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.
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.
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.
*) 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.