Was Chagall a great artist? Part I

Unlike Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky or Malevich, Chagall has left neither an “ism” for art historians to chew on, nor a horde of followers who’d change the course of art history. It is not that no one has tried to play with Chagall’s manner or imagery, of course. Kandinsky himself, in 1911, fell under Chagall’s spell with The Lady in Moscow and failed so spectacularly he never dared to venture into “Chagallism” again. There are, of course, artists who paint in the manner of Chagall today (I saw one at a French art gallery a few years ago) but their feeble parroting is nowhere near the original.


Chagall is on top of Kandinsky, obviously. What did go wrong with Kandinsky’s painting? Share your view in the comments!

A Chagall show traveled the world in 2012, leaving a comet’s tail of glowing reviews about Chagall’s colours, love metaphors, Hasidic heritage, and bio highlights.

Most of the reviewers carefully skirted the question of whether Chagall was a great artist by simply quoting Picasso who once said,

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

In fact, this is a not a full quote. Picasso went on to say,

“I’m not crazy about his roosters and asses and flying violinists, and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together. Some of the last things he’s done in Vence convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”

The full quote makes Chagall a remarkable colourist (although second to Matisse) with questionable content, but is this enough to become a venerated genius? It reminds me of a man who compliments a woman he doesn’t like by saying she has beautiful eyes.

Perhaps, Chagall wasn’t great? Perhaps, he was a primitivistic painter whose childish doodles can talk to Hasidic Jews only?

Perhaps, Chagall couldn’t draw and paint, just as, according to this mob of trolls, Renoir*)?

Many of my friends say something along these lines:

“I like some of his work”,
“I like his early work”,
“I like his work, but I don’t really love it”
“I don’t care for Chagall”

The last phrase comes from an artist and it is really very clever. It is an honest admission that an artist doesn’t talk to someone without passing a judgement if the artist is great or bad.

The Renoir trolls could learn from this, were it Renoir and not fame that they were after.

Enough of “perhaps”, though.

I believe Chagall is a great artist, and I hope to make you see his greatness in this series of posts.

To jump the queue, I will offer my view of the Chagall appreciation problem right from the start.

Marc Chagall is so easy on the eye and so strenuous on the mind that many feel it is either unnecessary or too tiring to follow through.
The net effect of this is that Chagall is easy to like, but difficult to love.

Chagall’s colours, often referred to as “brilliant” and “luminous”, offer a simple, undemanding pleasure. His figures and shapes are instantly recognisable: a fiddler, a cock, a cow, a log cabin, a church. We know what they are the moment we see them.

It is easy to say, I like Chagall’s colours, or I like Chagall’s compositions. All the figures and colours fit the space of the canvas and balance against each other in an effortless and harmonious way that not only doesn’t strain the eye, but is quite pleasing.

Chagall, Blue House, 1917

Chagall, Blue House, 1917 — a great example of a composition that balances the blue mass of the house just the right way for the observer to hear its wood creak.

This easiness on the eye makes it simple to rejoice at Chagall’s harmony and move on to the next painting, in full certainty that Chagall has accomplished his artistic task of giving us a visual candy.

Wait! Don’t move on! Visual pleasure was a tool, not the purpose! Walking away from Chagall now is like using a silver dollar coin to buy a Coke.

Phew… I am happy you stayed! Now we can talk about the effects of Chagall on the mind.

Chagall’s symbolism, ambiguous and often unexplained until today, provides critics with unlimited opportunities for dissertations. Besides, it puts the mind of an observer to an exercise that some people find quite exhilarating and rewarding. Solving a riddle usually ends in pleasure: “I’m smart enough to decipher this code, Hurrah!”

The problem is that, having solved the code (or some of it), the happy observer stops enjoying the painting and goes off to the next one, thus missing the whole point of what the painting was actually about.

You see, abandoning Chagall after his code is solved is like throwing away a book in which you’ve read all the words in random order but stopped short of connecting them into coherent sentences.

Stay. Don’t hurry off to celebrate your code-breaking talent.

Reading Chagall takes time, and just as a book, his painting can narrate an inspiring story if you give it a chance.

And this is the journey I will be taking you on.

Stay tuned.


*) I wrote about Renoir here once, explaining how great this artist was. A post about Renoir portraits, nudes, and the underlying male chauvinism is long overdue, I know.

Escher was real. In India.

“At that moment the bottom fell out of Arthur’s mind. His eyes turned inside out. His feet began to leak out of the top of his head. The room folded flat about him, spun around, shifted out of existence and left him sliding into his own navel. They were passing through hyperspace.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

If you thought M.C.Escher’s reality-twisting drawings were a by-product of his imagination totally irrelevant to Man busy with remodeling his terraced house, go through this gallery of Indian temples step wells by Victoria Lautman (and some Escher drawings), and think again.

I don’t remember when was the last time ancient architecture stunned me so much.


Simple words possess magic powers, in much the same way that magic spells, actually, don’t. I will use a single word now to summon the attention of one particular individual, and, in the process, explain how the trick works.

What was your first thought, your most salient association when you read “stoned” at the top?

Was it the ugly habit of killing people by throwing stones that is still practiced in some cultures? Well then, you are either a conservative, whose sleep is disturbed by visions of ISIS fighters on your doorstep, or a liberal pundit fighting for women’s rights.

If you thought about a stoned drug addict, you are either a liberal with fond memories of this mind-numbing effect or a conservative who views all liberals as worthless hippies. It doesn’t mean I think conservatives have never zoned out, of course. Some of them are known for escapades that put iconic liberal hippies to shame.

If a fruit materialized in your mind, you must be British, because in Britain fruits (e.g.apricots) have stones while in the US fruits have pits.

If a stoned grave sprang to your mind, you must be – Bingo! – the one individual I promised to summon, my friend Igor (hello, Igor!) who went to see Chagall’s grave the other day and discovered it had been buried under a collection of stones left by his admirers.

You may think that with Igor venturing to a cemetery, it is going to be a fiction story. Nope. It’s real. My friend’s name is indeed Igor and he’s not a proverbial assistant of an evil villain, who decided resurrecting Chagall might not be such a bad idea, given the sad state of contemporary art. Although, if such a villain really existed he wouldn’t be all that evil, would he?

“Visiting stones” are part of an ancient Jewish tradition. If you visit a grave of someone you respect and remember, you leave a stone on it.


The only difference with Chagall is that in the classic tradition you leave an unmarked stone, like the ones on Oskar Schinder’s grave, which is visited now by 6000 people who are descendants of the 1200 souls he saved during the war:


Sometimes, people bring flowers, their own drawings, and unmarked stones to graves of artists (this is Modigliani’s tombstone):


My first reaction to Igor’s photos was… mixed. I though, “A heart shaped souvenir” with “I ♥ you” on it!? Is this the way to pay respect to an artist who has helped millions of people find happiness in their bleak and often horrible circumstances? Is this appropriate homage to a painter who has made the Bible look like a book of clever stories with a happy ending?

And then I thought I was being so snobbish it had blinded me to the obvious. Even if “I ♥ you” translates “I ♥ myself for being so culturally advanced that I’ve made a detour to see Chagall’s grave”, it works. Chagall makes people happy with themselves even from his grave. without lifting a finger. And, on the bright side, they have to bow to put the stone down. Even if the act of bowing does not consciously register as respect, there must be an unconscious level on which it does.

Is it a good tradition then? Well, it is competitive, that’s for sure. The more people remember you, the more stones your grave accumulates for everyone to see that you are remembered by a lot of people. I don’t know if pride or envy have any benefit for the dead, but this rocky equivalent of Facebook “Likes” must make the living think of doing something good for other people while they are still living.

The only problem with this tradition is its origin, or rather its most plausible explanation. It is, of course, the most improbable one at the same time, but scratch any religious tradition, and you’d find plenty of plausible improbability beneath.

This is the story:

Shui Haber. Halachic Researcher at Mir.
A story that happened in Jerusalem, retold in Sefer Ha’Todaah (Book of Our Heritage) by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov:

“Rabbi Kalonymus Baal Haness, who is buried at the foot of the Mount of Olives… was instrumental in saving the Jews of Jerusalem from the effects of a blood libel. The Ishmaelites had killed one of their own children and thrown him by night into the courtyard of the synagogue in an attempt to destroy their enemies the Jews. Although it was Shabbat, Rabbi Kalonymus wrote one of the sacred names of G-d on a piece of parchment and placed this on the forehead of the murdered child. Immediately the latter stood up and pointed an accusing finger at the true murderer. But Rabbi Kalonymus passed judgment on himself for having desecrated the Shabbat and commanded that after his death whoever passed by his grave should throw a stone thereon. The people of Jerusalem carried out his wishes, and it became the custom that whoever passed there added a stone to the heap on his grave.”

Yes, it goes back to the myth of Jews and their recipe of matzoh with blood of children. I am not sure supporting a tradition that lies at the heart of the Middle East conflict was something Chagall admirers, especially the ones of Ishmaelite descent, wanted to do or even thought of.

Perhaps, flowers will do next time you’re at the site.

What I am certain about is that Chagall didn’t feature a lot in this blog, and it’s time I put down a stone of my own. So, stay tuned, Chagall is coming soon.

In the meantime, please tell me what you like (or don’t like) about Chagall, what you understand, or don’t understand about his work, and which works are your favourite. This will be a great help for me!

PS No liberal or conservative was harmed in any way in the process of writing this post.

Mental chair for Sunday evening

I have already quoted Matisse once on his idea of art providing a “mental chair” to the observer, but here it is, shown in all its glory in a small painting of a reclining woman (1946).


What’s unusual about it?

The woman is taken from above, as if Matisse were hovering over her with his easel. The perspective is twisted so much the room resembles a capsule or a cocoon. The girl is totally relaxed: look at the way Matisse painted her legs.

She appears to be both lying down and flying with the chair cover becoming her wings.

Do you recall Cezanne’s theorem that everything is made of cyliners, pyramids, balls and boxes? Matisse says, at least in this painting, that everything’s built mostly of hearts, a blue box and a black square.

And if the hearts are more or less an obvious though sentimental choice, what’s the role of the black box (linked to the chair by the red border)? And what about the space of green and yellow dots that resembles a field with flowers behind the chair?

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Is it a door to this warped room of calm soaring? A black square that the observer can use to come and leave?

And what about the plant that resembles a birdview of a palm tree? It does help to build up the flying sensation, but was it its sole purpose?

IMG_2163 - копия (3)

Any ideas? I’d love to hear what you think.

Welcome outta here!

It’s difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard of the Bemusement park Dismaland, Banksy’s parody of the pinnacle of capitalist entertainment, Disneyland.

If you have been away on a mission in deep space and missed it, here are a few reports with many colour pics and much textual excitement: 1, 2, 3, 4.

The show closed its doors the other day, earning ca,£20m for the local community, some £7m for the railroad, and £450K on £3 entry tickets sold to 150K visitors over the six weeks it stayed open.


A queue of 2000 is something to awe at, unless your number is in the 1900s.

I don’t think Banksy the Revolutionary, known for his fear to be seen as a capitalist, has earned anything himself on this, though the value of his present and future works must have got a jab of PR so powerful his more capitalistic brothers-in-arts have gone green with envy.

Much has been written already about the financial irony of this anti-capitalistic fair, but I guess Andy Warhol said it all when he painted his dollar sign, officially announcing that post-modernism, as an anti-capitalistic movement, died when Andy’s one-dollar bills started selling for more than one dollar (recently it sold for $37 million).  Revolutionaries becoming capitalists? Freedom fighters turning into dictators? It all has happened so many times already we all should tattoo an Yin & Yang symbol on the forehead and stop getting agitated each time another Russel Brand posts a preaching video on YouTube.

It's Andy Warhol's dollar sign, of course

It’s Andy Warhol’s dollar sign, of course

Vivienne Westwood, who used to be a rebellious punk of post-modernist design at the time, could enlighten us all about this transformation, were she not, mentally, completely out to lunch (I can’t consider a multi-millionaire, urging the poor who can’t afford organic food to eat less, a sane person).

A revolutionary anti-capitalistic artist generates revolutionary profits for capitalists. Isn’t it a great example of modern capitalism’s ability to consume revolutions for breakfast?

My big question is about people who went to Dismaland; people who would queue for hours to get in, pay many times the face value of the entry ticket, splash on trains, hotels, and restaurants to spend a few hours watching art and getting abused by the park’s staff, trained, as I understand, to abuse.

Why would anyone want to suffer through all of this to get in?

Were the artworks so great they required direct contact to be appreciated?

Let’s see some of the stuff.

This obvious reference to Diana’s death and the general mass media’s infatuation with blood-soaking sensations is cutely sarcastic, but does it make the observer think up any new ideas? Does it make the observer feel something that would change the course of his or her future actions? Frankly, I doubt it. Mass media enjoys it when someone’s poking fun at its evil nature because it doesn’t seem so evil then.

Of course a show like that couldn’t bypass the refugee crisis.

Visitors could pilot a police boat or fight on the refugee side, playing hide&seek around the pond.

Does this cute little show really address the burning issues? Well, no. Because the issue is whether the Western middle class is prepared to pay more taxes to accommodate refugees financially and is also ready to abandon some of the freedoms it enjoys in favour of the refugee culture and religion. Does the exhibit address it? Of course not. Modern revolutionaries love playing it safe.

From what I have seen and read, the show organisers claimed Dismaland was meant to be a plunge into the grim reality of modern life, challenges, and society’s pains and ills.

From what I have seen and read, I couldn’t find a single artwork that would really be an artwork that requires physical presence to appreciate it, that would be clever enough to address a real issue (and not an already known, discussed, dissected, and often resolved one), and that would be, ultimately, emotionally exciting or interesting.

I suspect, very contrary to the organisers’ intent, this show was not about the grim reality. It blanketed the real issues artists should be talking about. Or, perhaps, this was exactly the intent. Why else would Damien Hirst, an idea-thief, market manipulator, and owner of creative slaves, join the party?

The History of Pain by Damien Hirst. Source

This is Damien Hirst at his best: delivering cheap thrills under “clever” metaphysical names. For me, this is the iconic exhibit in this whole show. A show which didn’t talk about anything serious, discussed the already resolved, and satirized the obvious. A smirking show. 

I feel Banksy and his team have gone soft and complacent. It’s time he painted his own dollar sign.  Or not?

What do you think? If you visited it, please share the exhibits that made you think about something new, changed your attitude, or worked at least in some way except making you smirk. 

PS I don’t doubt for a second the high commercial value of a show that makes people smirk, of course.



For a few, this word is the simplest psychological test to see if you are a dedicated fan of Jim Morrison. This is not a post about the Doors, guys.

For most, doors are about keeping pets inside and thieves outside.

In arts, doors function differently.

In fiction, doors are a conventional plot device.

A simple door can trigger an engaging plot by transferring the protagonist to a miraculous new world. A door creaks at the height of a passionate moment, and – bang! – Prince Charming now needs to make a formal proposal to the blushing daughter of Evil Queen who just stepped in. Andy McNab, an ex-SAS commando, has made a career in crime fiction by explaining that not only you don’t smash doors when infiltrating a building with terrorists inside (you open ’em doors very carefully), you have to close the door just as carefully after you entered the room, because you don’t want anyone to spring up on you from behind. I am sorry that you won’t enjoy reading Andy McNab now that I’ve revealed his plot structure.

In literature, doors offer endless possibilities with plot development, much more so than windows.

In visual arts windows dominate over doors. Windows create stories by establishing a conflict between the inside and the outside of a room. Painting a window is an easy way to make the painting interesting. Doors, and especially closed doors, are more complicated and less obvious devices to weave a plot, because the observers can’t see what’s behind them, and have to imagine it.

Woman of Cairo at her Door (Girl in Oriental Costume) 1897 - Jean-Leon Gerome

Woman of Cairo at her Door (Girl in Oriental Costume) 1897 – Jean-Leon Gerome

In this painting of a hopelessly classic French painter the door makes you imagine the world this Woman of Cairo represents. Your imagination is, of course, carefully guided by the artist. The caged bird, the contrast between live flowers and the design of the carpet that hangs over the entrance, the seductive pose and look of the girl: everything makes you think of the magic Oriental world into which you get teleported if you step through this door. Again, you don’t know for certain what you are going to find there. Perhaps, you’d get tea and a relaxing massage? Or you’d get caged as the bird above the door?

Doors raise questions, and instead of giving answers they make promises. That’s why, unlike windows, doors are ambiguous (you don’t always know what’s behind).

This is also why doors are employed by modern and contemporary painters, sculptors, and critics, who love to compensate their lack of ideas by complexity and ambiguity.

Paintings by Barnett Newman, one of the biggest names in American abstract expressionism are often described as “portals to the sublime”. A portal rolls in the mouth better than a door if you decide to go metaphysical, and “the sublime” (or its sister, “transcendence”) is a wildcard kind of word that critics use whenever they don’t really know what the heck they are talking about.


I am sure if Newman’s work is watched for an hour, some of the lines start pulsating, and their lights suddenly flicker, giving you the feeling of a door creaking open for you. That is, if your legs don’t kill you first. I, like most people, prefer other ways to achieve the same kind of nirvana,

I am sure many of my readers have remembered Rothko by now. A lot of people believe that Rothko’s doors are the best in class in terms of teleporting the viewer in a sour or cheerful mood (depending on the colour scheme, of course), but Rothko would probably strangle anyone who would compare his colour fields to a door with his bare hands, so I skip Rothko and go directly to Matisse.

His door of 1914 was one of the biggest door-related surprises this year (besides the time when I didn’t have keys to my own home and no one was there). In 1914, he stepped aside from his Fauvist cheerfulness into pessimistic dark blends, and I am sure you can feel it even in this photograph. The reflection in the glass is me. It gives a scale to the painting, and also jabs an accusing finger at Centre Pompidou who can’t be bothered to frame a modern masterpiece in museum-quality non-reflective glass.

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Imagine yourself standing in front of it. Imagine you need to decide on whether you step through or walk past. Imagine what is waiting for you inside.

Once you’ve done the imaginings, you’d understand that Abstract Expressionism was not a revolutionary American invention but a concept that a Frenchman had once played with for a couple of years before dumping it as a waste of time and effort, and going back to his optimistically pure colours.

Life’s too short to make art that makes it gloomier than it already is.

Perhaps, contemporary artists have come up with new approaches to doors and the related metaphysics? (I am asking it with my tongue so deep in my cheek I appear to have a serious dental problem to an outside observer) 

Let’s take the work of Steven Claydon, a contemporary British artist who is famous for both his sculptural work and playing pipes as a member of the Weird Sisters band in a Harry Potter movie:

DSC_0310 DSC_0311

He puts different doors on uniform metal fences hoping, as I understand, to create different meaning about the physically empty spaces that exist behind. Well, yes, it works, but I am not sure I am excited about this. Magritte said it all about closed doors opening up into different spaces, leaving us with so many doors one can spend a lifetime opening them all.

Magritte, 1935

Magritite, 1935

Are you aware of a contemporary artist who has produced a new plot using the door device? I mean, really new, and not a repetition of a century-old idea.  Please let me know!

Also, please share with me anything recent and interesting you know about doors in paintings or sculpture! Or just the doors you love for some reason. 

Portrait of mountain

I spent the last weekend in the mountains, in the Chamonix area in France, where I took a million pictures while doing my first hiking tour ever. A very good friend of mine, madly in love with mountains, glaciers, and art came up with an idea that painting a mountain is very much like painting a portrait. It is impossible to paint a mountain properly if the artist who embarks on the painting is not aware of the mountain’s origin, history, the way it has been maturing, etc. Getting to know a mountain is also about learning of its behaviour in different light, and weather. Mountains can have a very different view of humans depending on the time of year or the season.

Of course, it is always possible to trace a photograph onto a canvas, but what’s the point in in painting then?

As people generally love watching mountains, taking pictures of mountains, and remembering mountains, there is a horde of artists who churn out mountain images and even tell you about their secrets on YouTube. Do they add anything to the understanding of mountains, human infatuation with the huge rocky things, or the human character with all its strengths and weaknesses that manifest themselves when Man meets a Mountain? Erm. No.

Turner was one of the greatest explorers of human character against the backdrop of a mountain ridge. Roerich established a spiritual link to Tibet via his shapes, colours, and mad beliefs in the Mother Earth (or something similarly crazy).

Raise your hand if you know someone else! I’d love to know more “mountain names”.

In the meantime, here are a few views that impressed me so much I got interested in finding more mountain portraiture painters!

UPDATEBoryana, a good friend of mine and an amazing artist suggested Cezanne and his 60 paintings of the mountain Sainte-Victoire as an “mountain artist name”. Of course! Especially in view of his own testimony: he wrote that needed to know the geology, and specifically the geology of Sainte-Victoire because it moved and improved him. I can’t stop wondering how Cezanne’s ideas resonate with those of the friend of mine who compared painting mountains to portraiture!