Living Art

by charlestonattic

“The Dial” opens its 1924 issue with assurance on the range and rank of work within : “It is the purpose of this folio” the editors declare “to bring together examples of the best and most characteristic work of the leading artists of this time”. Amongst a roll call of more predictable Modernist luminaries, Duncan Grant and Marc Chagall appear side by side: Chagall’s study for “A Pinch of Snuff” (1912) – “It is Written” – features alongside Grant’s 1918 watercolour “Women with Ewer”. While Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso and Derain are accredited contexts to Grant’s work, and therefore unsurprising companions to Grant’s print in the issue, Chagall and Grant are rarely aligned artistically or otherwise. This week in the gift we discovered Chagall’s print from the magazine, interspersed so seamlessly amidst Bell and Grant’s sketches we at first assumed it was a copy.

Although closer inspection revealed the piece to be a highly-wrought facsimile, the artist’s copy – as Walter Benjamin observes – was a precursor to the technological modes of reproduction that were reaching their zenith during Bell and Grant’s career. Titled “Living Art”, this issue of “The Dial” not only evidences the growing popularity of facsimile reproductions, but also gestures to the enlivening potential of the procedure. Where a museum-bound work of art offers a single, static experience, the facsimile enables multiple encounters embedded into the life of the beholder. An artwork glimpsed at an institution may linger in one’s memory, but a facsimile can become a daily means of charging one’s artistic practice with form, flavour and style. Once distantly revered, artworks became accessible, intimate, incorporated into patterns of everyday existence. Therefore, whether consciously or not, the distribution of facsimiles participated in a broader political project Benjamin summarises thus:

“Modern technological reproduction strips […] institutions and their iconic artworks of their aesthetic authority.”

Once the province solely of an elite, reproduction rendered high art common property. Chagall and Grant’s work may have been radically de-mystified by appearing in reproduction, but their relation to each other initially appears tenuous, obscure.

chagallCHA-P-2585-R

“A Pinch of Snuff” by Marc Chagall, 1912. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. CHA/P/2585. Recto “It is Written”, watercolour on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 near the city of Vitbesk (once part of the Russian Empire, now Belarus) to an observant Hasidic Jewish family, a cultural tradition that would come to influence his entire oeuvre. Although undoubtedly distant both culturally and geographically in their upbringings, Chagall, Bell and Grant were all equally enamoured by the Parisian art scene nascent during the first decade of the 20th Century. Chagall arrived in Paris the year Roger Fry introduced a scandalised British public to the French capital’s avant-garde, and only a few years after Grant made his own coming-of-age trip to the city. While Grant worked under Jean-Paul Laurens (admittedly not for long; his aesthetic conservatism impelled Grant elsewhere) and later Jacques Emile Blanche, Chagall befriended the city’s Modernist visionaries, including Guillame Apollinaire, Roger Delaunay, Fernand Leger, Modigliani and Andre Lhote. Despite frequenting very different artistic coteries, Chagall and Grant were both mesmerised by Cubist and Fauvist art. Like Grant, however, Chagall experimented with the tenets of Modernism – dabbling most notably with their rich and unconventional colour palette – while retaining a visual iconography unique to his imaginative world. Indeed, Chagall’s sustained commitment to figurative and narrative art echoes Grant’s return to more traditional themes following a boldly abstract period.

Turning from the plane of abstraction, the pair each developed an idiosyncratic form of Modernism that was, nevertheless, markedly similar at times in tone. Chagall’s quirky motifs ranged from Russian folkloric figures to women in flight, pastel-hued farm animals to eccentrically-strummed musical instruments. Grant, especially in his decorative work, favoured a similarly fantastical range of imagery: nymphs preen upon panels, doors stage tumbling acrobats and a cupboard witnesses a scene of serenading lovers. One is inclined, then, to agree with Vogue who remarked in 1924 that “Mr Duncan Grant has restored fantasy to furniture”. Flirting with a whimsy and sentimentality often anathema to their own avant-garde, both have since been said to possess a curiously literary quality. Chagall, Rainer Metzger suggests, sought “the imaginative strength of the poet”; Grant courted a “free play of connotation and allusion” Christopher Reed places closer to contemporary formalist literature than any concurrent art movement.

However, “It is Written” is not the sort of dreamscape tying Chagall’s aesthetic to Grant’s, but rather an homage to his homeland, particularly the Orthodox lifestyle that so shaped his childhood. Chagall’s otherwise realist image of contemplation is lent a lyricism by an impossibly turquoise-toned Talmudic scholar and the searing yellow of his surroundings. When compared to Grant’s contribution to “The Dial” – the sensual, pastoral “Woman with Ewer” – their differences could not be more pronounced.

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“Woman with Ewer” by Duncan Grant, 1918. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

If not lead to Chagall’s work when allied by “The Dial”, Grant may have returned to this study following his 1966 trip to New York, where he was shown Chagall’s decorations at the Lincoln Opera House, and later his stained glass window at the United Nations building. For Chagall was equally eclectic in his talents: just as Grant worked across mediums, establishing himself as a fine artist unafraid of decorative art or commercial projects, Chagall was a painter, lithographer, etcher, ceramist and designer.

Speculation aside, this unusual find offers a reassuring counterpoint to Modernism’s often troubled relationship to Jewish culture; Grant’s preservation of the facsimile in particular indexes an admiration and respect for Chagall’s striking mediation on Jewish identity.

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