Modernism in Exile

John Haber
in New York City

Marc Chagall and Balthus

Like many an old-world parent in New York, Marc Chagall had a dream—to welcome into his family a nice Jewish boy. And so he did in his art, only Jesus Christ. Why did a Christian god mean so much to a Jew in love, war, and exile?

The subject had haunted him even before he left for America with his wife and daughter in June 1941, but it came more and more to stand for the cataclysm that he had left behind. As self-conscious as ever, he even called one wartime painting with an upside-down cross Obsession. Something else happened, too: Jesus began to appear alongside the artist himself, at his easel, often as if he were in the act of painting the suffering man-god—or as if his painting were coming to life. The image of the Crucifixion concentrated his memories, while also becoming a matter of self-identification. In "Chagall: Love, War, and Exile," one sees a man who spent much of his life coming to grips with exile. Marc Chagall's Self-Portrait with Clock (private collection/ARS, 1947)

Plainly the son of another family in exile, Balthus, had issues with childhood, but what about his own? To judge by the Met, the painter of anything but childhood innocence had a soft heart. Nothing so moved him as a boy than the loss of a stray cat, Mitsou. Childhood also gave him a heady start as an artist, at age eleven. His forty drawings so impressed Rainer Maria Rilke that the poet had them published, adding a preface at that. From that point on, the painter needed only a human muse, age eleven herself, and an art of forbidden passions could begin.

Balthus met Thérèse in his late twenties, as a struggling portrait painter, and her very plainness unleashed his trademark combination of blunt feelings, unrevealing gazes, and pseudo-classical form. One who remembers his firm designs, cool flesh, and surface polish may register surprise at the loose colors, broad shadows, and hair as unwilling to stay in place as her skirt. Dare I add that she had a cat? He painted Thérèse at least ten times starting in 1936, and the Met has obtained nearly all. Together with Mitsou in full, they provide the occasion for "Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations." The curator, Sabine Rewald, could have called it "Mews and Muse."

Fiddling with history

Chagall has long stood for a lost world of European Jews, including memories that many of his admirers, like me, could never have had. It has made him a much loved painter, not to mention a seriously cloying one. The Jewish Museum attempts a double feat. It undertakes a retrospective with relatively modest means, by using the artist's later years to revisit themes from throughout his career. Yet it also seeks to rescue him from his own reputation. It wants to recover a darker side of the art of memory. It cannot really pull off either aim, but only because Chagall earned that reputation the hard way, through his art.

Born in 1887, he showed his talents quickly, while never surrendering his roots in a fiercely premodern art. He came from Vitebsk, a largely Jewish town in present-day Belarus, but he traveled widely, first to art school in St. Petersburg. By 1910 he was in Paris at the very center of an unfolding modern art. These were the years of Cubism and inventing abstraction, and one can see them both in his first vision of Calvary (Golgotha), from 1912. One can also see his gift for color, in its fragmented planes and disks right out of Robert Delauney. Those were the years, too, of his better-known images not in the show—like the artist, the goat, and their village and, of course, the inspiration for a hit musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

Cubism obliged him to place those themes close to the picture plane, part of what makes them so strong. It also allowed details to unfold in a dizzying spectacle, as background spins into foreground. Calvary (Golgotha) includes another goat's face, a village elder, and a rower navigating among them all. Chagall is assembling the stock characters for his art, with a visual tightness and spatial experimentation that he will never achieve again. His late compositions look scattered, repetitious, and just plain cute by comparison. Still, by 1911 he already insists on his realism and his fantasies, a combination that anticipates Surrealism a decade later while looking back to the visionary Romanticism of William Blake.

He returned to Russia in 1914. By then he missed his wife, Bella, but World War I broke up much of the School of Paris and sent Wassily Kandinsky back home as well. Like Kandinsky, too, Chagall returned with honor. For a short time, the 1917 revolution offered new opportunities for a Russian revolutionary art, and he founded an academy in Vitebsk, with Kazimir Malevich among its faculty. Still, he and Bella left for Paris in 1923, with trips in the early 1930s to Poland, Palestine, and beyond. Destruction and disillusionment were setting in, on an almost unimaginable scale, and the exhibition truly begins.

Its saga of love, war, and exile begins well before America, with representations of tradition and memory. Chagall illustrated Yiddish poems in 1931, with ink drawings of a pogrom, the Russian revolution, and their prisoners that show a gift for caricature akin not so very far from Francisco de Goya. He also recalls the interiors of synagogues he had seen, in striking detail. He starts to lay down his stock characters as well—the old men with their beards and their talmud, the lovers in each other's arms, the cows playing the violin, the candle in the darkness, the grandfather's clock in the sky, the wild hair, the fallen angels, and the mother and child in the clouds. The angels are blood red, the women mostly naked, and the men asleep, shrouded, or weeping. Terrible fears are starting to compete with whimsy, and it is by no means clear which will win out.

The artist keeps reworking not just images, but entire paintings, which become records of his life and travels all by themselves. The Fall of the Angel dates to 1923, 1933, and 1947. It also shows off his glowing contrasts between color and darkness. Ordinary shadows are rare, because the whole world is in shadow, and highlights are intense, because they stand for fire, winter, terror, and revelation. Chagall at his easel makes his appearance near Lenin doing a handstand, in 1937, and Jesus first returns as a tiny subplot among many. Their shared fate is about to take over the picture in America.

A nice Jewish boy

"Love, War, and Exile" is the story of an aging artist, one who found refuge as a star. Alfred H. Barr, MoMA's founding director, extended personally the invitation to cross the Atlantic to New York, and Pierre Matisse, the son of Henri Matisse, met him at the dock. Germany invaded the Soviet Union the next day. The younger Matisse also gave him a solo show that very year, and Arnold Newman took his portrait photo. He had a retrospective at MoMA after the war. By then Bella had died, leaving him heartbroken—but he and a caretaker, Virginia Haggard McNeil, moved as a couple to Europe, where Chagall died at a ripe old age.

He had written an autobiography, My Life, in 1922, and one can think of the entire exhibition as a sentimental afterthought. He knew how to grieve, but not how to hurt. A clotted portrait of Bella is about his admiration, not his loss (and the exhibition omits that Virginia eventually left him for another man). An infant with its mother can only wipe away its tears and smile. Not even Jesus shows pain. Chagall wants to picture him as an emblem of a "tragic humanity" and an "innocent child."

Maybe that is also how he saw the Jewish people. They and Jesus first appear together in The Artist with Yellow Christ, in 1938. No doubt Jesus was the ultimate nice Jewish boy, as in the work of Deborah Grant, if a rebellious one. Yet Chagall depicts him as the subject of persecution, as carrying the cross, on his descent from the cross, and even in resurrection. He shows Mary and Joseph on their flight to Egypt. He had illustrated the Hebrew Bible in 1931, and his images of exile and return do include Exodus, but there even Moses has only a small part to play.

Why? The curator, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, argues that Chagall had visited churches as a child and learned from their imagery. Maybe he felt that he had found himself in a Christian culture, and it was his job to recover that culture for a Jew, just as he had brought his vision to Modernism. Maybe he felt neither Judaism nor assimilation as an option, because he could neither live in the past nor deny it. Maybe he had the courage not to see the Holocaust as another Exodus, not when the Jews could never again see the old world as a promised land.

Maybe he appreciated the chance to reintroduce non-Biblical characters from Jewish tradition, its angels. Like his palette, they lived in what two titles call Between Darkness and Light and Between God and the Devil. Maybe he identified with the New Testament as revisiting the Old Testament, just as the Crucifixion became his way to paint past and present versions of himself painting. Then again, maybe he just grew more and more grandiose and sentimental. The late compositions running every which way and none recall late Modernism's worst insult, anecdotal. One may leave of two minds about his early paintings as well, as both better art and yet emblems as much of popular culture as of painting.

Still, one will have seen deep color and deep history. The Wikipedia entry on Chagall starts right in by quoting Robert Hughes, who called him "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century." One might better say the quintessential artist in exile, starting with the very birth of Modernism in Paris. In a photograph, he poses beside other European artists in New York—a reminder that Modernism came to America in the guise of refugees. When he paints that grandfather clock and that river in Vitebsk, he is painting the river of time through experiences lost to time. It is not exactly modern art, but as the ruins of the twentieth century it will more than do.

Mews and muse

Everyone wants to know an artist's secret, but seriously, age eleven? Next thing, scholars will find that Pablo Picasso could not let go of a busted high chair, and the result was Cubism. The very idea of a muse or a secret goes poorly with Balthus, who betrayed his share of both. He posed in 1935 as The King of Cats, in a pair of paintings with quite another girl as The Princess. Later he gave himself a feline face scarfing down seafood, as The Cat of La Méditerranée—originally the decor of a restaurant with an impressive literary and artistic crowd. Perhaps he knew that Rilke had been carrying on an affair with his mother.

Balthus's Thérèse (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1938)The show could seem like a lame excuse for just thirty-four paintings. It ends in 1959 with his only night scene, although Balthus continued painting almost to his death in 2001. It omits the cross between a Pietà and S&M of Guitar Lesson, which a shocked Museum of Modern Art turned down as a gift back in 1982. (With his usual enthusiasm, Jerry Saltz speaks of "the painting the Metropolitan Museum won't let you see.") It omits such standards as The Street, The Mountain, and a portrait of André Derain because, after all, those are different genres (and one can see all three in New York museums). Yet all these contain vulnerable children—in the case of Derain, as confirmation of the artist's arrogance and Surrealism.

Still, it makes for a handy retrospective on the cheap. Born in 1908, Balthasar Klossowski traveled in good circles. He came from a family of artists, intellectuals, and Polish exiles of uncertain ethnicity (possibly Jewish) and claims to nobility. (Surprised that Balthus himself was something of a myth?) He left Paris in 1940, first for Savoie in unoccupied France and then to Switzerland, while working out his lifelong variations on a theme. Returning after the war, he left again in 1953 for a grand manor in central France and the show's final room.

His work can seem tacky, laborious, a painful throwback to Romanticism, an ongoing nightmare, a revelation, or all at once. His children may have lost their innocence, but he leaves it ambiguous what could ever count as innocent—and whom to hold responsible. A game of solitaire becomes a study in darkness and child's play indistinguishable from war, and both imply an observer. In The Golden Days, a girl holds a mirror as if impaled by her vanity and its handle, oblivious to the male who stokes the fire. The Victim looks like a willing nude, while another girl's shirt slipping from her shoulders could be binding her for slaughter. Studies toward the painting leave it all but incidental whether the children are naked.

Ambiguity gets along quite well, thank you, with extreme polarization. In The Salon, one girl reads on the floor, while a cat watches over her like a hall monitor. The other flings back her head in sleep, ecstasy, or torment on the old-world sofa. Their lack of interaction adds to both the oddity of the scene and its distance from Modernism's formal symmetry. Girl in Green and Red stares ahead—one hand under her coat as if in a sling, the other reaching toward a single candle. The shining ewer and the plate of bread make her the priestess in a satanic mass, while her skintight costume makes her the jester in a medieval morality play.

All this melodrama can get on one's nerves, not to mention all the wallpaper. In turn, the move to central France can feel like a slackening, with flat sunlight right out of Pierre Bonnard, an early supporter. As for Mitsou, any show based on house pets and children sounds ripe for photo sharing. Still, it tells the story of a born storyteller who resists telling a story, and it clearly starts with a cat. And then unfolds a cryptic family drama. So ultimately, does Balthus in his art.

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"Chagall: Love, War, and Exile" ran at the Jewish Museum through February 2, 2014, "Balthus: Cats and Girls" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 12.


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