When I began researching Chagall’s biography 15 years ago, I found, like scholars before me, that all paths led to the same Sleeping Beauty castle: a proud town house on the Île de la Cité in Paris, fiercely guarded by the artist’s heirs. It held the promise of treasures unseen, in some cases for nearly a century: an archive of letters from the 1910s, folded in tiny envelopes postmarked Moscow, Vitebsk and Berlin; a stash of drawings and paintings, many never displayed; the manuscript of an unpublished autobiography. All would sharpen our understanding of a significant figurative painter who is ever popular but increasingly underrated, in the conceptual 21st century, by the art historical establishment.
Eventually I managed to study the letters and glimpse some of the works; I never got near the manuscript. But now the castle gates have been thrown open. The artist’s granddaughter, Meret Meyer, co-curates Marc Chagall, A Retrospective (1908-1985), a beautifully calibrated exhibition at Brussels’ Musée des Beaux Arts. Packed with unseen or scarcely known paintings from the family collection, it is accompanied by a catalogue that includes first publication of excerpts from the memoir.
The fresh, informal works add an intimate layer to Chagall’s richly autobiographical oeuvre. They begin with poignant depictions evoking pre-1914 Russian shtetl life: Chagall’s tubercular brother David, body convulsed with coughing, tenaciously playing the mandolin; thin, nervy Uncle Zussy in his rickety barber shop, a picture the subject declined to accept because it was insufficiently flattering.
After Chagall’s exile to France in 1922, they open out to airy landscapes featuring his wife and daughter, such as “Bella and Ida in Peïra-Cava” (1931), set against the softly modelled valleys and peaks of the Maritime Alps, suffused with what Chagall called French “lumière-liberté”. Finally, forms dissolve into shimmering hazes of colour as if to replicate the process of memory itself, for example in the portraits, circus figures, flowers, wooden houses were recapitulated into the montage “The Fiancée with a Blue Face” (1932-60) after Bella’s death.
“It was as if I walked on a bridge suspended in the air, and that the years of my life, transparent as clouds, spread out like a luminous coat, without materiality,” Chagall begins his memoir. His greatest pictures maintain that disjointed lyricism at a pitch that defies sentimentality. They include the exotic romance “The Birthday” (1915), loaned by MoMA, where Chagall in self-portrait swoops like an acrobat through space to kiss his gliding, black-eyed bride Bella, crammed into an interior of Kashmir shawls and Baku textiles: love makes one little room an everywhere.
In St Petersburg’s “The Promenade” Bella whirls aloft like a flag, her magenta dress a jagged futurist depiction of soaring movement painted in a moment of revolutionary euphoria in 1917. Its mournful counterpoint is Venice’s monumental black and white cubist-inspired “Rabbi of Vitebsk” (1914), memorialising in modern language a traditional shtetl figure whom the Bolsheviks would soon make obsolete.
Love and identity are the eternal themes through which Chagall chronicled the thrill and terror of 20th-century history. During the Paris occupation, he painted “Between Darkness and Light”, a wintry landscape in which he and Bella are draped in the hues of the French Tricolore and a walking streetlamp intently crosses the road but casts no light. Dating from his arrival in St Petersburg as illegal immigrant (there were Tsarist restrictions on Jewish mobility), the cool metallic grey “The Ring” (1908-9) encapsulates urban alienation: a downcast, troubled couple, Chagall and his girlfriend Thea, separated by a jug of pink flowers, fail to connect; behind them an elderly Jewish pair sit close.
Dovetailing such private pictures of tremendous interiority with those that have become the famous public face of the artist, this crystalline, chronological show underlines how, while his contemporaries fled into abstraction, Chagall made the personal political and the political personal.
When a million Jews were deported from Russia’s western front in 1914 and trudged east, homeless and desolate, Chagall wrote: “I longed to put them down on my canvases, to get them out of harm’s way.” Toronto’s “Over Vitebsk” (1914) memorialises one such beggar, heavy but weightless, as the eternal Wandering Jew incongruously marching above snow-covered velvety Vitebsk, taller than its domes and towers.
Here, this famous depiction sparks a chorus of echoes. “Rooster-Man above Vitebsk” (1925), a painting I have never encountered before, reprises snowy Vitebsk but substitutes the beggar with an enormous surrealist half-bird, representing Chagall newly trying to accommodate himself to French culture by illustrating La Fontaine’s “Fables”. “Nude over Vitebsk” (1933), masterpiece of the interwar years, replaces the figure again, with a sensuous naked back of a sleeping woman — 17-year-old Ida — floating over a Vitebsk drained of all colour, heralding its destruction. In “The Wall Clock with Blue Wing” (1948) it is a giant grandfather clock that now wanders over the darkened city: time arrested by tragedy. “How unhappy I must have been to paint that!” Chagall exclaimed on coming across this image in the 1970s.
This was when he began the memoir published here. Intended as a sequel to Ma Vie, written in 1922 as he left Russia, it is non-linear and covers his entire life, incorporating major events — a staccato account of Bella’s death (“I didn’t have the strength to kill myself”) — and stream-of-conscious reflections on Picasso, Kafka, Schoenberg.
Keenly revealing are unhealed wounds: the 1920 row with Malevich which cast Chagall out from the avant-garde (“I told them a square on a canvas was an object neither more nor less than a chair or a cupboard”); anti-Semitic taunts in Tsarist Russia (“What did they want? That I, born in the ghetto, paint the Chinese?”) or Vichy France, where Chagall awoke to find Va-t’en! Va-t’en! scrawled on his door.
He did leave, for the US, returning to France in 1948. Exhilarating sketches here of allegorical figures of music and dance for Paris’s Palais Garnier ceiling and New York’s Metropolitan Opera murals celebrate the 1960s commissions marking his lofty position in postwar western culture. They demonstrate too the flair for theatrical fantasy evident in fanciful self-depictions: “The Birthday”; “The Poet Reclining”, Tate’s reverie beneath lilac skies; “Self-portrait with Tefillin” (1928) where secular Chagall’s incongruous accoutrements are paintbrush and prayer box.
“Voici the question: who am I?” Chagall, in his eighties, asks in his memoir. “I don’t lack enemies, perhaps I myself am my enemy. Not a day of my life has passed when I haven’t doubted myself . . . The abolition of racial prejudice: will future generations see it, or not see it?”
Taking place minutes from the Jewish Museum which suffered a fatal terrorist attack last year, this retrospective in Europe’s capital has a resonance beyond modernist history.
To June 28, fine-arts-museum.be
Photograph: State Russian Museum, St Petersburg/Chagall SABAM, Belgium
Slideshow photographs: Centre Pompidou, Paris/Chagall SABAM, Belgium; State Russian Museum, St Petersburg/Chagall SABAM, Belgium; RMFAB, Brussels/Chagall SABAM, Belgium; Private Collection/Chagall SABAM, Belgium; MoMA, New York/Scala/ Chagall SABAM, Belgium; Tate Gallery / Chagall SABAM, Belgium; Chagall SABAM, Belgium