Steven and Sufea – Chagall: Modern Master exhibition at Tate Liverpool

Marc Chagall The Yellow Room 1911 Oil paint on canvas 842 x 1120mm Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel Collection of Ernst and Hildy Beyeler   © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013. Photo © SCALA, Florence
The Yellow Room © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013. Photo © SCALA, Florence

Two Curators’ Perspectives of the Chagall: Modern Master exhibition at Tate Liverpool


Review by Steven Hyland:

I must have been to this exhibition at least 8 times. All the green faces, curving and disjointed limbs, rural joviality, the wispy atmosphere, shattered-glass-looking-people, and topsy-turvy elements have converged into a solitary entity.
As standalone artworks not too many of them interested me a great deal. There are no complete showstoppers and none of the stained-glass windows, but after leaving the exhibition the works had the strange effect of becoming a singular piece in my mind….
There are however, a few that have a marvellous charm about them, particularly one entitled The Yellow Room (1911) which is a delightful balance of madcap and naïve.
I feel as though the exhibition as a whole might have worked better if the exhibition was completely crammed, even in a smaller space, artworks almost floor to ceiling and rubbing shoulders; characters slipping out of one painting and into another.
© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Introduction to the Jewish Theatre© ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013

The closest thing to the full blown sensory overload that I retrospectively acquired was the purple walled area, showcasing The Introduction to the Jewish Theatre (1920) among others, it is the most enclosed area and when busy sparked off my first thoughts of it being best as an immersive experience, visitors and characters in paintings merging into one.

Provided with jam-packed walls of pictures with no focal point, viewers would find their own details to examine, rather than skip around the exhibition just so each artwork has been gazed upon. A lot of the artworks require hours of looking over, or at least more than the one minute pass-by that large exhibitions invite, and I think time would be better spent looking at them all together, giving your eyes time to notice any connections. The pictures don’t want room to breathe, individually they are windows into a world and together they would put you almost completely in that world. You’d just need an upside down head to fit in.
What I have noticed is that, however they are shown, these are some of the most enjoyable paintings that there are to sit and have wild minded discussions about, it is because they are so unpretentious and accessible in their simple yet layered way.
Review by Sufea Mohamad Noor:
Not knowing much about the artist, I initially anticipated Chagall: Modern Master at Tate Liverpool as a show of paintings which combine Kandinsky with Picasso and a light dash of Magritte. The show is colourful, a whimsical exhibition of peculiar characters that roam several bizarre worlds created by the Russian born artist, Marc Chagall. Well, doesn’t the exhibition poster already speaks for itself?
Chagall: Modern Master feels like strolling through a grey passage which lay out windows into the acquainted extra-terrestrial. As vibrant as his paintings are, the content in each one are surprisingly dark. Something just does not feel right – it’s almost as if Chagall purposely seduced the audience with fantastical colours that smashed nightmares in you face.
War © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013. Photo © Kunsthaus Zurich
War © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013. Photo © Kunsthaus Zurich

The influence of Chagall’s Hasidic Jewish background which originates from Kabbalah is apparent in many of his paintings. One particular motif which strikes me most is the goat – a creature with horns and cloven hooves that represents the Devil. It seems as if the goat is a demonic figure controlling the chaotic lives of the outlandish characters. War (1966) perfectly illustrates a scene of terror; an overly massive figure of a goat with a beaming expression sits in front of  a red blazing fire in a field saturated with catastrophe where civilians run in chaos.

On another note, what amazes me about Chagall is the very fact that in reality his hometown Vitesbk was far from what he depicted in his paintings. Unlike the rural village seen in his work, Vitesbk was actually a modern town during Chagall’s day. Paintings of the simple life, farm animals and village scenes are the basic essentials in Chagall’s work. Because of this, there is no denying that Chagall’s works are modest. It is also this carefree approach that give his paintings its quirky charm. However, take into account that Chagall’s pictures of Vitesbk are nothing like what they were. Could it be that by portraying himself as an artist from a village with a simple way of working, Chagall hoped that the Parisian artists would see him as an inferior? Could it be that Chagall hoped for them to not realise that he was actually taking the best bits from each one of them to create a matchless style of his own? A number of Chagall’s paintings in the exhibition certainly show aspects of cubism, symbolism and fauvism. These studies of other movements are clustered together in a section of their own while Chagall’s masterworks of an imaginative style spread around the gallery.
Tate Liverpool is portraying Marc Chagall as the modern master and he is known for working in a wide range of artistic medium, however, I was slightly disappointed when it occurred to me that there is no sign of this diversity of work in the exhibition. Of course there is the mural and paintings for stage sets, but what about the stained glass, tapestries and ceramics? Having these in the exhibition would then truly allow Chagall to be acknowledged as a modern master.
Man with Head Thrown Back © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013
Man with Head Thrown Back © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013

I’ve always believed that the more time you spend in an exhibition, the more love you start to have for it. I’ve visited Chagall: Modern Masters several times – alone, with a curator, an artist and even with a Chagall fangirl. Despite this, I still have yet to love the paintings and to some extent, Chagall himself. Although, there is one particular piece which I am a fan of; Man With Head Thrown Back (1919) is a painting with a beautiful tone of blue background and an interesting placement of Chagall’s signature. This piece expresses what I feel about the exhibition. If I were surrounded by the amount of eccentricity that I have come across in Chagall: Modern Master, I too would be over my head and start writing upside down!

To put it simply, Chagall’s paintings are the nightmare version of Comfort fabric softener’s adverts. Fabric sewn dolls of various colours may not dance around to the freshness of newly washed clothes but bright colours do fill a familiar yet altered world where equally vibrant and quirky characters roam gleefully – until you take in a closer look.
Chagall: Modern Master continues at Tate until 6 October 2013