Why do we love Chagall so much? Why are we fascinated by Chagall, the great artist of the Imagination who spanned many art movements, Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and yet who was always free enough to be totally himself and never bounded by any orthodoxy of style?
Entering the magical show at Stern Pissarro from the busy street, the eyes and the spirit are immediately soothed and stimulated by Chagall’s vibrant colours, pure and never harsh, and the harmony of his compositions. The characters – floating lovers, flowers, fiddlers, flying horses – of his pictorial stories are universal archetypes that resonate deeply within us. Although his motifs are also rooted in his Jewish heritage and his nostalgia for the homeland he was forced to abandon, he said himself his work was “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”.
Near the entrance a masterpiece of control and mystery is the large “La Robe Rouge” whose figures sweep up diagonally from the fiddler in the left foreground to the beautiful woman in the red dress and the upside down man in blue; behind them is a snowy village and a huge yellow sun, even though it seems to be night. The white background enhances the purity and solemnity of the red dressed young woman and her companions. There is almost a feeling of an ancient ritual.
Downstairs is a rare opportunity to examine a collection of 24 studies for the artist’s Verve publications (a series of lithographs illustrating the Hebrew Bible). These pieces have remained in the same family collection for 40 years, and are unlikely to be seen together again. The luminous blues of “David a la Harpe” , the radiant colours of “David and Absolon”, the tender green of “Chant de David” – these are clearly executed in his distinctive style, bold, free, confident, beautiful.
I returned upstairs to linger amongst Chagall’s rich dreams a little longer. There are few painters, apart perhaps from Matisse, who can execute a large canvas mainly in variations of red – a colour so powerful it can easily repel – and still create enchantment. The immaculate modulation of tones of his symphony in red, “Hommage a Paris, Notre Dame”, a large oil on canvas painted in the mid 50s, includes just enough touches of other colours for the skillful integration of his unique symbolic language. The floating double figures are no longer separate lovers but united as one. The huge golden sun echoes the rose window in Notre Dame. It encourages us towards an understanding of hidden truths beyond mere reason or what only our eyes see. Chagall also said: “Great art picks up where nature ends.”
You normally need to visit a museum to see such a remarkable collection of Chagall paintings all together. Take a break from the stresses and rigours of the city to dwell for a few moments in this Arcadia of the Imagination, dreamed and created by that rarity, a master artist.
Marc Chagall: Master of Colour. Stern Pissarro Gallery, 66 St James’s Street, London SW1. June 16-July 16