The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will be the sole venue outside Paris for a major retrospective of the work of painter Marc Chagall. Marc Chagall will include approximately 65 paintings and 88 works on paper -- including many never before seen in the United States -- from all periods of the artist’s seven-decade career.Organized jointly by the Reunion des Musees Nationaux, Paris, in conjunction with the Musee National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, and SFMOMA, the exhibition is the first comprehensive look at this artist since 1985 and offers a unique opportunity to reevaluate a body of work that is universally renowned but often underestimated.
Jean-Michel Foray, director of the Chagall Museum in Nice and the Fernand Leger Museum in Biot, France, has organized the retrospective; overseeing the San Francisco presentation is Janet Bishop, SFMOMA curator of painting and sculpture. The exhibition is sponsored by Bank of America and Visa USA. A fully illustrated catalogue will be produced in conjunction with the exhibition; the hardcover edition is published by SFMOMA in collaboration with Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Chagall’s work is distinguished by surrealistic inventiveness, as well as by a use of humor and fantasy that draws deeply on the resources of the unconscious. Strong and often brilliant colors infuse his canvases with a dreamlike, nonrealistic simplicity, while the combination of imagination, religion and nostalgia conveys a joyous quality. One of the key themes addressed in the exhibition will be how Chagall’s conception of the artist as a messenger from a better and more spiritual world drew him away from the modernist movements of his time.
Over the course of his lengthy and prolific career, Chagall distanced himself from prominent avant-garde art movements: in Paris in 1911 he refused to formally align himself with the Cubists; in Moscow in 1920 he broke with the Suprematist group; and in Paris in 1924 he refused to join the Surrealist group. Yet Chagall selectively appropriated aspects of the modernist program—Cubism’s fracturing of space, Surrealism’s privileging of the dream world, Modernism’s liberation of color from the constraints of description—and used them to structure themes drawn from his roots in Jewish and Russian vernacular culture and his emotional and spiritual life. “Chagall’s intentional remove from these classifications contributed to a career that has not been subjected to adequate scholarly and critical consideration,” states Bishop. “This exhibition provides substantial new insight into the artist and his work.”
Marc Chagall (1887–1985) was born in Vitebsk, Russia, the eldest of nine children in a poor family of Hasidic Jews. He was educated in art in Saint Petersburg and, from 1911 to 1914, in Paris. His childhood in a deeply religious household inspired the subject matter for Chagall’s many paintings depicting Jewish life, folklore and Bible stories. He returned to Russia in 1915 and after the Russian Revolution was director of the Art Academy in Vitebsk and designed decor for the State Jewish Chamber Theater in Moscow. Chagall painted several murals for the theater and executed the sets for numerous productions, many of which are featured in this exhibition. In 1923 he moved to France, where he spent the rest of his life, except for a period of residence in the United States from 1941 to 1948. He died in St. Paul de Vence, France, on March 28, 1985.
Marc Chagall includes work from all major periods of the painter’s artistic activity—the Russian years (1910–23), which included his stay in Paris from 1911 to 1914; the Paris years (1924–40); the American years (1941–47); and the Vence years (1948–85). The first part of the exhibition features Chagall’s early works, in which he attempted to find a balance between vernacular Russian-Jewish culture and the culture of modernity he discovered in Paris. Sections such as Vitebsk and Bella in Flight reveal Chagall’s exploration of these two differing aesthetic cultures and the resulting development of his distinctive and highly personal style.
The next major section within the exhibition addresses Chagall’s renunciation of the abstract avant-garde through the decor he created for the Jewish Theater in Moscow. This section, which features large-scale murals (including an image of Chagall himself) as well as many preparatory studies, illustrates the genesis of Chagall’s ideas of the artist as a messenger and a community member, which continued to be themes throughout his career. The exhibition features many significant paintings from this period, including Introduction to the Jewish Theater, 1920, and Music, 1920, both from the State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow.
The exhibition continues with works made after Chagall moved back to Paris in 1924. Consisting chiefly of small paintings, works on paper and gouaches that have rarely been exhibited, it shows Chagall trying to understand and assimilate the culture of France, his new home. Featured from this period are the paintings Angel with Palette, 1927–36, from the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and The Rooster, 1928, from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, and Chagall’s illustrations for the classic of French literature, the Fables of La Fontaine, and for the work of contemporary French poets. Also included is a major section of work related to the artist’s treatment of the Bible—a lifelong interest and subject.
In 1948 Chagall moved to St. Paul de Vence in the south of France, where he spent the remainder of his life. Featured works from this period include his popular Mediterranean landscapes. Paintings from Chagall’s late period demonstrate the unwavering humanity of the artist and his work.
A lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue features 240 pages and approximately 150 color plates. The volume includes an introduction by curator Jean-Michel Foray and a heavily illustrated chronology of the artist’s life by Chagall’s granddaughter, Meret Meyer Graber, and Jakov Bruk. Hardcover and softcover editions of the catalogue, the former published by SFMOMA in association with Harry N. Abrams, are available at the MuseumStore and at www.sfmoma.org. The hardcover catalogue is available for $60; the softcover is available for $29.95.
Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1939;
oil on canvas;
45 7/8 x 35 1/8 in.;
Collection Musée de Grenoble, gift of the artist;
Copyright Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris