Scenes from Russia with Love; Art

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 19, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Scenes from Russia with Love; Art



Royal Academy, London


You not only need strong elbows for the Royal Academy's crowded Chagall exhibition, but a strong stomach, too. Quite a lot of Chagall: Love and the Stage is devoted to paintings of a puppy-dog winsomeness, a candyfloss world where sweet pairs of lovers hold hands and fly above adorable little towns.

No storm clouds threaten this sanitised vision, no threat of anything but an eternity of half-witted prettiness.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is a

pillar of the greetings card industry and, to be honest, that is the intellectual level of a great deal of his work. He is the master of niceness, and concentrated exposure to his sugary paintings can have a dangerous effect on the viewer - I went home and kicked the cat. But this is still an interesting exhibition, and the Royal Academy has gathered some rarely seen and important works from the most intriguing period of Chagall's career.

By 1914, he was a fairly successful painter in Paris, where he had been living and studying since 1910, easily fitting into the bohemian and cosmopolitan world which inspired his extravagant paintings.

During this time he had made contact with the glamorous and interesting circle of Russian emigres who surrounded the impresario Serge Diaghilev and his company, the Ballets Russes, which were electrifying western European audiences. And Chagall's celebrity had begun to spread with a Berlin gallery-owner, Herwarth Walden, mounting a show of this increasingly fashionable young artist.

In June 1914, Chagall decided to return to his home town of Vitebsk in Russia to rekindle the relationship with his fiancee, Bella Rosenfeld. His timing wasn't brilliant; though he had intended to stay only for three months, the outbreak of war, and later the Russian Revolution, isolated him in his home country for eight years.

This period spent in Russia, to which the Royal Academy's exhibition is devoted, produced homely subjects like Window in the Country, and all those fluffy love paintings inspired by Bella, who married him in 1915.

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