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Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Marc Chagall: painting the great power of love

Special to The Japan Times

In Japan, July 7 is a special day. It is the festival of Tanabata, the one night of the year when two celestial star-crossed lovers -- the Weaver (Vega) and the Cowherd (Altair) -- are said to cross the Milky Way to meet.

News photo
"Paysage Cubiste" (1918-19, above) and "L'anniversaire" (1923) by Marc Chagall.
© ADAGP Paris & BCF Tokyo 2001
News photo

July 7 is also the birthday of Marc Chagall (1887-1985), a painter whose work is infused with a deep sense of love. So it is particularly apt that July 7 also marks the end of a major exhibition of Chagall's work that opened last week at Ueno's Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

Chagall's great love was his first wife, Bella, whom he married in 1915 and who continued to inspire him even after her death in 1944. The artist's feelings are particularly apparent in the celebrated "L'anniversaire" (1923), which shows him floating through the air and twisting round to kiss his beloved. The dreamlike, almost surreal composition of this work perfectly captures the sense of intertwining elation that characterizes romantic love.

Chagall also felt a deep affection for the people and environs of his youth in the town of Vitebsk, Belorussia (modern-day Belarus). Elements from this period of his life recur as familiar and cherished motifs, even in works painted more than 50 years after he finally left Russia. In "La chute d'Icare" (1974-77), for example, the ill-fated hero's fall from the heavens takes place above a landscape filled with the peasants, animals and rough-hewn log cabins of the artist's native countryside.

But for artists, love is a danger as well as an inspiration -- even the most talented have on occasion been lead into saccharine sentimentality. Chagall, however, managed to avoid the schmaltz trap while producing pictures of warmth, affection -- and even cuteness.

"Usually painters expressing this much love end up creating something cloying or sentimental," admits the exhibition's curator, Hiroshi Matsuda. "But Chagall's paintings are not at all like that."

Given the turbulent years he lived through, it is remarkable that such feeling suffuses Chagall's work, with its characteristic naive style, radiant coloration and the use of charming motifs.

The artist was born into a traditional Jewish family, and his hometown had a thriving Jewish community that was later destroyed by the twin evils of a Communist revolution insensitive to traditional cultures and the Nazi Holocaust.

Although many younger viewers, especially here in Japan, may be unaware of these associations when they look at the kind face of an old Jewish man in "La pere" (1911) or the Cubist-inspired riot of shapes that is the Jewish cemetery of "Le cimetiere" (1917), the knowledge that the artist is depicting a now-vanished world gives such works poignancy and a melancholic undertone that perfectly balances the exuberance of motif, color and composition.

Chagall is remarkable both for the length of his artistic career and because his inspiration was most intense during his youth. Once he had arrived at his mature style in the 1920s, he largely maintained the same course until his death 60 years later -- something that Matsuda concedes is perhaps a shortcoming. "Some art critics have felt that something is maybe missing from Chagall's paintings because his style is always consistent and his motifs are also limited. Perhaps occasionally people get bored."

Looked at this way, the struggles of Chagall's youth -- when he experimented with Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism and Surrealism -- are more interesting than his long mature period, in which he held to a style he had complete confidence in. Also, with age, the atmosphere of his paintings becomes lighter and softer, almost beatified, as former dark undertones give way to a radiant (albeit fuzzy) sense of universal love.

Later works, like the vibrant "Le nu mauve" (1967) with its playful goat and harlequin are enchanting, but without the uncertainty of his earlier work, they also lack much of the edge that made Chagall's youthful pieces his best.

"Marc Chagall" runs till July 7 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 8-36 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo, (03) 3239-5500. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mon. Admission 1,300 yen, 1,100 yen for high school and university students and 600 yen for children.

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