Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal, in 1887, in present-day Belarus. The vivid scenes of his Hasidic Jewish upbringing would later become a major influence on his body of work. Although somewhat conflicted in his faith, he is also seen by many as the most important Jewish artist of the twentieth century.
Apart from being a stunning tribute to the famous artist, the much-heralded AGO exhibit also explores what themes and other artists Chagall both inspired and was inspired by. Chagall is best known for his enviable talent in the use of colour and whimsical imagery, but he was also moved by the social and political upheavals he witnessed in his 97 years. Anti-Semitism and a fear for his loved-ones and his own life caused him to flee Russia for the more welcoming environment of Paris. Chagall also carried a life-long sadness for the family and friends he lost during the Holocaust.
Chagall’s Jewishness is often palpable in his paintings, like in the absurdly lovely Double Portrait with Wineglass (1918). A smiling bride and groom are set on a lively, jewel-toned background while the groom rests on the bride’s shoulders, reminiscent of the Jewish wedding tradition of hoisting up the newlywed couple. The painting remained in Chagall’s personal collection for most of his life, as the two figures represent himself and his beloved wife, Bella Rosenfeld, who died in 1944.
Another standout piece is Blue Circus (1950), a dynamic painting showing a female circus performer floating on a lush background of striking and hushed tones of indigo and pale blue, surrounded by magical figures. Chagall himself pondered not only the question of the evocative imagery, but also of what this piece of art could achieve. “I wish I could hide all these troubling thoughts and feelings in the opulent tail of a circus horse and run after it, like a clown, begging for mercy, begging to chase the sadness form the world,” he said in a 1966 interview.
The decision to include the artwork of Chagall’s artistic and national contemporaries puts his artistic inspiration into context. The gallery-goer can see a trend in what we have come to know as the Russian avant-garde, where themes of home and homeland, family, and later, social upheaval, play a definite role.
Despite some of the darker overtones involved in this artwork, the resonating feeling one gets from this truly outstanding body of work is that it has a strong foundation in love. Chagall lived a long life equally full of happiness and trauma, but it must be said that the emotion that remains long after seeing a Chagall painting is one of love. Chagall spoke to this sentimentality in his work: “I have always painted pictures where human love floods my colors.”
The exhibit will be on display until January 15, 2012. Student admission is $11 with student ID and proof of enrollment. For more information, visit www.ago.net.