Marc Chagall's true colours are shining through

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When Marc Chagall arrived in Paris in 1910, the art world was buzzing with Cubism and the thrilling works of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Matisse. A new exhibition at Tate Liverpool shows how the Russian painter blossomed with it

“When Matisse dies,” said Picasso, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour is.” Marc Chagall, in fact, outlived both Matisse and Picasso, dying in 1985 at the ripe old age of 97, one of the last of the generation of great modern artists. But Picasso, normally so loath to give any credit to a fellow painter, was right. It is his colour which makes Chagall so special. That and a poetic imagination which saw memory and emotion through fantastical images.

Paris made him, as it made so many artists of the time, as a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool concentrating on his early influences spaciously displays. He arrived there in 1910, a rather shy and dreamy-looking Jewish lad of 23 from Liozna, near Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus. He came from a Hasidic background – his father humping barrels of herring for a merchant, his mother selling groceries from home. But, although in later life he liked to make out that he was largely self-taught, he had in fact studied art with the realist painter Yehuda Pen and then, in St Petersburg, with the set and costume designer Léon Bakst, among others.

His timing could not have been bettered. Paris then was abuzz with the new art of Cubism, and exhibitions of the work of Cezanne, Van Gogh and early Matisse. Chagall may have been slow to learn the spoken language of his new home, but not its new pictorial language. The exhibition compares two versions of his depiction of Birth – one from just before he left Russia and one from the year after his arrival in Paris. The former is dark in its palette and its imagery, with the mother all bloody and the midwife holding the bawling baby by leg and hand. The later version sees the colours lightened with pinks, purples and green and the space sharply divided by a diagonal of light and shade. It’s a world of difference in mood as well as colour.

It’s easy to overdo the contrasts between Russia and France. Chagall was hardly ignorant of what French art was doing before he arrived there. How could he be with Bakst as a teacher? Nor was he totally overwhelmed by the lessons of Cubism in terms of the rigorous reordering of space and aspect. He was wary of the formalism of Modernism, seeking instead an art that was free of theory and constraint. But he was keen to learn what was behind the new art, trying out the colours of Van Gogh in the The Yellow Room of 1911 and the spectral doctrines of his friend Robert Delaunay in Homage to Apollinaire (1911/12).

The results were not always successful. Chagall’s attempts at the still life and nude in the manner of Picasso and Matisse are truly abysmal. What he did possess was a poetic imagination (Apollinaire was among his few French friends) and an ambition to find figural expression for memory, particularly of the Russia of his childhood. The result was a highly personal art in which the compositional lessons of Cubism are allied with the flights of fancy of Symbolism and what was to become Surrealism: New Paris versus Old Russia.

You see it in The Soldier Drinks from 1911/12, his Cubist-influenced picture of the soldier billeted at his house during the Sino-Russian war, and in two of his masterpieces from the period: the dark-hued To Russia, Asses and Others and I and the Village, both visions of the village and life he’d left behind.

What is astonishing about these pictures is the range of his palette, as he experiments with colour as well as form, and also the extent to which he was already introducing the images which were to dominate his painting through the rest of his long life – the white cow symbolising innocence and plenty; the upside-down heads indicating a disturbed mind; the peasant couples, animals and flowered cloths.

We’re lucky that so many of the paintings from this time survive. We’re even luckier that the Tate’s partnership in this show with the Kunsthaus Europe has enabled it to gather so many. They survived because Chagall had sent them to a major retrospective (his first), planned for Berlin by the gallery owner and keen advocate Herwarth Walden.

Chagall himself never got there. Visiting relations on a short return to Russia, he got caught by the outbreak of the First World War and then the Revolution. By the time he did get out of Russia again in 1920, the pictures had nearly all been sold.

There is a temptation to treat Chagall’s enforced stay in Russia as a burden. But it enabled him to marry his sweetheart, Bella, brought him a clerical job that kept him out of the war, restored him to a Jewish culture then being actively encouraged by the authorities and, after the Revolution, gave him a job as visual arts commissar of his old stomping ground, Vitebsk. His Blue Lovers on meeting Bella in 1914 is one of the fondest paintings in 20th-century art, as The Promenade of 1917/18, in which he holds a soaring wife, is one of the most joyous.

The chef d’oeuvre of this second Russian period, and the great joy of this show, are the murals he painted for the Yiddish Chamber Theatre in Moscow in 1920, reassembled here by the State Tretyakov Gallery. It was a small theatre, and Chagall filled the space before the stage with giant pictures both of the full assembly of stars – with a portrait of himself being carried in – and a series of individual pictures of the figures in the Jewish wedding feast representing literature, music, drama and dance.

Originally positioned behind you as you entered the theatre, but here placed in front, is one of the great surprises of the exhibition. Love on the Stage is a work of the purest lyricism, composed in geometric and cubist style and lace collaged upon it, of a couple dancing entwined. It doesn’t look like a Chagall, but it comes close, I think, to the vision of innocence and humanity that he always sought.

The exhibition quick marches to its finale with a short section on Chagall’s final decades after his last departure from Russia – when he returned to France, was forced into exile in the US by the Second World War, his adored Bella died and he then returned again to find a place in the South of France where Picasso and Matisse had chosen to stay.

As such, it does not include the ceramics, the tapestries, book illustrations and the stained glass on which he spent so much time, nor the major commissions for interiors in London and New York.

Here, instead, we have an exhibition of a great artist feeling his way to a style of his own. Put aside the experiments in form, the Jewish iconography, the Russian past and peasant imagery, and you still have the palette. “I have always painted pictures,” said Chagall, “where human love floods my colours.” It wasn’t entirely the truth, as some of the darker paintings in Liverpool suggest. But it’s what he wanted and, when he did achieve it, how magical it was.

Chagall: Modern Master,  Tate Liverpool (0151 702 7400)  to 6 October

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