Chagall's art gentle, vivid
By Jacob Stockinger
Call it religious art for non-religious people - which makes it perfect viewing for the upcoming holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah. Over at Spaightwood Galleries, 1150 Spaight St., the rooms and hallways are quietly ablaze with the colors of Marc Chagall, the Jewish artist who was born poor in Russia in 1887 and then emigrated to Berlin, New York and finally Paris, where he achieved world fame and worked right up until the morning he died at 98 in 1985.
Chagall worked with some of the most modern of modern artists, including Joan Miró. Yet he also fused into his art some of the oldest traditions in history and human thought. He drew on the folk themes of his childhood in a poor Jewish shtetl and was constantly reading stories in the Old Testament. When he was commissioned to illustrate biblical stories, he visited Palestine for 1-1/2 years to feel the land and gather its stories and insights. Chagall said the trip changed his life and made the past real.
Chagall's genius was to combine disparate traditions into something new and unknown. He is much like the pioneering composer Bela Bartok who found the roots for his brash modern music in the ethnological music of Eastern and Central Europe. Except that Chagall's dissonances somehow seem much more friendly and life-affirming. There was also a secular side to Chagall. He loved the circus. He illustrated, in black-and-white drawing [etchings], Nikolai Gogol's masterpiece "Dead Souls." He also illustrated La Fontaine's classic "Fables," which caused French anti-Semitism to be showered down on him.
These all come together when you look at his work. It is easy to overlook Chagall's draftsmanship, which is first-rate. That's because what really draws the eye is the use of bright colors - the pastel blues and greens, the oranges, reds and yellows. They draw you in and hold your eye. Yet the quality of Chagall's line is such that even his biblical figures, including God, suggest a certain vulnerability and compassion, done as if to underscore the humanity of these figures and not just their eternal mythological identity or the hard moral lessons they are meant to impart. For Chagall, prostitutes deserve empathy, not stones. His art embodies genuine humanism, not harsh orthodoxy or rawness. "That's why he is approachable for so many people," observes Spaightwood co-owner Andy Weiner. "In Picasso, for example, there's a kind of savagery. Chagall was a very serious person who lived thorough very serious times, yet he never grew bitter."
The 130 works in Spaightwood's comprehensive show begin in 1923 and run through 1981. The prices range from several hundred dollars to more than $20,000. You'll find drawing [etchings] and lots of lithographs, though he also painted (his paintings are worth millions and are mostly in museums) and worked in stained glass.
In their introduction to the show, Weiner and gallery co-owner Sonja Hansard-Weiner write: "One of our ways of surviving winter is looking at lots of works by Marc Chagall, whose color cheers our spirits and replenishes our faith in the coming of spring and new life after the gloom of winter.... From our daily routines and our daily irritations and even deeper angers, Chagall's art offers us a moment of freedom, an escape into a timeless world where these little things matter less than the essentials: God, nature and love." It is a perfect description of this sensual art, as you will know with your first glance at these colorful, gentle works. Adds Andy, who will move the gallery to Massachusetts in November 2004: "It also helps us get through the Bush administration." Now, that makes it magical art indeed.
From Rhythm, Thursday 12/11/03
©2003 Capital Newspapers. All rights reserved.
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