Popularity can be a curse. Once Marc Chagall had made his name as one of the most successful artists of the 20th century, he became sentimental and repetitive.
The art critic Robert Hughes dismissed Chagall’s late work as “cloying ethnic kitsch.”
A show at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris is a welcome opportunity to reassess the legitimacy of his fame.
Wisely, the organizers have limited themselves to the period between 1914, when Chagall had found his own style, and the mid-fifties, when his tendency to plagiarize himself got the better of him.
The sixties are represented only by a few studies for “La Vie,” the enormous canvas he painted for the opening of the Maeght Gallery, his neighbor in St. Paul de Vence.
Chagall (1887-1985) was born in Vitebsk in what is now Belarus. At the time, it belonged to the Pale of Settlement, the area in which the Jews of imperial Russia were allowed to live.
Chagall came from a simple, very pious family. Although he soon left the narrow world of his childhood behind, the shtetl and Orthodox Judaism remained the most important source of his inspiration.
From 1910 to 1914, he lived in Paris and had many friends among the avant-garde. Although it’s easy to detect Cubist, Expressionist and Surrealist influences in his work, he never belonged to any school.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, Chagall was among the many Jews who welcomed them as liberators. He gladly accepted the job of Commissar of Fine Art in the Vitebsk district.
The rivalry with his colleague Kasimir Malevich and the hostility of other faculty members who disliked Chagall’s “bourgeois individualism” drove him out of town.
In 1923, we find him again in France where he stayed for the rest of his life, except for the years of the German Occupation which he survived in New York.
The show presents the 100 or so oil paintings, water colors, drawings and etchings in more or less chronological order, grouping them around the two world wars, each of which disrupted Chagall’s life.
Although the organizers do their best to vary the subjects, Chagall’s obsession with a limited number of leitmotifs is all too obvious.
Brides, rabbis, fiddlers and red animals, preferably flying through the air, pop up again and again.
Perhaps the most surprising among his obsessions is a Christian theme, the Crucifixion. Chagall used it as a symbol for Jewish suffering and the destruction of Vitebsk in World War II.
Several color lithographs in the show illustrate “The Thousand and One Nights.” Although the suggestion originally came from Chagall’s French dealer, Ambroise Vollard, the oriental fairy tales and the artist seemed to be made for each other.
Chagall himself said: “Remember that my painting is not really European. It’s partly oriental.”
Many Parisians haven’t forgiven their government for inviting Chagall to repaint the ceiling of the Opera. For the 500,000 tourists who visit the house every year, it’s the main attraction.
They should complement their visit with this most enjoyable show.
“Chagall, Between War and Peace” runs through July 21. Information: http://www.museeduluxembourg.fr.
Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on U.K. art, Ryan Sutton on New York food, Jeremy Gerard on New York theater and Greg Evans on television.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)