A 20th Century Russian who understood the balance between tradition and Modernity can speak to us today, maybe more than ever before.
“How do we keep our balance?” the character of Tevye asks with a twinkle in his eye at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof. “That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!” That 1964 musical set in a Jewish village in European Russia at the dawn of the 20th century remains a perfect way in which to observe the difficult relationship between tradition and relentless change.
A few days ago my daughter came home and explained that in her art class she’d been given the choice of reproducing a Picasso painting or a Chagall painting, and I was delighted she chose Chagall.
No other artist blended the traditional and the revolutionary as skillfully as did Marc Chagall. In doing so, he created some of the most powerful art of the 20th century. No other major painter made the small, intimate world of Jewish village life as central to his work as did he. For him, tradition was the material out of which he made his often wildly experimental and thoroughly Modernist paintings.
Chagall was born in 1887 in Vitebsk, a town that was about half Jewish and was then in the Russian Empire. In his youth, he attended an art school and in 1910 he relocated to Paris, the center of the art world. There he met revolutionary painters and closely studied their controversial styles. He experimented enthusiastically with the Cubism of Picasso and with the garish color palette of Fauvists like Matisse and Delaunay.
Yet he missed Russia; tradition still beckoned him. Alone among his contemporaries, Chagall took the stylistic ideas that were abundant in Paris when he was there and incorporated them into paintings of the most conservative and traditional culture anywhere in Europe: that of Jewish village life in his homeland.
I’ve written about Western art a couple of times in the past month, and to tie those familiar images of cowboys, horses, and canyons to Chagall’s floating people, smiling chickens, thoughtful rabbis, and yes, fiddlers on roofs, might seem a stretch. But it’s not. Both seek to enshrine elements of life as old as time: birth, faith, marriage, the connections between nature and humans.
Today, Vitebsk is in Belarus, and that country proudly hails Chagall as its most famous and beloved son. In the swirling history of 20th-century art, Chagall still stands as a testimony to artists—and indeed even to those of us who aren’t artists— of the powerful results that are possible when radical innovation and progress still allow space for tradition.