Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview
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If Cubism provided one of the most rigorously disciplined pictorial structures in the history of art, it simultaneously released, for certain artists, an unparalleled freedom of imaginative structure. Duchamp's work has shown how the logical analyses of Cubism could be transformed into fantasy. The same surprising metamorphosis occurred in the work of three other masters -- the Russian Marc Chagall, the Swiss Paul Klee, and the Spaniard Joan Miró.

Marc Chagall (b. 1887 [ 1889?]) moved to Paris from Russia in 1910, and thus repeated the biographical pattern of the many twentieth-century artists who gravitated to Europe's artistic capital from countries whose nineteenth-century tradition was relatively remote from the most progressive artistic currents. Nevertheless, when Chagall arrived in Paris, he already had behind him a small but markedly individual oeuvre, which was distinguished by its fanciful narrative descriptions of the major events -- birth, marriage, death -- connected with the simple life cycle he had experienced around him in the Jewish quarter of his native town, Vitebsk.

In Candles in the Street of 1908, he strains a fundamentally traditional perspective space and an essentially literal description of the village figures and their humble architecture to the extremities of fantasy in order to re-create the strange, disjointed memories of his grandfather fiddling on a village rooftop, of a woman shrieking down the street one night to bring help to her dying husband, and of the dead man himself, lying on the ground and surrounded by six candles. Yet the relatively traditional style of this painting hardly seems capable of articulating fully the extraordinary fluidity of imagination suggested by this juxtaposition of separate memory images, and Chagall himself quickly explored a new pictorial means to make his fantastic ends visible. Within one year after arriving in Paris he had learned the language of Cubism thoroughly, and could already use it to translate his own feelings, memories, and symbols into paint.

Chagall's astonishingly rapid absorption of Cubism is apparent in I and the Village of 1911. The plunging perspective space, the discrete and opaque forms, the relative respect for scale and gravity in the early work are suddenly replaced by a flattened space, fragmented and transparent objects, and an exuberant disregard for matters of size or of up and down. Now the images of Vitebsk, which had been naïvely, if vigorously, described with the continuous space and integral objects of Candles in the Street, float in a discontinuous space composed of fragmented memories. The startlingly large head of a fantastic creature -- part cow, part donkey, part goat (and in the empathic intensity of the eye, one feels, part Chagall) -- confronts the equally large head of a peasant, while the dreamlike spaces around them are filled with a


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