Chagall—The Breakthrough Years, 1911–1919 brings Marc Chagall’s early oeuvre into focus. The exhibition was designed around the extraordinary ensemble of outstanding paintings by the French artist in the collections of the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Im Obersteg Foundation.
Marc Chagall (1887–1985) found his way as an artist as his life was torn between two different worlds: his hometown of Vitebsk in Belorussia and Paris, where he lived between 1911 and 1914. The paintings he created during this period combine recollections of Russian provincial life with iconic fragments of the cosmopolitan French capital, incorporating reminiscences of Russian folk art as well as the most recent stylistic experiments he was exposed to through his acquaintance with many of the most progressive artists, including Pablo Picasso, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and Jacques Lipchitz.
Key works from the Paris years on display in the exhibition include À la Russie, aux ânes et aux autres (1911), which was shown to wide acclaim at the 1912 Salon des Indépendants, and Hommage à Apollinaire (1913), which bears witness to Chagall’s association with the French poet and the Paris avant-garde. The Kunstmuseum Basel also presents numerous paintings and works on paper in which Chagall examined the Jewish shtetl and rural life in his native Belorussia.
In 1914, Chagall’s life took an unintended turn. Overtaken by the outbreak of World War I during a visit back home, he was forced to spend the next eight years in Russia. The exhibition includes a representative selection of works from this period of rapid artistic development as well as political and personal upheaval.
In Vitebsk, the artist entered a phase of intense soul-searching, as numerous paintings and works on paper attest. One highlight from Chagall’s Russian years is the group of so-called “four great rabbis”, three of which are in the Im Obersteg Collection. Created in quick succession in 1914–1915, these works have never before been shown as a complete ensemble. They achieve a compelling synthesis of powerful emotion fueled by individual experience and the search for new formal solutions. The ink drawings Le départ pour la guerre (1914) and other works reflect a defining fact of life in the years after the artist’s return to Russia: the military operations, which affected his hometown as well.
Also among the fruits of Chagall’s eight Russian years are numerous self-portraits, depictions of Jewish life, and, finally, designs for the stage setting for the celebration of the first anniversary of the October Revolution that he organized in his role as the commissar for arts and director of the art school in Vitebsk in 1918.
The major group of paintings in the collections of the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Im Obersteg Foundation is complemented by eminent works on loan from private and public collections in Switzerland and abroad, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Centre Pompidou (Paris), the State Russian Museum (St. Petersburg), the Städel Museum (Frankfurt am Main), the Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow), and the Israel Museum (Jerusalem).
Historic photographs, which constitute another focus of the exhibition, enrich the experience of Chagall’s early oeuvre and provide for often surprising insights. Pictures the Russian artist Solomon Yudovin took in shtetls during the ethnographic expeditions organized by Semen An-Sky in 1912–1914 may be read as an attempt to record for future generations a world endangered by pogroms, political turmoil, and social dynamics. The presentation at the Kunstmuseum Basel is the first time Swiss audiences have an opportunity to see these photographs.
The revolutionary convulsions of 1917–1920 are also vividly rendered in the photojournalism of Viktor Bulla (1883–1944), Steinberg (1880–1942), and Schukov (1870–1942) from the Ruth and Peter Herzog Photography Collection, provided to the Kunstmuseum by the Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron Cabinet, Basel. In addition to their documentary interest, the various photographic corpuses on display in the exhibition are of considerable artistic value.
A catalogue to be published in conjunction with the exhibition will be released by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, with contributions by Simon Baier, Alfred Bodenheimer, Sophie Eichner and Werner Müller, Thomas Grob, Heiko Haumann, Schifra Kupermann, Angela Lampe, Naomi Lubrich, Henriette Mentha, Olga Osadtschy, Barbara Schellewald, and Benjamin Schenk.