Marc Chagall is one of the most identifiable and individualistic artists of the 20th century. His vibrant, fantastical imagination combines the soul of Russia with the Jewish traditions into which he was born, in Vitebsk, in 1887.

There was never any doubt that the young Chagall was an artist. Throughout his long, prolific career, his paintings – which subsequently found their way into ceramics, murals, costumes for dance and theatre, stained glass, sculpture, mosaics – brim over with the exuberance of perennial youth and a vision of the people and places of his native country, which lent them irresistible, magical charm.

A contemporary of artists like Modigliani, Soutine, Delaunay and the Cubists, he defied categorisation and took flight into an inner world, illuminated by images of clocks, crucifixes, circus performers, musical instruments, chandeliers, lovers, rabbis and all manner of birds and beasts. Far from being grounded in reality, his subjects float in air, free from artistic definitions, social norms, rules and regulations.

No description of Chagall’s art exceeds his own: “My art is irrational, a flamboyant go-between, a blue spirit springing out of my pictures. Let my madness be welcome, let it be an expiatory train, a revolution of content and not of form”.

However, his artistic freedom also made him solitary for, in avoiding convention, he also avoided inclusion in groups, schools or systems. But his that isolation left him free to travel, in his head, his heart, through artistic genres and across the world.

Images from the enclosed world of the shtetls ,with their exotic Askenazy rituals and traditions – including the iconic fiddler on the roof – would find new avenues of expression when Chagall moved to Paris and New York. His time in these cities provide the focus of the latest immersive exhibition at the Atelier des Lumières in the 11th arrondissement of Paris.

These two capitals of modern art represent crucial stages in Chagall’s career. Paris was his chosen city and, thanks to the avant-garde movements of the 1910s, it provided the young Russian painter with a pool of experimental work, which he enriched with his own cultural references.

New York was, primarily, his place of exile during the 1940s and yet it, too, gave his creativity fresh impetus. After the war, several exhibitions and major commissions reinforced the links between Paris and New York and brought Chagall back to the United States up until the 1970s.

It is a thrilling experience to stand, sit or move around this vast former iron foundry, to experience total immersion in Chagall’s mystical, ever-changing world. Many major themes and images from his repertoire are projected onto the Atelier’s grimy walls and industrial workings, fitting together like a jigsaw of cut-out pieces.

They come and go, emerging then deconstructing themselves, to the accompaniment of extracts of classical music, klezmer and jazz, all of which were so much part of Chagall’s cultural universe. His glorious bestiary, his wondrous characters from circus, fables, myths and opera, as well as biblical episodes and references to Russian culture, poetically evoke his own rich life experiences.

The art of Chagall can be found in many predictable and unexpected places – on the painted ceiling of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, in the sunny courtyards and stained glass windows of the Fondation Maeght in the Provençal hills, on the walls of my own local primary school in Brittany (Ecole Marc Chagall in Plumelin), in the Biblical Message inside a small building on the Cimiez hill above Nice.

The Atelier des Lumières offers the public an unforgettable journey into the heart and soul of an artist who continues to fascinate, to beguile and to entertain.

Continues until 7 January 2024.

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