, offers a bewitching mix of styles, movements and themes.

From his beginnings as a young, impassioned painter to his status as one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century, it reveals the personal experiences and cultural events which defined and influenced the Russian born artist.

Chagall strove to recreate reality, interpreting the world through allegory and iconography. This selection of his earlier paintings fuses spirituality and magic with the angular forms of cubist representation. Along the way, he transforms the socio-political landscape of 20th century Russia and western Europe into a visual fairytale.

A kind of pilgrimage through folk art rich with symbols of his Jewish heritage and experience, the diverse array of early works seem to meld fauvism with elements of German expressionism.

Raw swathes of colour, generate circus-esque jollity amidst scenes of Gothic hyperbole, such as those in The Grey House, from 1917.

an abstract picture of a herlequin style acrobat
Marc Chagall, The Acrobat (1914)© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Chagall developed a vivid visual language, consistently avoiding becoming part of a single movement. This transgression of styles marked him out as a unique artist. Through his work he claimed to be searching for "logic in the illogical", exploring the inner and outer worlds of human experience.

The windows of the exhibition space offer glimpses of Liverpool's riverside, mirroring the windows and vistas featured in Chagall’s early paintings. It's an effective and active dialogue between the painterly dreamscapes of the past and the creative environments of the present.

References to Yiddish idioms occupy space between images of nudes and the Eiffel Tower, illustrating the artist's embrace of both the niche, self-conscious Parisian culture he experienced and his rural upbringing in Vitebsk.

Despite this eclecticism, Chagall was a headstrong individualist. He avoided excessive fraternising with other artists, preferring to focus on developing his own craft.

He was, however, appointed Arts Commissar in 1918 by Russia's Bolshevik leader Lenin, a position which enabled him to act upon his passion for theatre, designing costumes and sets for TEREVSAT, the Vibebsk Theatre of Revolutionary Satire.

Throughout these years, Chagall produced a series of atypical collage pieces in response to the constructivist collages of Vavara Stepanova and Aleksandr Rodchenko.

They may illuminate his dedication to developing parallels with his contemporaries. But in 1920 he left for Moscow, never returning to his position as Commissar.

The works he produced while in Moscow for the Jewish Chamber Theatre, a series of vast murals, depict a series of pale, inauspicious dreamscapes.

These large-scale paintings personify the music of the theatre, depicting the peasant fiddler and Torah scribe as the muse, documenting their transportation through tumultuous throngs of animal life to a higher, joyful realm.

Chagall expressed an urge to protect the Jewish community by preserving them in his paintings. His marriage of spiritual themes and icons provided him with the raw material in which to develop a poignant and emblematic duality. This was heightened by his use of lighter Parisian-influenced hues that were offset by the starkness of rural Russian landscape.

This duality also connected each work to the next and introduced universal experiences of culture, love and war. "I have always painted pictures," said the artist, "where human love floods my colours."

Chagall provided an alternative narrative to the exodus and death that stalked the Jewish experience of the 20th Century. His is a dreamlike hope for humanity, expressed on a wave of limitless imagination and emotion.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission £7.50-£11. Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @tateliverpool and use the hashtag #Chagall.

More Pictures:

A painting of a man in the snow
Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk (1922). Oil on canvas© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Marc Chagall, Paris Through the Window (1913). Oil on canvas© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Marc Chagall, Homage to Gogol (1917). Gouache, watercolour and graphite on paper© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
A painting of Chagall and his wife
Marc Chagall, The Promenade (1917-18). Oil on canvas© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Visit Emily Beeson's blog and follow her on Twitter.
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