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Chagall reframed: AGO casts painter in a new light

In this file photo of Sept. 8, 1966, Marc Chagall poses by his mural "Le Triumphe de la Musique," The Triumph of Music, during the unveiling ceremonies in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, New York.


Being called "beloved" can be something of a curse for an artist. It usually means your work is popular but, to more critical eyes, flawed by, say, sentimentality, meretriciousness or a tendency to pander through tried-and-true effects and subject matter. Norman Rockwell is beloved, Jackson Pollock is not – but who stands as the greater painter?

Marc Chagall, born Moishe Shagal in Vitebsk, Belarus, in 1887, was often described as beloved in his lifetime and in the decades following his death at 97. His poetic, colour-drenched canvasses, murals and works of stained glass – dream-like concoctions, at once surreal and folksy, of flying cows, fiddlers on peasant roofs, swooning lovers and hovering acrobats – are among the most instantly recognizable in the history of art. So recognizable, in fact (not to mention plentiful; they number at least 10,000), that they can be taken for granted as assemblages of stylistic tricks and thematic tics rather than appreciated as an ever-refreshing resource.

But starting Tuesday, Canadians will have the opportunity to consider Chagall anew as the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto presents Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It's a North American exclusive for the gallery – 32 works by Chagall plus 80 contributions from Russian-born Chagall contemporaries such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Sonia Delaunay and Natalia Goncharova.

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By Chagall, mainstays include 1918's Double Portrait with Wine Glass, perhaps the most lyrical representation of connubial bliss ever put to canvas (Chagall kept it in his personal collection until the late 1940s, when he gave it as a gift to what is now the Centre Pompidou), and To Russia, Donkeys and Others, a classic folkloric-themed oil from 1911. Among the eight Kandinskys is In the Grey, his revolutionary foray into abstraction, from 1919.

Speaking last week at the media preview for the exhibition, Angela Lampe, curator of historical collections at the Pompidou's Musée national d'art moderne, noted that most Chagall exhibitions "have emphasized his singularity" or tried to tease out, say, the Jewish wellsprings of his motifs and iconography. The AGO show, by contrast, attempts to position Chagall within the influences, ambitions and debates of his peers before the First World War and in the years immediately following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Like many of the artists in the exhibition, Chagall got his artistic start, and much of his enduring subject matter, in his native Russia, then travelled to western Europe to hone his skills – in Chagall's case, in Paris; in Kandinsky's Munich – only to return to the motherland at the start of the First World War. Following the collapse of the tsarist regime, Chagall tried to adapt to the rigours of the new Leninist state but failed and, in 1922, left Russia (for Paris, and later a stint in New York), never to return. Ditto Kandinsky who, after seven years in Moscow, returned to Germany in 1921.

"I'm quite enthusiastic about Chagall's earlier works because it's so interesting to see how he assimilated all these different inspirations," Lampe observed. "He was so quick when he came to Paris that first time in 1911, the way, in just over three years, he absorbed Cubism, the Orphism of Sonia Delaunay, Cézanne, Matisse."

"Maybe," she added, "you could see him as one of the first post-modern artists because he was melding his own world, Vitebsk, his own motifs, but in a new style and all this on different levels, different time levels, different quotations, to create something very complex from an art historical point of view. In my opinion, this work has been a little bit underesteemed until now."

For the AGO, the Russian show is the second of three exclusive "masterpiece" exhibitions dedicated to major art movements of the 20th century. It was preceded this spring by the presentation of 100 Abstract Expressionist works from New York's Museum of Modern Art and will be followed, in May, 2012, by a 17-week showcase of more than 100 works by Picasso, culled from the Musée National Picasso.

Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris runs at the AGO through Jan. 15.

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