Marc Chagall, pioneer of modernism and considered the foremost Jewish artist of the 20th century, is the subject of an unusual retrospective that opened a few days ago at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
More than 200 of Chagall’s paintings have been collected from all over the world, from his earliest works in 1908 to his monumental works of the 1980s, completed shortly before his death.
Brussels is a good place for Chagall. The city of Rene Magritte, Brussels loves surrealism, floating above reality, above roofs, by means of poetic lift.
The paintings and other works in the exhibit, which will end on June 28, are on loan from the artist’s heirs, various private collections and 20 important museums worldwide. Among the works are some that are only rarely seen publicly.
The exhibit’s curator, Claudia Zevi, who curated a Chagall exhibition previously at the Royal Palace of Milan, is assisted by Chagall’s granddaughter, Meret Meyer. Meyer, the daughter of Chagall’s daughter Ida, divides her time between Paris and Switzerland. She and her twin sister, Bella, who owns a flower shop in New York, grew up in the company of their artist grandfather and see to it that his legacy is preserved.
“Many of the canvasses my grandfather painted are full of great happiness and optimism. That is what attracted the hearts of people and caused them to fall in love with his paintings,” Meyer saidduring a meeting at the museum.
Later, as she stood with her back to one of the artist’s self-portraits, a quick sketch of his face, it was amazing to see the resemblance between the two, how much her smile is his. Meyer allowed me to photograph her with the self-portrait — “although the light is really not good” — and told an old family story: “On the day my sister Bella fell in love with a boy for the first time, grandfather told her with a big smile, ‘now you can understand my paintings better.’”
What did he mean?
“According to his belief, love opens the soul and leads you to see small but important details that before this are invisible. His paintings are full of these details.”
The initial idea for this retrospective came up for the first time more than 25 years ago, when Zevi, the curator, met Chagall’s daughter Ida and the two spoke about the mythos of the artist and the need for an exhibit that would follow him throughout his life. Ida passed away in the meantime, but Meyer took up the task.
The paintings are indeed a journey through Chagall’s life. There are works from his early period, 1908–1914, when he was a student of Leon Bakst in St. Petersburg, and from 1910, when he returned to Vitebsk, the city of his birth, where he met Bella, the love of his life.
Of Bella he wrote: “Her silence is mine, her eyes are mine, it is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me.”
It was in Paris that Chagall discovered avant-garde and the light in his paintings changed. He returned to Russia and his family and his fiancé Bella, who worked for a theater in Moscow at the time but eventually settled in France.
The evil winds blowing in Europe in the 1930s came through the windows of his studio. The Nazis declared his works “degenerate” and he and his family set out once again, this time to New York, where he found refuge at the end of 1940. There, he worked for the New York Ballet Theater, travelling with the company to Mexico in 1942, where his wife Bella sewed costumes for the dancers and he painted them, directly on the fabric. These costumes have been preserved by the family and some are on display in the Brussels exhibit.
Bella died in 1944. Chagall returned to France after the war, settling on the Cote d’Azur. There, his discovery of the light of southern France led to prolific creativity — monumental works, stained glass and scenery — until his death in 1985.
“People who work here alongside me, the electricians, the technicians, the porters — I see how they all of them smile when they look at Chagall’s works. They are the creations of a man who went through the most terrible years in the history of the 20th century,” Zevi said.