Was Chagall a great artist? Part I

Unlike Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky or Malevich, Chagall has left neither an “ism” for art historians to chew on, nor a horde of followers who’d change the course of art history. It is not that no one has tried to play with Chagall’s manner or imagery, of course. Kandinsky himself, in 1911, fell under Chagall’s spell with The Lady in Moscow and failed so spectacularly he never dared to venture into “Chagallism” again. There are, of course, artists who paint in the manner of Chagall today (I saw one at a French art gallery a few years ago) but their feeble parroting is nowhere near the original.

Chagall is on top of Kandinsky, obviously. What did go wrong with Kandinsky’s painting? Share your view in the comments!

A Chagall show traveled the world in 2012, leaving a comet’s tail of glowing reviews about Chagall’s colours, love metaphors, Hasidic heritage, and bio highlights.

Most of the reviewers carefully skirted the question of whether Chagall was a great artist by simply quoting Picasso who once said,

“When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”

In fact, this is a not a full quote. Picasso went on to say,

“I’m not crazy about his roosters and asses and flying violinists, and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together. Some of the last things he’s done in Vence convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”

The full quote makes Chagall a remarkable colourist (although second to Matisse) with questionable content, but is this enough to become a venerated genius? It reminds me of a man who compliments a woman he doesn’t like by saying she has beautiful eyes.

Perhaps, Chagall wasn’t great? Perhaps, he was a primitivistic painter whose childish doodles can talk to Hasidic Jews only?

Perhaps, Chagall couldn’t draw and paint, just as, according to this mob of trolls, Renoir*)?

Many of my friends say something along these lines:

“I like some of his work”,
“I like his early work”,
“I like his work, but I don’t really love it”
“I don’t care for Chagall”

The last phrase comes from an artist and it is really very clever. It is an honest admission that an artist doesn’t talk to someone without passing a judgement if the artist is great or bad.

The Renoir trolls could learn from this, were it Renoir and not fame that they were after.

Enough of “perhaps”, though.

I believe Chagall is a great artist, and I hope to make you see his greatness in this series of posts.

To jump the queue, I will offer my view of the Chagall appreciation problem right from the start.

Marc Chagall is so easy on the eye and so strenuous on the mind that many feel it is either unnecessary or too tiring to follow through.
The net effect of this is that Chagall is easy to like, but difficult to love.

Chagall’s colours, often referred to as “brilliant” and “luminous”, offer a simple, undemanding pleasure. His figures and shapes are instantly recognisable: a fiddler, a cock, a cow, a log cabin, a church. We know what they are the moment we see them.

It is easy to say, I like Chagall’s colours, or I like Chagall’s compositions. All the figures and colours fit the space of the canvas and balance against each other in an effortless and harmonious way that not only doesn’t strain the eye, but is quite pleasing.

Chagall, Blue House, 1917
Chagall, Blue House, 1917 — a great example of a composition that balances the blue mass of the house just the right way for the observer to hear its wood creak.

This easiness on the eye makes it simple to rejoice at Chagall’s harmony and move on to the next painting, in full certainty that Chagall has accomplished his artistic task of giving us a visual candy.

Wait! Don’t move on! Visual pleasure was a tool, not the purpose! Walking away from Chagall now is like using a silver dollar coin to buy a Coke.

Phew… I am happy you stayed! Now we can talk about the effects of Chagall on the mind.

Chagall’s symbolism, ambiguous and often unexplained until today, provides critics with unlimited opportunities for dissertations. Besides, it puts the mind of an observer to an exercise that some people find quite exhilarating and rewarding. Solving a riddle usually ends in pleasure: “I’m smart enough to decipher this code, Hurrah!”

The problem is that, having solved the code (or some of it), the happy observer stops enjoying the painting and goes off to the next one, thus missing the whole point of what the painting was actually about.

You see, abandoning Chagall after his code is solved is like throwing away a book in which you’ve read all the words in random order but stopped short of connecting them into coherent sentences.

Stay. Don’t hurry off to celebrate your code-breaking talent.

Reading Chagall takes time, and just as a book, his painting can narrate an inspiring story if you give it a chance.

And this is the journey I will be taking you on.

Stay tuned.


*) I wrote about Renoir here once, explaining how great this artist was. A post about Renoir portraits, nudes, and the underlying male chauvinism is long overdue, I know.


    1. Thank you! I think I could do something on Bruegel and it would be grate to talk about him with you. Hopefully, I can do it before Xmas, if not, yearly next year!

  1. Never heard of him but now thanks to your post I do. Yes, his colours are easy on the eye. I do like the painting of his with the bull. Is it the ‘lady in Moscow’ . I instantly thought about ‘ the Greek myth ‘Pasiphea’, the lovers dancing at moonlight, the idealistic painter and the mother and child all hint at some kind of primitive love, perhaps? Is it a comparison of love and lust? I’m no art buff but I do love your blog because it teaches me to question art. Thanks

    1. I am so glad you discovered him! I am yet to go into details about Chagall, and I hope you’d get answers to questions in my next articles about him. They’ve been long overdue, but I just had to take a short leave from this blog )

  2. An excellent postings ,it is always good to see other Art Historians comment on great art , like you I comment on great Artists. I will be shortly be writing about Kandinisky in which I make some critical comments, but Yes you are right the influence of Chagall was important and I liked the way that you quoted Picasso. Chagall was a great artist but there was such revolutionary developments in art especially in Russia particularly the Constructivists like Rodchenko , Tatlin and Lizzizisky and of course Malevich that I overlooked Chagall , thank you for reminding me of his great talent.


  3. Whether you like an artist’s work or not is rather subjective. Either his suject speaks to you or the composition is pleasing to the eye. There is usually something redeaming to the work. All I can say is – that after having seen the ceiling of the old Paris Opera, I was rather disappointed. Chagall has a strong point with colour, no doubt. Looking for further enlightenment ?

    1. I am looking forward to enlightment too ) I, as a mathematician in some dstant past, believe that art, while being subjective, can and should be taught, just like sciences or chess. The beauty of a famous chess game can’t be appreciated if the observer is unaware of the rules. The beauty of E=mc2 can’t be appreciated if the reader is unaware of physics. Why art, which becomes increasingly complicated with each passing decade, is an exception? )

      As for Chagall, his paintings on a ceiling are a contradiction to the way they should be viewed. It was a wrong decision to put him on the ceiling. No one can watch a ceiling without the risk of a permanent neck injury, and Chagall is about watching )

    1. Thank you for the link! I have to say though, that it is an “easy” Chagall painting, the kind of Chagall that’s almost impossible not to like, even though his flying series is often seen as a too literal representation of butterflies in the stomach )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: