In 1911, Marc Chagall left his native Russia for Paris, where he was exposed to various modernist and avant-garde artistic trends and produced some of his first mature works. He returned to Russia in 1914 and remained there through 1919, when changing political winds prompted him to leave. Now on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao, Chagall: The Breakthrough Years 1914-1919 highlights this period. John-Paul Stonard writes in his review:
Moishe Shagal, later known as Marc Chagall, was raised in the last years of the 19th century in Vitebsk, one of the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement, the part of the Russian empire to which the Jewish population had been confined since the days of Catherine the Great. He is known as a storyteller in painting and a colorist, but in the early years of his career he was above all a Jewish artist, which means that his greatest achievement, coming from a background in which there was hardly any tradition of the visual arts, was becoming a painter at all. . . .
Returning to small-town Vitebsk [in 1914] must have felt like a huge backward step after working in a studio at the heart of the avant garde. Yet returning to the Pale was also a return to the subject that truly animated him—Jewish life—and somehow the imagined colors and the substance of the paintings reconnect [in a way that they don’t in his Paris work]. The color begins to mean something again. In The Newspaper Vendor (1914) a newspaper seller, plying his wares against an acid orange sky, becomes an emblem of provincial gloom and poverty, the darkened greenish spires of the synagogue giving the impression of a forlorn town on the edge of a chemical works. The news is surely bad.
In the early years of the war, the news certainly was bad for Jews living in the western part of the Pale, who were subject to mass expulsions. Chagall saw his post-1914 paintings of Vitebsk as documents of a world that was disappearing. He captured the “very last days [of] small-town, pre-revolutionary Jewish-Russian existence,” as Jackie Wullschlager puts it in her indispensable biography of Chagall. Four large portraits of destitute old Jews dressed as rabbis are among his best paintings from the period (they have been brought together for the first time in Bilbao). The dark green face and yellow beard of Jew in Green is far from Parisian frivolity, but Chagall still uses to great effect the new vocabulary of painting, a flattened collage-like technique incorporating text, in this case Hebrew lettering. In Over Vitebsk, a figure with sack and stick drifts above the snowy town: the Wandering Jew of Chagall’s dream world.
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