Curator’s Choice: Stephanie Straine chooses a Marc Chagall self-portrait at Tate Liverpool

| 21 September 2013

Curator’s Choice: Stephanie Straine, Assistant Curator at Tate Liverpool, on a self-portrait by Marc Chagall...

A photo of a female curator standing next to a framed painting on a wall while smiling
© Tate Liverpool
“Marc Chagall’s Anywhere out of the World [1915–19, The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma] is one of several self-portraits included in our summer exhibition.

My favourite thing about this painting is something that barely shows up in reproduction: the amazing textural quality of oil paint that Chagall achieves for the luminous white and pale blue background, using what appears to be a comb to create deep, wavy furrows, scattered in haphazard directions.

These undulating patterns lend a real weightiness to the cloudy sky, also hinting at the turbulence of the time: buffeted by the social and political pressures of Russia in this moment of great upheaval, Chagall’s tense self-portrait is filled with allusions to what remains outside its frame.

The artist’s head is sliced in two on a clean horizontal between nose and mouth, the top half of his face taking flight across the sky. The violence implied by this bodily mutilation lends a disturbing undercurrent to the whimsy and formal innovation of the scene.

This enigmatic and idiosyncratic work was painted in Russia across a period spanning from World War I through the October Revolution and beyond.

Chagall had returned to Russia in the summer of 1914, just before the outbreak of war, after spending three formative years in Paris where he absorbed the influences of Cubism and Orphism.

He remained in Russia for eight long years, moving between his hometown of Vitebsk – now in Belarus – St Petersburg and Moscow, before finally being able to return to Europe with his family in 1922.

The question of orientation is always vital to Chagall’s compositions, and this painting is a particularly strong example of his dynamic, and in fact near-dissonant, approach to pictorial space.

A townscape of Vitebsk runs vertically up the left edge of the painting, at an entirely different scale to Chagall’s own figure.

The tightly-packed buildings are painted in sombre tones of brown, black and umber, mirroring the Cubist shards of the artist’s suit.

In Tate Liverpool’s exhibition, paintings like Anywhere out of the World demonstrate how Chagall’s engagement with the avant-garde at the beginnings of abstraction served to strengthen his own unique figurative language. It is grounded in memory, history and emotion.”

  • Chagall: Modern Master is at Tate Liverpool until October 6 2013. Read our review.

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