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Marc Chagall among friends in Paris

April 23, 2011 | 10:00 am


ChagallMarc Chagall was an enormously popular 20th century painter, revered by the public for his rooftop fiddlers, biblical lore, upside down lovers and fanciful visions of Jewish shtetl  life in the old Russian empire. Art historians and critics, however, have always had difficulty placing him among the many currents of modern art; to them, he often seemed unique, special, one of a kind. Some also  found him  repetitive and sentimental.

But Chagall was not always a loner. In an innovative exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has decided to concentrate on his younger years when, far from unique, he and a band of mainly East European, mainly Jewish artists honed their craft in Paris. The show, “Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle,” closes July 10. Made up mostly of paintings from the Philadelphia museum’s own collection, the show, which displays Chagall alongside his contemporaries, goes nowhere else.

“I wanted to give Chagall an edge,” said Michael R. Taylor, the museum’s curator of modern art. “He’s usually seen alone. Here I put him with ... the others, and he’s more interesting.”

Chagall arrived in Paris in 1911 at age 24. He grew up in a poor Jewish family in Vitebsk in what is now Belarus but was then Russia and studied painting there and in St. Petersburg. Like many poor artists in Paris and a few writers, he soon rented a cheap apartment and studio in La Ruche (the Beehive) at No. 2 Passage Dantzig in the rundown slaughterhouse district near Montparnasse on the Left Bank.

One of Chagall’s first paintings in 1911, “Half-Past Three (The Poet),” shows the influence of the fashionable movements in Paris at that time. The subject of the painting was supposed to be a Russian poet who lived at La Ruche and often stopped by Chagall’s studio for coffee, but Taylor believes Chagall may have been painting himself as well. The figure of the poet is cubist with his head turned upside down, symbolizing, according to Taylor, “the head-spinning impact of his [Chagall’s] encounter” with cubism.

For the full Arts & Books article, click here.

-- Stanley Meisler

"Paris Through the Window (Paris Lar la Fenetre)," 1913. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art