Marc Shagall

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“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” – especially for a young artist, eager to absorb what this supreme moment of untainted modernism offered. In cubism, he felt, the subject was “killed, cut to pieces and its form and surface disguised.” Chagall did not want to go so far, but the flattening, reflection and rotation of cubist form gave his early paintings their special radiance and precision. In “Paris Through the Window”, 1913, we enter a rainbow world, all prismatic light and jingling crystalline triangles. It is full of emblems of stringent modernity: the Eiffel Tower, a parachutist. a train upside down but still insouciantly chuffing. It owes a lot to his friend Robert Delaunay, who made abstractions of Paris windows. But the picture is plucked back from the analytic by its delicious strain of fantasy: a cat with a man’s head serenading on the sill, a Janus head (Chagall himself, looking forward to modernism and back to the village?) displaying a heart on his hand. He was unquestionably a prince of tropes. “With Chagall alone,” said Andre Breton, leader of the surrealists, “metaphor made its triumphant entry into modern painting.” And though the procession that followed its entry had its tedious stretches, involving some fairly shameless plucking on the heart-strings, the best of Chagall remains indispensable to any nondoctrinaire reading of the art of the 20th century.

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