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A Russian Jew who became French by adoption between the two world wars, Marc Chagall was deeply marked by the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Nazi occupation of France and the anti-Semitism which forced him into exile in New York in 1941. His painting shows the effects of this suffering enormously – for example, in a wartime canvas of ash gray spouting reddish flames, a maelstrom of persecution, exodus and destruction (‘L’Exode’). The motif of the crucifixion, symbol of human suffering, is everywhere on his canvases, culminating in the triptych 'Résistance, Libération, Résurrection', which has already been on display in Paris for several months at the ‘Art en Guerre’ exhibition and which is just as dazzling here. In contrast, after the Second World War, his paintings change tone, moving towards a luminous, glittering serenity, a serenade to life which culminates with the astonishing ‘La Danse’.
But it won’t do to reduce Chagall to an artist who created peaceful works in times of peace and tortured ones in times of war, and happily the exhibition doesn’t exaggerate this interpretation – it seems, at bottom, to have chosen its Tolstoian title as a pretext for constructing a sort of mini-retrospective. More than ‘war’ or ‘peace’, it’s the balancing ‘entre’ of the title which encapsulates Chagall’s work. A painter riven by profound dichotomies, split between the universalism of the Parisian avant-garde and more traditional themes in Judaism, and between a colourful, falsely naïve aesthetic and recurrent painful images. Here, magic and reality are juxtaposed, becoming entangled in a distilled, dream-like universe peopled with half-human, half-animal figures. As well as the horrors of the 20th century, personal tragedies shaped his art, like the sudden death of his wife Bella in 1944 which darkened his joy at seeing Paris liberated from German occupation. The painting ‘Au-dessus de Vitebsk’ is on of those which best summarises the universe of Chagall, where there is nothing but fluidity, oscillation and hybridity – much like the wandering Jew himself, floating somewhere between the earth and the sky.
Opening hours: Tue, Wed, Thu, Sat, Sun 10am-7.30pm; Fri, Mon 10am-10pm (excl. holidays)