Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Chagall's lessons III: Paint like a child

Marc Chagall. Self-portrait with easel. 1914
Chagall's lessons I
Chagall's lessons II

Continuing with the series of five lessons from five Chagall's paintings I've studied in detail over the last several weeks. This is the third one.

Pablo Picasso is often quoted saying that it took him four years to learn to paint like Rafael, and a lifetime to learn to paint like a child. Marc Chagall, apparently, didn't need that: in spite of his teachers' best efforts, he seems to have never un-learned to paint like a child, but perfected this ability to an unmatchable degree. 

This applies both to his imagery and his technique. Consider this self-portrait, with the artist in the most classical of self-portrait poses, in front of his easel. Yet not only did he depict this hard to describe (and even harder to capture), expression of childlike curiosity, but look closely: he also conveys the essential problem known to any painter who has ever painted from life, the need to look at the subject matter and at the canvas at the same time. And he conveys it with childlike playful directness: the painter's eyes are looking in different directions, just like that. Unrealistic yet basically true: in sum, childlike. What is even more remarkable is that this naive directness is combined with masterful modelling of the face, with almost Renaissance-like subtlety: just look at the light and shadows on his forehead!

What really fascinates me is how apparently easily and naturally he manages to combine seemingly stylistically incompatible approaches within the same picture plane: compare the subtle, quite "adult" modelling on the forehead and the cheek with the markedly naive rendering of the nose.   

Or here, in the arm and the hand: the arm, not unlike the body (left out in this detail crop) is rendered naively, with completely unrealistic proportions, nearly flat. In the hand, though, this naivete delicately transforms into a much more realistic representation, which shows us exactly how he holds the brush, with each finger in an anatomically realistic position (in a striking distinction, by the way, to Modigliani's take on similar contrasts in representation).  

There is more: look at the treatment of brushes and canvas in the lower left corner: the brushes are barely indicated, more "placeholders" than brushes, conveying rather straightforwardly, without much ado, their relative irrelevance at this moment, while they are not in the painting hand. 

But see these black dots along the lower edge of the canvas: a dot for each little nail? In the painting, they rhyme with another string of dots, along the edge of his collar. Considering that this collar is attached to a very roughly and flatly rendered shirt, which, in its turn, covers a primitively represented body, this sudden accuracy in depicting the ornament on the collar is unexpected, to say the least. Why are these dots there? Is it a childlike unwillingness to let the painting go when there is still some fun to be had? Is it a barely recognizable reference to detailed treatments of clothing in Renaissance paintings? Or both, and more? I don't really know, but I find these dots absolutely and inexplicably fascinating...  

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