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Aug 2005 Journal

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Art notes

For a Russian artist born into an Orthodox Jewish family in the late nineteenth century, the religious and political freedom of early twentieth-century Paris represented both 'lumière' and 'liberté'. That is how the 23-year-old Marc Chagall saw it when he emigrated there. Although the imagery of his work had been forged in his native Vitebsk, it was in Paris that he developed contacts with other Jewish artists and writers like Apollinaire, Fernand Léger, Modigliani, Abraham Mintchine and Bela Kadar, and where the 'light of Paris' nourished an unprecedented flowering of Jewish art. For the artistic luminaries who formed the forum for a virtual Jewish school of Paris, Yiddish and Russian rather than French were the lingua franca, and the Beehive or La Ruche in Montparnasse was the central point, where Chagall quipped 'One either died or came out famous.'

For artists like Chagall, this creative freedom meant they were citizens of the world. And yet the question was: did the work of these Jewish artists actually represent a Jewish expressionist style? Or was it mere nostalgia? The work of Chagall, Moise Kisling, Mintchine, Kadar, Mane-Katz Soutine, Jules Pascin and others, on loan from private collections and currently showing at the Ben Uri exhibition Chagall and His Circle, cannot really answer this question since the artists themselves are so varied. The sculptor and painter Archipenko, for instance, is a protagonist of Parisian Cubism, while Soutine blends Jewish anxiety with Fauvism and Cubism. Like Chagall, Mane-Katz absorbed Jewish mysticism from his Ukrainian Jewish heritage but, in contrast, Mintchine's Montmartre, Paris contains a dark thread suggesting hidden turbulence.

Bela Kadar's stylised The Musicians is a duet of form and colour and Soutine's Deux Enfants carries a darker message since the two children in blue wear old men's faces. This contrasts with Jules Pascine's Deux Femmes, a drawing in which two women are intertwined. Kisling's Paysage de Gloucester is flatter and less romantic than anything seen here by Chagall, whose rapt and child-like vision is, as always, entirely captivating and completely different from that of these contemporaries. His Lovers and Flowers is more like a burst of shrubbery than a floral arrangement, in which human faces can be glimpsed and beneath which the obligatory lovers appear as more hint than reality. Some read an 'assimilationist impulse' into this painting, but beyond even that Chagall is seeking a genuine synthesis of form, spirit and imagination, which makes him a more interesting painter than he appears at face value. His surrealism is well served by his love of the Bible and Jewish mysticism. Chagall's pen and Indian ink drawing of Rabbi Akiva shows the sage and martyr wrapped in his tallit, from which it is said that the words of the Torah flew up to heaven at the point of his death. Though celebrated for his Jerusalem Windows at the Hadassah Hospital, it is really the work of Chagall's two Bible series which I find the most compelling. They are on sale in the gallery below.
Gloria Tessler

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