Chagall, entre guerre et paix

Art, Painting
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3 out of 5 stars
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Exposition Chagall
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée Marc Chagall) / Gérard Blot / © ADAGP 2012 'La danse', 1950-1952

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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)

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A reasonable collection covering a wide range of years, presented with just about enough space between each piece for everyone to see them. Timed entry tickets, which limit your entry to a half hour period certainly help to manage the flow of people well, so that the space doesn't become overcrowded. I would have like to have been able to stand further back from some of the pieces but they are not hung with enough room for that. Please note (and I write the following as someone who has now been living in Paris for 3 years) that, as in most cultural events in Paris, signs, labels, information etc. are only in French. A small free pamphlet gives an overview of Chagall's life, but does not give any detail about the pieces. A slow stroll through the collection took me 45 minutes. If you can read all of the French signs on the walls, you could perhaps need 60 to 90 minutes. BE AWARE that the venue is wheelchair accessible, but push chairs must be left at the cloakroom (this is not notified on the website and it is the first place I have ever found this to be the case in Paris and I can see no reason for it) and you will not be allowed to carry your child on your shoulders, so take your babybjorn/sling if you have one. Cue 45 minutes of annoying 11kg wriggling toddler and hand bag wrestling! Even though my 15 month old, not yet walking son, would only bring my own 50kg, 164cm stick like frame up to an impressive total of perhaps 194cm I was strictly forbidden from putting him on my shoulders. Also for no apparent reason that I could see (the ceilings and doorways are all at least 6m high). Maybe they thought I would block other people's view, in which case I can only assume that tall people are not allowed in the exhibition either. All in all, if you’ve done all the other main sights in Paris, this is worth visiting if you’re a big Chagall fan or want a change. Otherwise you could comfortably skip it and not have missed much.