Chagall’s Lovers Seduce; Iran’s Art Surprises: Review

A man and a woman are entangled, embedded within a sea of flowers, her nude round breasts like grapefruit. Marc Chagall’s heady, dreamlike bouquet, “Lovers Among the Lilacs,” (1930) is mystical, redolent, erotic.

This painting and other ecstatic works mixing figures and flora, in which animals and angels watch over couples who glow like full moons, greet you inside “Chagall: Love, War and Exile” at The Jewish Museum.

It’s a difficult, Janus-faced show, its subjects alternating between love and war, faith and sorrow. It’s also tremendously uplifting.

Chagall’s long, tumultuous life and artistic mood swings are the theme. Born in Russia, he fled to Paris to escape the hardships following the Revolution. Threatened by the Nazis, he brought his family to New York City, where his wife, Bella, died unexpectedly.

Exhibitions like this can be sunk by weighty biographical anchors. Not here. Chagall is too great an artist to have let the specificity of his life overcome the universal demands of art.

Countering his lovers are crucifixions. Chagall explored the theme of the suffering Christ as a metaphor for war.

These paintings are dark and fractured. Light is cold and harsh, suggesting blood and fire. Forms feel frozen, bludgeoned, roughhewn -- burnished metals and charred stone.

Yet the sense of violence and scorched earth in these works is freed by a quality as translucent as stained glass (a medium in which he also excelled).

Chagall’s pictures revealng the horrors of war, no less than those on the joys of love, are fully grounded in their themes. Never fixed, they are hopeful windows on a mutable world.

Iran Modern

Many shows featuring modern art made outside the U.S. argue that since 1945 everyone everywhere has followed in the influential footsteps of Post-War America.

Like confused and unappetizing cultural fusion, they usually amount to provincial takes on Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Conceptualism.

Surprise Contradictions

“Iran Modern,” at the Asia Society Museum, and the Grey Art Gallery’s “Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection at N.Y.U.” are surprising and scrappy contradictions.

Basically covering the reign of the Shah of Iran, from 1941-79, the combined exhibits present more than 125 works by about 30 Iranian artists who, with varying success, integrated Western influences without abandoning their own cultural heritage.

Standouts include small, lissome bronze figures by Bahman Mohassess. His wrestlers, mythical creatures and acrobats fuse Calder’s “Circus” with ancient forms from the Fertile Crescent.

Equally engaging are works by Parviz Tanavoli, whose jewelry and sculptures are surreal amalgamations of West and Middle East.

Tanavoli shunned Warhol and Lichtenstein, choosing instead to embrace his native culture. His bronze Persian telephones are comically menacing. They merge animals, totems, masks and phalluses. His works look back to African tribal art, Arp and Giacometti.

Some pieces here are understandably derivative -- pastiches of Jackson Pollock, Social Realism and Alex Katz. Overall, however, this show takes a healthy stand against the misconception that Postmodernism is a universal guiding light.

“Chagall: Love, War and Exile” runs through Feb. 2 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-423-3200;

“Iran Modern” runs through Jan. 5 at Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Ave. Information: +1-212-288-6400;

“Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection at N.Y.U.” runs through Dec. 7 at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East. Information: +1-212-998-6780;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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