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Putting His 'Marc' on Paris

February 24, 2011 By:
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"Half-Past Three (The Poet)" is part of the show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Michael Taylor can see Paris through his window -- and maybe even from his doorstep.

After all, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that iconic columned building he serves as modern-art curator, looks out on a parkway specifically designed in the style of Paris' Champs-Elysées.

But now Taylor need look no farther than the galleries he oversees for a visual nosh of brioche as he and the museum, in conjunction with the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, prepare to open "Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle" on March 1, continuing through July 10.

Situated just down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from Logan Circle, the museum is a formidable and appropriate forum for the show; many Chagall works on display have been culled from its own collection.

The shows's focus is on a time when Chagall and such compatriots as Jacques Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, Chana Orloff and Chaim Soutine sipped coffees and argued at cafes, discussing the many works that paraded out of their nearby studios.

Some 40 of those paintings, dating from the early years of the 20th century, will be showcased in "Paris Through the Window," a title taken from the work that Taylor asserts is Chagall's masterpiece of masterpieces.

The show is, more than anything, a window of opportunity for aficionados to examine the influence the City of Light had on Chagall and his French legion of comrades in art.

It's also a prime chance to see how Chagall and his colleagues created buzz at La Ruche (the beehive), the epicenter of their activity in early 1900s Montparnasse, where Chagall himself once said, "You either came out dead or famous."

The artist, who died in 1985 at the age of 97, came out famously alive, building on a legacy started in his native Vitebsk, in Belarus. But no matter his travels and influence -- the Cubism of his Paris years; the folkloric feel from his Russian roots -- "he remained most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk," art and architecture critic Michael J. Lewis wrote in a 2008 Commentary magazine article called "Whatever Happened to Marc Chagall?"

Good question, one best answered with an understanding of why part of those Russian Jewish reveries were transformed in Paris. That is where Chagall, notes curator Taylor, was able to join other like-minded artists in the free-flow form of ideas, casting off the rusted chains of the repressive societies they faced in their Eastern European homelands.

Indeed, some of those countries had raised the ante on anti-Semitism. "Had he stayed in Vitebsk," said Taylor, "Chagall would have faced some very lean times under [Joseph] Stalin," the ruthless autocrat who ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand.

Stalin's steely resolve to crush creativity and imprison those who thought outside the box would have chafed Chagall, just then embracing the curious creations of Cubism. "Chagall was a modernist, and since Stalin imposed" a rule stressing creative realism, "Chagall would have been in trouble," Taylor said.

Carefree was more or less his status in Paris, where Chagall flourished with "free rent, free models -- a place of freedom from persecution and a place where he formed bonds of real friendship," Taylor added.

Not that Paris was peril-free for a Jewish artist. "There was anti-Semitism in Paris at the time, but nothing like the state-sponsored anti-Semitism that faced him in Russia," according to Taylor.

Chagall's time of creation in Paris resulted in "Half-Past Three (The Poet)," a work labeled as "an ode to the poet's late-night muses: a coffee cup, a feline temptress, and a tipped wine bottle," uncorked in the geometrics of Cubism.

Chagall's "Half-Past Three" is part of the museum's exhibit, offering, noted Taylor, "a joyful vision of the world," but one in which "you can sense a certain melancholy, a sense of longing, a feeling of Chagall's being in exile that, in a way, gave the work an edge."

But that sense of cutting-edge Cubism didn't necessarily keep up with the times. By 1985, the last time the Philadelphia museum staged a Chagall retrospective, the artist's fame had waned considerably.

The artist died that year and interest in him had died off as well: That year "was the low point of his career," claimed Taylor.

"People didn't take him seriously; they saw Chagall as too sweet, too romantic."

Too -- yesterday. It was the worst of times, but -- as this Paris show ventures to prove -- maybe the best of times is now to re-evaluate "how adventurous he was as an artist."

How modern could the modernist have been? Had Chagall lived to enter the world of the Internet, his international renown would have been burnished even more, insisted Taylor, himself a globally prominent curator who has been at the museum for 14 years. (Two years ago, Taylor helped the museum capture a lion's share of acclaim -- including the Golden Lion award -- at the revered Venice Biennale.)

All the world's a stage and, to a degree, Chagall's work was a curtain call to understand just that.

"He was a theatrical artist with a tremendous sense of stage, of the theater. Indeed, the designs he did for the Moscow Yiddish Theater are incredible," Taylor said.

Chagall's commitment to honoring his heritage is manifested in the displayed "Purim" (1916-17), possibly the most theatrical of Jewish holidays.

Also shown is a mural that was commissioned by a synagogue in what is now St. Petersburg. Panels of the piece -- the full mural "was never carried out," said Taylor -- were worked on in Paris.

More than anything, the exhibit reveals, according to Taylor, that "Chagall was a rigorous modernist -- he understood what modern art was and could be," how it could serve as windows to the soul.

And a peek at "Paris Through the Window" provides as soulful a perspective of Chagall as has been seen in decades.

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