Master of Modernism – Marc Chagall in Zürich

Posted February 8th, 2013 under Modernism, Paintings, Russia, Shows

 Marc Chagall
From 8 February to 12 May 2013 the Kunsthaus Zürich is staging an exhibition featuring some 90 paintings and works on paper by Marc Chagall (1887–1985). Chagall is one of the best known and most popular artists of the 20th century. His images of Russian village life, floating figures, flying cows and roosters are world-famous. Now the Kunsthaus Zürich is dispelling some of the clichés on which his belated fame is based and recognizing his contribution to the avant garde. The exhibition is also open on Mondays and offers an audioguide specially designed for families with children.


The exhibition focuses on the years from 1911 to 1922 – a formative period in Chagall’s artistic career. It covers his sojourn in Paris before the First World War, his trip to Berlin and his exhibition there in 1914 at the Galerie Der Sturm, as well as the period spent in his native Russia, a country torn apart by revolution. These are the years in which Chagall establishes himself as a modern master. Unlike his contemporaries, he develops an art that articulates his Jewish and Russian culture and also enters into a dialogue with the visual languages of modernism – from Fauvism to Cubism and Orphism, from Expressionism to Suprematism. He combines these novel forms of painterly expression with his own imaginative motifs to create some of the most innovative and expressive works of 20th-century art. His experiences in Paris and elsewhere reinforce his highly personal and individual pictorial language and prompt him to create images that form the core of his art for the remainder of his career. The exhibition will trace this evolution.


The themes within Chagall’s early work are diverse and timeless: self-portraits, the circus, lovers, music and peasants but also more sombre preoccupations, such as suffering and death, recur throughout his long career. The exhibition opens with important images from his formative years, such as ‘The Poet with the Birds’ from 1911, on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and ‘The Birth’ (1911), from a private collection. The presentation is divided into theme-based groups: works from the first years in Paris, nudes, a homage to Russia, the influences of Cubism, Suprematism and Orphism, designs for the theatre. A group of later works reveals how Chagall continued to refine the repertoire of his earlier oeuvre right up until the end of his long career.


Chagall’s outgoing, imaginative approach to his art celebrates subjective and autobiographical experiences in an overtly narrative and theatrical manner. It comes as no surprise that he worked regularly as a stage designer. Representations of archetypal Jewish characters such as folk musicians, jesters and masters of ceremonies, Torah scribes and wedding dancers symbolize music, drama, literature and dance. With his narrative skills and his unorthodox use of structure combined with his audacious use of colour and special poetic sensibility, Chagall created some of the icons of classic modern painting in images such as ‘I and the Village’ (1911) from the Museum of Modern Art, New York and ‘The Promenade’ (1917-18) from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Cattle Dealer, 1912
Oil on canvas, 97.1 x 202.5 cm
Kunstmuseum Basel, acquired with a contribution from Dr. h.c. Richard Doetsch-Benziger, 1948