Chagall at Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool Chagall exhibition banner updated

Last week we went to visit the Tate on the Albert Dock in Liverpool to have a look at the exhibition of paintings by Marc Chagall which opened recently.

The exhibition covers the earlier years of his work,  although there were a small number from the later period at the end of the exhibition. My first impressions were how well he used colour and that he couldn’t draw.

I think I was definitely right on the first point as no lesser a person than Picasso agreed – there was a quote from him stencilled on the wall towards the end of the exhibition –

“When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour is.”

This was apparent from almost all his paintings from the time he moved to Paris in May 1911, but particularly after 1912 when he became influenced by the French painter Robert Delaunay. According to the curators

Chagall executed a number of paintings using vividly opposing colours that are visually similar to Delaunay’s theory of ‘pure painting’ – a development towards abstraction based on colour investigations, christened ‘orphism’ by Apollinaire in 1912.

Marc Chagall, ‘The Green Donkey’ 1911

The Green Donkey (1911) picture source Tate website

His colours were bright, but not necessarily realistic, as the painting of his green donkey above, illustrates! And they weren’t “flat”. He didn’t go for large expanses of monotone colour. There was variation in how they were applied, creating texture and a “weathered” look, although that’s not so easy to see looking at reproductions – you need to view the paintings “in the flesh”.

I was wrong on the second point, though. My initial impression was that many of his figures were quite crude, almost naive in style.  But after seeing a couple of pictures (particularly the painting of his brother David playing a mandolin seen here) which were a little more like conventional portraits, I changed my view.  I guess he was deliberately trying to achieve a naivety in his work. Or perhaps not.

This painting of two lovers (Chagall and his wife, Bella), reminded me rather of Picasso and his “blue period” works

Marc Chagall. Blue Lovers. 1914

Blue Lovers (1914) source:

For me, the exhibition demonstrated that he had absorbed a lot of influences during his time in Paris – the post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Gaugin, the Fauvists and the Cubists in particular as well as the above mentioned Delaunay. But there were also many Surrealist touches in his work. Heads on upside down (from quite early on during his first stay in Paris), people flying through the air (like in the painting where he is swinging Bella through the air), people adopting strange, impossible in some cases, postures and the presence of small people in strange locations (like on the picture used to advertise the exhibition). Many of them feature in this painting which I particularly liked.

Marc Chagall. Paris through the Window. 1913

Paris through the Window(1913) source:

I don’t think his attempt to create Constructivist works while he was in Russia after the Revolution wasn’t successful – probably because it was a half hearted attempt to try out a purely abstract style that didn’t appeal to him. The murals he produced for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, all display in the second half of the exhibition, are much more typical of his style and approach.

With their dreamy, pale colours and detailed compositions these works act as a manifesto for Chagall’s deliberately hybrid aesthetic, in which broad bands of colour plainly derived from suprematism are the backdrop – but only the backdrop – for resolutely non-abstract portraits of performers, artists and livestock. These monumental paintings packed with activity present Chagall’s panoramic vision of the Jewish theatre as the theatre of life. (Tate website)

The exhibition certainly made me much more aware of Chagall and, as is often the case, made me want to find out more.  I’ll have to read up on him now! And we’ll be paying another visit to the exhibition before it closes at the beginning of October


Some more of the paintings on display can be seen on the Independent website here.

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