Contributed by Susan Bee / The early paintings of Marc Chagall are a recent inspiration. It’s a strange turn. For years I thought I disliked his work, especially the late paintings: too saccharine and repetitious. But I became enamored by his early efforts when I saw Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922, a show at the Jewish Museum, in 2018, as well as the collection of his paintings at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Before these recent encounters, I hadn’t fully taken in his close association with the Russian avant-garde. The Revolution of 1917 had an enormous effect on Chagall. The passage of a law abolishing all discrimination on the basis of religion or nationality gave him, as a Jewish artist, full Russian citizenship for the first time.
Chagall became the Fine Arts Commissioner for the Vitebsk region (present-day Belarus) in 1918. The People’s Art School embodied Bolshevik values. El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, leading Russian avant-garde artists, were invited to teach there. Lissitzky took charge of the printing, graphic design, and architecture workshops, while Malevich, founder of Suprematism, lectured the young students. A period of intense artistic activity followed, turning the school into a revolutionary laboratory. Chagall’s paintings from this period are more experimental in form than the ones that I knew. They are less based on his village experiences and more abstract – more hard-edged – in their approach. Yet they always stay personal. I studied them closely and decided to make my own versions.
My painting Anywhere Out of the World (2019) was inspired by Chagall’s 1914 self-portrait of the same name – a title in turn derived from a line by Baudelaire: “N’importe où hors du monde.” It points to my feeling of being trapped in the fragmented and alienating chaos of our times. I used elements from the Chagall painting in my own, including the split head in the clouds and the village running sideways up the left side of the painting, but added a giant paintbrush as a tool of defense and arrows with eyes pointing out of composition. In Oculus Mundi, I revised another self-portrait by Chagall, from 1919, of the artist at his easel. Painted exactly one hundred years later, my piece substitutes my own image as a young artist for his figure and adds a large central eye that is being painted. My version is more colorful and textured and flirts with a patterned abstraction. But the key difference is that it depicts a Jewish woman artist as the central figure. I had seen Chagall’s 1932 painting, Wailing Wall, at the Tel Aviv Museum. In present-day Israel, a barrier separates men and women at the Wailing Wall. Chagall’s painting shows the Wall as it existed in Palestine, when it was embedded in the Old City of Jerusalem and fully open to all. I made my painting of the same title using his composition as a guide, but my stone blocks became paintings within the painting, and the entire composition became a sea of abstract, textured blocks of paint.
In 2019, I went to Madrid to give a talk. At the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum I came across Chagall’s The Cock (1928), which stems from illustrations of La Fontaine’s Fables he made at the request of his poet friend Blaise Cendrars. These pictures catered to the fantasy and irony of the French writer, whose poems featured heroes from both classical and popular mythology, as well as animals who behaved like human beings. I photographed the painting and, when I got back to my Brooklyn studio, made a drawing of it. I completed my own painting, Chanticleer, in 2020. It includes a colorful snake of my own invention. Haunting the composition is the female human protagonist’s embrace of the rooster, echoed by a couple in a rowboat pictured in the background.
“Susan Bee: Anywhere out of the World,” A.I.R. Gallery, 155 Plymouth Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn, NY. The exhibition has been postponed. Dates will be announced when the Covid-19 siege is behind us.
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