Viewing a painting by 20th century modernist Marc Chagall makes you want to step through the frame into the colourful dreamscapes of his imagination. And soon you can, in a way, when the Jewish Museum of Australia transforms its gallery rooms into a whimsical wonderland inspired by his paintings.
A new exhibition, simply called Chagall, focuses on the influential artist’s printmaking, poetry and public art, including an exclusive capsule of works that highlights the rich colours and timeless themes of his oeuvre.
The space has been divided with curtains to tell the story of Chagall’s life, accented by reproductions of his 12 stained-glass windows from the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem as well as his stained-glass art from churches and cathedrals around Europe.
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“I think it’s a really lovely way to look at an artist we all think we know,” says curator Jade Niklai. “But actually, the breadth of his practice, and the story of his life is so much greater than what we think we know about him.”
Born in 1887 in Vitebsk, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire), Chagall grew up in a Hassidic Jewish family. Relocating to Paris in 1910 to develop his visual language – which merged folkloric Russian styles, Parisian avant-garde, fauvism, cubism and expressionism – he emerged as one of the most prolific artists of his lifetime.
While Chagall became increasingly secular over the course of his life, his Jewish identity continued to influence his art.
“That idea of Judaism, you know, informed his life,” says Niklai. “But of course, his practice evolved in his thinking, and he is considered to be one of the great masters of modernism, which in many ways was a move away from religion. So, what he represents actually is a very unique position in 20th century art history.”
The exhibition is dedicated to the museum’s inaugural director, the late Dr Helen Light AM, and pays homage to the museum’s first ever large-scale exhibition, in 1995, Chagall and the Bible.
Inspired by that exhibition, the museum is displaying a selection of Chagall’s Bible Series, based on the Old Testament, within its permanent gallery on the first floor.
Accompanying Chagall’s work is a selection of paintings (self-portraits, still life and abstraction) by Archibald Prize winner Yvette Coppersmith, in her first solo exhibition in Melbourne since 2016. According to Niklai, the two artists share similar inspirations.
“[Coppersmith] is an Australian female artist very much working with beauty and the human experience, and with a lot of painting, which is what Chagall’s known for around the world … We wanted to make a connection to the here and now and find a way to revisit his practice and what that could mean for a different type of artist in Australia today.”
While best known for her award-winning portraiture, in recent years Coppersmith’s work has moved into abstraction, with a focus on geometry, colour, and floral motifs – a subject seen in Chagall’s lithographs of various flowers.
“It’s a beautiful connection with the work of Chagall,” says Niklai. “Because flowers became extremely important for him. They were a symbol of his love.”
Chagall opens at the Jewish Museum of Australia on June 9.