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Coming in 2011: Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde

December 16th, 2010

This week, the AGO announced the two major exhibitions it will be hosting in 2011: Abstract Expressionist New York from The Museum of Modern Art, and Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde from Centre Pompidou-Paris. Michael Parke-Taylor, AGO curator of modern art, writes below about the power of Chagall and the new context in which this exhibition views his lush, colourful, and dreamlike work.

What makes this exhibition special? First and foremost, Marc Chagall has never been presented in-depth at the AGO. This show not only showcases 32 outstanding works by Chagall, but also presents him in the context of developments by other artists who formed the avant-garde in Russia.

Let’s focus first on Chagall. By the time he arrived in Paris in May 1911, he had already received training in his native Vitebsk and St. Petersburg and was able to express his Russian-Jewish heritage in highly original works of art. When in Paris, he absorbed the modernist lessons of Cubism, Futurism, Orphism and Expressionism. Upon returning to Russia in 1914, these elements may be identified in his work. At the same time, Chagall’s use of crude, bright colours, perspectival distortion and willful anatomical dislocation calls to mind Russian icons as well as Russian popular prints and naïve folk-art forms. Yet the show goes well beyond this so that visitors will also be struck by a later phase in Chagall’s career when he engaged with the performing arts — dance, theatre and the circus.

The foil to Chagall in this exhibition is found in the Russian avant-garde. Towards the end of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the abstract movement became increasingly political where art and life merged to build a new utopia for society. At the core of this section are works by Tatlin, Malevich, El Lissitzky and Rodchenko. I think visitors will be amazed to see artists working in so many different modes of representation simultaneously – a signpost of great creativity during political upheaval that marks this early period in Russian modern art.

Michael Parke-Taylor
Curator, Modern Art

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