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Chagall featured in exhibit on Russian avant-garde

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Double Portrait with Wine Glass

“My pictures are painted collections of inner images which possess me,” Marc Chagall wrote, succinctly distilling the essence of his painterly philosophy.

Until the day he died at the ripe old age of 97, Chagall’s vision was rooted in Vitebsk, where he was born in 1887, the son of a Jewish fishmonger.

Vitebsk, in western Russia’s Pale of Settlement, profoundly shaped Chagall as a painter. He drew not only on chassidic folk tales of miracles and mysteries, but also on Slavic folk art.

These inspirational influences left an indelible impression on Chagall, long after he emigrated from Russia and settled in Paris in 1911. Thirty two of Chagall’s whimsical, dreamy works will be on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Jan. 15. They form an integral component of a compelling exhibit, Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Apart from Chagall, the exhibit features an array of paintings, drawings, sculptures, poster art and photography from such Russian masters as Vassily Kandinsky, Natalia Gontcharova, Mikhail Larionov, Alexandre Danilovich Grinberg, Jacques Lipchitz, El Lissitsky and Ossip Zadkine.

Chagall, however, is at the centre of it. Although he is not everyone’s cup of tea, his brash originality is clearly appealing.

Chagall’s style, characterized by vivid colour, distorted space and geometric forms, resulted in highly personal and unforgettable images that resonate across generations.

On his canvasses, Chagall conjured up fantastical floating lovers, flying horses, goats playing fiddles and the like. His themes turned on memory, family, joy, love and loss.

Nazi invaders razed Vitebsk in World War II, murdering many of its Jewish inhabitants, but the nostalgic Vitebsk of his boyhood remained deeply imbedded in Chagall’s consciousness.

A sampler:

Chagall’s oil on linen Self-Portrait, (1908) is strong and virile, suggesting immense willpower and seld-confidence.

The Studio (1910), an oil on re-lined canvas, is an explosion of blue, red and white colours. As Chagall said, “Colour is the pulse of a work of art.”

To Russia, to the Donkeys and to the Others (1911), an oil on canvas, is surreal and ominous.

The Newspaper Vendor (1914), an oil on cardboard, is moody and melancholy.

Over Vitebsk (1914), an oil on paper mounted on canvas, celebrates a long-lost way of life and portrays a traditional, snowbound landscape of wooden buildings and a Russian Orthodox church.

The Father (1911), an oil on linen, typifies the Russian chassidic Jew.

The Cemetery (1917), an oil and pencil on canvas, is a chaotic jumble of tilting tombstones and a kinetic sky.

The Harlequins (1944), an oil on linen, evokes the joyous facet of the eastern European shtetl.

Chagall’s piece de resistance at the AGO is doubtless Double Portrait with Wine Glass (1914). An oil on canvas in shades of white, red, brown and green, it celebrates his new bride, Bella Rosenfeld, and is an ode to marital bliss and a bow to optimism.

Chagall’s works, the acme of Russian modernism, radiate a range of emotions and glisten powerfully.

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