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'Marc Chagall' Fits the Bill as Found Art

Art: Faced with a hole in its schedule, LACMA turns to the vivid early works of the prolific Russian artist as a last-minute replacement.

September 18, 1996|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Chagall. If the name makes you smile as you think of paintings portraying airborne couples, fiddlers on rooftops, Russian village life and Jewish festivals, you know you will love "Marc Chagall 1907-1917," opening Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

If, on the other hand, you yawn and roll your eyes as you recall fuzzy, sentimental images that proliferate in shopping center galleries, you probably think this show will be a bore, even if it is the museum's big fall attraction and it focuses on the artist's earliest and best period.

Members of both camps have something to learn about Chagall, said Stephanie Barron, senior curator of 20th century art, who with associate curator Carol Eliel supervised a whirlwind effort to bring the exhibition to Los Angeles as a last-minute substitution.

"I think people are going to be surprised," Barron said. "What makes Chagall popular is that he's very accessible. He had such a feeling of joy in his love for his wife, Bella, that permeates so many of his works. And there's a celebration of folk and village customs, Jewish rituals, weddings and sacred activities. The themes and images are very pleasant."

Chagall was very prolific, however, and he lived a long time, from 1887 to 1985. So the been-there, done-that crowd tends to forget the force of his work, she said. "When you see him mining the same themes in third, fourth and fifth generations, your mind and eye become pretty deadened. To go back to the source of that imagination is really remarkable. Since this [the early work] is the first time out, there's a freshness and a vitality to the imagery."

Born to a poor Orthodox Jewish family in the small Russian town of Vitebsk, Chagall seemed ill-suited to be anything but an artist, but he defied enormous odds to follow his muse.

The exhibition traces his journey to St. Petersburg (1907 to 1910) to Paris (1910 to 1914) and back to Vitebsk, where he went for a visit at the outbreak of World War I and where he was forced to stay through the war. About 80 works are on view, including self-portraits, family pictures, nudes, portrayals of Russian village life, religious themes and depictions of Paris.

Barron said she was startled to find an audacious sense of color that softened in later years. Among other striking features of Chagall's early work are extreme juxtapositions in scale--as in "Bella With White Collar," in which a woman looms large against a sky while a tiny man and child cavort in the foreground.

In other works, "multilayered threads of relationships weave through the canvases in a way that is very haunting," she said. "Some of the works on paper and studies for well-known pictures have a remarkable power to them, even though their scale is modest. And there are some abstracted figures that make one think of Brancusi at this period."

An unexpected complexity of styles and imagery reflects the artist's travels, she said. "Chagall arrived in Paris and in four years met and had a connection with the most major artists in Paris in that very fertile period, then went back to Russia. There's an amazing cross-fertilization from Paris to Russia to Paris in his work. When he is in Paris, he's painting Russia, and when he's in Russia, he's recalling Paris. What you see in this show is certainly one of the most interesting talents active between 1910 and 1920."

Bringing the Chagall show to Los Angeles required an unusually concentrated team effort. A hole appeared in the museum's schedule in early June, when the long-planned "Hidden in Plain Sight: Illusion in Art From Jasper Johns to Virtual Reality" was canceled, primarily because of insufficient funding, according to the museum. LACMA President Andrea Rich gave Barron, head of the museum's 20th century art department, the challenge of filling the gap.

With no time to organize a show from scratch, Barron looked for exhibitions that were appearing at their last venues and might be extended in Los Angeles. The Paul Cezanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and "Picasso and Portraiture" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were objects of desire, but both were far too costly and complicated.

That left "Marc Chagall 1907-1917," a popular and critical hit at New York's Jewish Museum. Barron got on a plane, arranged to see the show the night she arrived and met with the museum's staff the next morning.

Staffers were willing to cooperate but not at liberty to do so because their 100-piece show, assembled by Susan Goodman, was a variation of a 200-work exhibition organized by Sandor Kuthy at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland. Furthermore, the Jewish Museum was already arranging to return works to lenders, but its staff gave LACMA two weeks to arrange loans and make a host of other preparations.

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