Article excerpt

Retrospectives on the grand scale - and this enormously popular show is such a one - can be a blessing or a curse. In the case of a painter such as Picasso or Matisse, we marvel at the extraordinary changes of direction, the sudden accelerations, the unexpected departures, the different ways in which an artist's work can respond to the times through which he lives. In the case of Marc Chagall (1887-1985), whose painting career lasted approximately 75 years, the blessings are mixed. Roughly speaking, Chagall finished just about where he began. There is a particular Chagall mood, and a particular way of rendering that mood on canvas, that remains relatively fixed from first to last.

Consider just two of the paintings from this huge show of several hundred canvases displayed across 11 galleries. The first, Golgotha (1912), was painted when Chagall was 25 years old; the second, La Vie, was painted in 1964, over 50 years later.

Golgotha is a crucifixion scene whose mood can only be described as shockingly delightful - that in itself is rather troubling, given the gravity of the subject matter. A blue Christ floats untroublingly in the middle of the air, delicately pinioned to his cross. He looks more like an acrobat beneath a big top than the Son of Man suffering on behalf of fallen humanity. In fact, the whole mise-en-scene looks like a circus tent, with its charming swirls and blushings of bright colour. A turbaned man with a red ladder, charmingly like a figure from folklore, approaches him. A small group huddles at the foot of the cross, but it is their decorative warmth that we admire more than anything else. …