Chagall in Front of the Mirror
The Chagall National Museum in Nice celebrates its 40th Anniversary with an exhibition of Chagall’s prolific self-portraits called: “Chagall in Front of the Mirror” – on View from June 6th through October 7th 2013.
The Chagall Museum in Nice turns forty this year, and as a fitting tribute to the artist to which it is dedicated, 100-plus paintings and drawings have been assembled to serve as an exploration into the struggles – both artistic and personal – that faced this complex Modern master.
A Russian-born Jew, who moved to Paris and worked in Bohemian circles Chagall was also an early pioneer of Modernism. The artist was constantly refining both his distinctive artistic style whilst grappling with his personal identity.
The famous art critic Robert Hughes once called Chagall, “the quintessentially Jewish painter” – and one can only wonder at how the artist perceived himself and whether or not he wished to be pigeon-holed in this way.
Born in Belarus, Russia, Chagall was a painter, printmaker and designer associated with several major artistic styles of the 20th century. Synthesizing elements of Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism, his poetic, lyrical style eventually came together in a prolific output of paintings, stained glass windows and large-scale murals that are undeniably his and his alone.
Chagall was raised in a devoutly Jewish family with eight siblings. His father worked in a fish warehouse, and his mother ran a shop where she sold fish and sundry baking supplies. As a child, Chagall attended Heder (Jewish elementary school) and later went to public school, where lessons were taught in Russian.
After learning the elements of drawing at school, from 1907 to 1910, Chagall studied painting in St. Petersburg at the Imperial Society for the Protection of the Arts, eventually under the direction of renowned stage designer Léon Bakst.
Chagall moved to Paris in 1910, and moved into a studio on the edge of town in a Bohemian area known as La Ruche (“the Beehive”).
There he met and worked with many of the artists who thrived in the experimental and somewhat self-consciously proletariat art community such as Delauny, Apollinaire, Leger, and Modigliani. During this period Chagall was somewhat influenced by Cubism, but ultimately moved away from it as his love of fantasy and leaning toward more surrealistic, poetic and mythical subject matter began to emerge.
Throughout his long and prolific career Chagall explored his identity through self-portraiture.
In the exhibition we see his assured self portraits in a classic “artist at the easel” style – painted in Paris around 1914 – all the way through to the lyrical compositions of whirling pastel figures from his later years (in which he amusingly inserted himself). The only constant in Chagall’s self portraits was that he rarely depicted himself in a state of rest or meditative contemplation.
Even in the early and formally composed portraits (reminiscent of classical Spanish portraiture or the well-known self portraits of Rembrandt) Chagall’s depiction of himself is more stylized than realistic. This attempt to reveal his inner life through style rather than expression became increasingly removed from classical self-portraiture and culminated in works crowded with animals, spirits and fantastical creatures in which Chagall would play either a leading or supporting role.
The Chagall Museum show explores the entire range of the artist’s self-portraits and they serve as a sort of sidebar to his many periods of experimentation.
Included is an extraordinary series which dates from the late 1930s and carries on into the early 1950s, in which Chagall depicts himself either in paintings with, or as Jesus Christ.
These works seem to be the artist’s attempt to reconcile both the dualities in his own identity, in addition to grappling with the two conflicting religions, Judaism and Christianity, through art.
In later works in the series the artist repeatedly paints a self-portrait, while the Crucifixion is shown as a picture within the larger painting.
Perhaps the most suggestive of these is the Self-Portrait with Wall Clock of 1946; in the composition, Christ is being comforted by a woman clothed in white bridal garments, and there is a cock behind his head. The artist depicts himself with two heads branching out of the body, one human and green in color, the other that of an animal and in red.
Another revelation is a series of double portraits Chagall painted of himself with his wife, Bella.
In this series, Chagall evokes the artistically symbiotic relationship he enjoyed the woman he loved from the time he met her at age 16, until her untimely death in 1944.
More than just the object of his affection, Bella had been his muse and his kindred soul, with the same ironic, light-hearted approach to life, which can be read easily from the texts of her works (Bella was a writer, though she was never published during her lifetime).
He evokes this personal and creative symbiosis by entwining their figures in whirling, lyrical compositions rife with color.
And finally, there are examples of the many self-portraits in which Chagall cleverly disguises himself as one of the many mystically imagined animals and figures that people his epic works.
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