Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On artistic influences

Marc Chagall. Adam and Even. O/c. 160.5x109 cm. 1912
This is the third post in my "Autumn with Chagall" series, dedicated to Marc Chagall, his work and his writings.

This post is not about his real artistic influences, but rather about his own attitude to artistic influences; his complex and, in many ways, apparently self-contradictory relationship towards his great predecessors and contemporaries. I have chosen this topic because it seems inevitably relevant to any artist, especially one who happens to live in a culture rich with magnificent artworks, with a cultural memory filled to the brim with the works and styles of "old masters". It certainly is for me. 

Our cultural context differs from Chagall's in three very important ways:


  • He began his work before post-modernism, and we live in the culture of post-post-modernism.
  • He lived in the context of recent or contemporary breathtaking breakthroughs in the art of painting; nothing remotely similar now.
  • Nearly everyone, then, was filled with the feeling of a revolution happening or about to happen. Not just social revolutions, but a spiritual revolution, a revolution in arts and their role in humanity's destiny.
Still, one's relationship with and attitude towards (potential) artistic influences is, when all is said and done, one's own, only partially influenced by the time. It is characterized by ever the same conflict between attraction and separation, between the essential universality of art and the individuality and uniqueness of each human being. 
In Chagall's writings, this eternal conflict is more than obvious; it would be impossible to state his attitude to artistic influences briefly because he says apparently contradictory things himself, acknowledging deep influences on one page and rejecting them on another.

As I have already mentioned, he was born in a small village, exposed to pretty pictures in illustrated magazines and mediocre work of local painters. It wasn't until he arrived in St. Petersburg in his late teens that he could have a chance to see any great paintings. At that time, two major museums, the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, were already open to public (although their collections hadn't yet been enriched by contemporary art). Remarkably, he doesn't even mention these museums, not a single time, in his account of his life and studies in St. Petersburg. It's only in Paris that museums, galleries, exhibitions (and, of course, the Louvre in particular) seem to begin to play an essential role in his life: Russia seems to him like a desert, devoid of anything worth seeing, Paris, like a beautiful oasis of great art, where which he finally feels at home. He devours what he sees – more recent paintings in galleries, older ones in museums, and says in his autobiography that he has never learned as much about painting as in these years of looking. There can be no doubt that he was deeply influenced by what he saw; I've chosen a 1912 painting above to illustrate this post because it represents one of the most obvious instances of direct influence of contemporary art movements on his work (in this case, Cubism).

Still, even as he subjects himself to these influences, he begins to push away from them, consciously separating and alienating his own work even from those he admires most, Cezanne in particular. In 1931 speech given in Palestine, he makes an argument against validity of any influences and sources in art. He identifies Cezanne's sources (El Greco, Tintoretto, Chardin): "it is clear to me, – he says – that, without all those sources and without their mixture there would be no Cezanne". And he sees fault in the very existence of this dependency: 

"I cannot see any merit in reflecting others and in heritage in general . I believe that the artist brings his own face from the beginning of his covenant, without mentioning any person before him" (emphasis mine)

So, has he forgotten his own learning years in the Louvre at this point? Does he now really believe that he could be what he was without any person before him? How can we reconcile these two Chagalls?

I have my own thoughts about it, but I would be extremely interested in hearing yours...    
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