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Marc Chagall in Paris, 1921. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Madrid museum opens major Chagall exhibition

Marc Chagall in Paris, 1921. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Marc Chagall in Paris, 1921. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

MADRID (AFP) – Spain on Tuesday opens one of the most extensive Marc Chagall exhibitions ever mounted, a feat that organizers say will not be repeated for many years.

From canvasses peopled with peasants, musicians and circus characters to illustrations of books and fables, a broad sweep of the Russian master’s works is on show in Madrid.

“It is extremely rare to have so many masterpieces together, to bring together so many paintings from all over the world is something that won’t happen again for many years,” the artist’s granddaughter Meret Meyer, vice president of Chagall committee, told AFP.

“It is the first time he has been shown in such a global way, the first exhibition which shows him in such a fluid, natural way, in which you discover innovative elements alongside the masterworks that make up his career.”

From the land of his birth in Russia to his death in France in 1985, passing through his high-spirited youth in Paris in the 1920s and U.S. exile in the 1940s, more than 150 works from 30 or so museums and private collections are on display from Feb. 14 to May 20.

Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the capital’s three major museums, organized the exhibition and is hosting Chagall’s earliest works up to his departure from the United States in 1948.

Fundacion Caja Madrid, a foundation linked to the struggling savings bank, is showing the later works, many of them on a larger scale and thus requiring more space for viewing.

“The idea is to discover a world that has nothing to do with the 20th century painting we know in Spain,” said exhibition organizer Jean-Louis Prat, comparing Chagall with Spanish contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

Chagall was “atypical” because despite his contacts in Paris with cubism, fauvism and abstract painting “throughout the 20th century he developed a work that was outside any movement,” Prat told AFP.

When Chagall arrived in Paris in 1910, impressionism was ending, fauvism had ended, and cubism was taking its first steps.

“He discovers all these vanguards with joy but they don’t influence him: He uses them, certainly, but only a little, maintaining his independence,” Prat said.

In a 20th century art world that often preferred to work in tones, the Russian painter became a staunch defender of color, although the arrival of fascism in the 1930s opened a dark chapter in his work.

To reaffirm his identity, he created a world inhabited by characters from his Russian and Jewish culture: peasants, rabbis, musicians, which his imagination combined with a poetic and dream-like universe in which cows play the violin.

“It is the universe he always loved; dance, music, the circus, which made him dream of the child within,” said the organizer, responsible for the last great retrospective organised by Chagall in 1984 in France.

With this sample, “we wanted to show Chagall as friend of the poets,” he said of the artist, who in the early 20th century struck up a friendship with Guillaume Apollinaire and in the 1960s with Andre Malraux.

“Poets saw themselves reflected in him,” he added, showing a rare collection of etchings that the Russian artist made in the 1950s to illustrate the fables of Jean de la Fontaine.

Among the least known works in the exhibition are also the black-and-white Chagall illustrations of Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” and even of the Bible.

But the darker character of these works fails to overshadow a message of freshness that is “charged with hope”, Meyer said.

“It is what the artist would have wanted, that you don’t see the difficulty, that it should flow simply like something that flows from within,” she said.


Marc Chagall in Paris, 1921. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Marc Chagall in Paris, 1921. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.