‘Hebrew jazz in paint’

Chagall and Liverpool – dreaminess and urban grit – are a far-fetched, brilliant, unmissable combination. His dispatch to Tate’s regional gallery speaks volumes about Chagall’s standing in art history: his Russian avant-garde peers Rodchenko, Popova and Kandinsky have all had recent exhibitions at Tate Modern in London, where Malevich follows next summer. These abstractionists forgave Chagall neither his figuration nor his fantasy – and nor does current fashion. But in Modern Master, Tate Liverpool leapfrogs such issues to present Chagall, simply and cohesively, as a painter whose ceaseless experimentation with texture, surface, colour and manipulation of form resonates now.

The show opens with a scrawled “Self-portrait (Head with Nimbus)”: mere graffiti outlines overlaid with caked white pigment. The loose, spontaneous marks, youthful blaze of calculated incoherence, distorted head and doodled bronze halo all call to mind Jean-Michel Basquiat. Chagall was 23, an outsider Russian-Jew just arrived in Paris, confused and excited, when he painted this on cheap cardboard in 1911. It is fresh, expressive and rare – in seven years writing Chagall’s biography, I never encountered it.

Another privately owned stunner, “Mauve Nude”, completed when Chagall was 80, is as unexpected: paint scrambled with sand pulverises into shards of scratchy purple, turquoise, lemon, linear dots of white – a colourist harmony for an age of arte povera, linking Chagall to the 1960s rough grace of Antoni Tàpies. “Saltimbanques in the Night” (1957) similarly suggests a shadowy circus troupe through colour accents encrusted on a granulated blackish-blue monochrome. “Love and the Stage” (1920) is a forceful abstract painting, as lyrical, rhythmic and ambivalent as a Gerhard Richter. This tempera and gouache five-metre-square panel of translucent silver-white has geometric forms lilting across the faint silhouette of a dancing couple. Created for the Moscow Jewish Theatre, it riffs, too, on the image/object of a stage curtain with the conceptual wit of a Gary Hume door painting.

‘Jew in Red’ (1915)

From the Museum of Modern Art’s dynamically circular figure on a yellow ground, “Homage to Gogol”, intended as a curtain for a stage festival in 1917, to magnificent, lush costumes and sets for Stravinsky’s Firebird in New York in 1945, revived as recently as last year, to his ceiling for Paris’s Opera Garnier in 1964, Chagall was always a theatre designer of genius.

Liverpool’s coup – at a time of competition from important concurrent Chagall shows in Paris and Nice – is to have on loan from Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery the great 1920 mural series, including the eight-metre “Introduction to the Jewish Theatre”, depicting downtown wooden house shtetl existence, with its cast of rabbis, violinists, dancers, marriage brokers, as a whirling, upside-down, staccato, disjointed, stylised piece of drama – “Hebrew jazz in paint”, according to a contemporary critic. Elemental, exhilarated, chaotic, distilling on canvas the way revolution was transforming the fabric of Russian everyday life into a crazy, new world, these unique works alone are worth the trip.

Their position at the centre of the show also shapes how we interpret everything else. Chagall was no naive chronicler: artifice was built into his aesthetic programme from the start. His two teachers were Yehuda Pen, a provincial realist, and Léon Bakst, star designer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Chagall brought together their opposing approaches, then added the radical lessons of cubism, picked up in Paris in 1911 to 1914, and suprematism, the challenge thrown down by Malevich in the years of Chagall’s return to Russia from 1914 to 1922, to build his own vocabulary of modern, abstracted forms playing with poses, postures, masks.

In a masterwork from St Petersburg’s Russian Museum, “Promenade” (1917), Chagall’s wife Bella spins in the air like a revolutionary banner above their sapphire-green home town Vitebsk, composed of suprematist shapes, cubic houses; the pleats of her skirt are ornamented into a futurist rendering of movement. In “Over Vitebsk”, the town is a snowy stage set; over it walks/flies the Wandering Jew of legend, sack on his back – a larger-than-life actor depicted not at human scale but monumental as the blue-domed church in the foreground.

‘Mauve Nude’ (1967)

“Jew in Red” (1915) belongs to a series of transcendent figures, each built up from rounded forms, zigzags, edgy lines, flamboyant colour, modelled from roving beggars whom Chagall recalled luring into his studio with a promise of tea from the samovar, a rest, and 20 kopeks. The frail old man sits gigantic before a cluster of rose-pink houses, his beard flowing like lava, his face contorted by intense thoughts – a towering psychological presence. Around him the world of ideas is made concrete: a golden arc covered with Hebrew characters forms a stage backcloth. The old Jew is thus transformed into a performer – an ironic as well as an ancient presence, and one alert to the instability of history: assimilation, then persecution would make obsolescent the Russian Jewry of Chagall’s youth within a decade of this painting.

By then Chagall, deemed both formalist and individualist, was in permanent exile in France. Although this show focuses on highlights from his most fertile years, 1911-1922, a spectacular, bright and open-plan mise-en-scène – with Tate’s windows giving on to the Mersey used as features rather than, as too often at this museum, blocked out – nevertheless invites us to consider his oeuvre as a long continuum in which he ceaselessly adapted his language to new currents and places.

Smaller experimental works are a delight. Savage, blocky, twisted ink and gouache nudes from his first days in Paris show an odd affinity with early Fernand Léger, alongside whom Chagall learnt to draw from a nude model – unfamiliar in Russian tradition – at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in 1911. A pencil “Constructivist Self-portrait” (1918), also new to me, and a mixed-media “Collage” (1921) of darting lines date from his battle with abstract trends in civil war Russia.

‘Over Vitebsk’ (1922)

In its mellowed tonalities, smoothing out the angular, brash lines of the Russian years, “Window on the Ile-de-Bréhat” (1924), airy, iridescent, redolent of Bonnard, marks the start of his attempt to reinvent himself as a French artist.

Richly mining this conflicted double persona – “in general I hate Paris and all contemporary art, although alas I am half French,” he wrote home aged 24 – Chagall always relived in memory the third aspect of his visual heritage: the tight-knit Jewish milieu that furnished not only his repertoire of motifs but also the essential humanism of his entire project. Liverpool, with its strong sense of regional distinctiveness and community, seems a perfect place to rediscover an exceptional artist whose concerns – the evolution of figurative painting against clamorous newer media; the expression of individuality and identity in a globalising age – are affectingly vibrant today.

‘Chagall: Modern Master’, Tate Liverpool, to October 6, www.tate.org.uk

Jackie Wullschlager’s ‘Chagall: Love and Exile’ is published by Penguin/Knopf

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