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The relatively unknown works of Chagall

‘Día de Fiesta, rabino con limón’ is one of about 15 works by Marc Chagall which are currently on display at the Russian Museum in Malaga.
‘Día de Fiesta, rabino con limón’ is one of about 15 works by Marc Chagall which are currently on display at the Russian Museum in Malaga. / EFE
  • The exhibition includes a selection of early paintings by one of the most popular avant-garde artists at the beginning of the 20th century

A small canvas, barely one metre square, serves to condense and distill the whole universe of an artist. Two figures in the foreground, one bathed in red blood and the other dark; one brandishes something, which could be a hammer, and the other holds a knife with a blooded tip. There are blue shadows in the eyes, an animal cut open like a flower and another, greenish in colour, about to be killed. Years later, the artist who did this painting would still recall how his uncle Nej would get up every morning, take the cows to the stable, tie their feet to make it easier to knock them down and, once they were on the ground, cut their throats over a pit. Memory and fiction, reality and fantasy mixed together in images which are often sweet but on occasion surprisingly violent. The little painting called ‘Matadero’ (1911) by Marc Chagall is one of them, and it now hangs on the walls of the Russian Museum in Malaga.

The Malaga branch of the Russian Museum has decided to put on three new exhibitions at the same time, with the main one featuring the works of Chagall. The other two are about contemporary Russian art and El Quijote. Three rather different subjects, indeed.

In the case of ‘Chagall and his Russian contemporaries’, the artist’s signature appears on barely 25 per cent of the works on display. Also, all the works by Chagall are exhibited together at the end, making it rather difficult to compare the relationships there may have been between the artist and his contemporaries and compatriots. There are, despite this, some promising links with the work of Vera Pestel, such as ‘Interior. Familia a la mesa’ (1918-19) and ‘Tía Pasha’ (1919-1920).

Marc Chagall is one of the most popular avant-garde artists of the early 20th century, to such an extent that this has been one of the most anxiously awaited exhibitions at the Russian Museum this year. However, the museum aims to highlight the historical and artistic context of artists’ works and in the case of Chagall, most are early pieces. This can also be a strength of the exhibition, because it places the emphasis on the rarity of some of the works on display.

Private collectors

As the curator of this exhibition, Evgenia Petrova, explained earlier this week, “ not only do we display works from our own collection, but also those which are less well-known from private collectors in Russia and Europe.” She was referring to some of the pieces by Chagall, which were originally scheduled to be on display at the Russian Museum until November 6 but will now remain there until January 29 next year.

Many of the works which can now be seen at the Russian Museum are therefore not from its own collections, but from private collectors who have loaned them especially for the exhibition in Malaga. These include ‘Alla. Retrato de mujer’ (1909-1910) and ‘El patio del abuelo’ (1914), where once again the artist harks back to his roots, and the more notable ‘Día de fiesta (Rabino con limón)’ (c. 1924) and ‘Barrendero’ (c. 1925).

Also from a private collection is, ‘Amantes azules’ (1914), opening the way for the sentimentality of ‘Paseo’ (1917), with two lovers holding hands and one of them in the clouds, in the literal and metaphoric sense of the expression. ‘Paseo’ has come from the museum in St. Petersburg, as has ‘Judío en rojo’ (1915), which Petrova describes as a metaphor for the community to which Chagall belonged.