Friday, July 21, 2017

Chagall at MIA: Double Portrait with Wine Glass

I intended to spend a hour or so at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a place that I have enjoyed for 55 years at least and that has a salutary calming affect on me.  But on the way to the museum, the leading edge of some thunderstorms raged over the freeway south of Minneapols and visibility went to zero and so I was delayed.  My plan was to reach the Art Institute before 4:00 and wander the cool galleries in the serene, final hour before closing.  But I didn't reach south Minneapolis until 4:15 and the traffic at that time, as opposed to a half-hour earlier, is capricious, even maddening, particularly when the intersections are flooded and the homeless people at the exit ramps are squatting on the road shoulders with their "God Bless" signs tilted up over their heads as shelters against the pelting rain.  I parked at the MIA and hiked through showers that turned on and off as if someone in the sky were playing with spigot, entering the museum about 4:40.  This meant that I only had time to buy a couple of post cards and look at the painting on display in the alcove on the entrance level, a place where small temporary exhibits are installed.  On July 20, 2017, the show featured a single painting Marc Chagall's "Double Portrait with Wine Glass", a large picture on loan from the Paris Musee National d'Art Moderne (Pompidou Centre).  The painting is beautiful and worthy of a visit in itself.

I'm suspicious of Chagall in general -- in his later paintings, I think, he inclines toward the merely decorative and, of course, he tends to repeat himself.  But the "Double Portrait" is splendid, an image that is beautiful in itself, but also interesting with respect to the thematic material that it conveys.  The picture was reproduced in brochures that I received from the MIA (I am a member) and so I had a general concept of the painting's appearance.  But it bears saying, indeed, repeating, that it's always worth seeing a canvas in person because an illustration can't convey the exact timbre of the colors, nor the texture of the paint, nor (important in this case) the scale of the picture.  The "Double Portrait" is a large painting -- it stands about 7 1/2 feet tall (91 5/8 inches) and is four and a half feet wide (41 1/2 inches).  In reproduction, the picture's colors seem a bit garish, but, in person, the bright colors are distributed as big prismatic planes across the canvas and the effect is more subtle than a small copy might suggest.  The picture, painted in 1918, shows a woman, probably about half life-size floating over a landscape that shows the profile of medieval towers and churches comprising the Belarussian city of Vitebsk. A river flows across the foreground under a bridge. The woman is elongated and boneless.  She bears on her shoulders the artist, his body somewhat twisted with his two legs bowed like parenthesis mark about the levitating bride.  The artist holds a wine glass up to his head.  Chagall wears a red waist-coat.  A winged angel painted in purple stencil hovers over the artist's head and seems to be bestowing a blessing.  The bride wears a wedding gown with a scoop bodice that is incongruously décolleté.  Her dress is open above her long thigh and reveals an undergarment that is the same color as the angel overhead bestowing her blessing on the couple.  (I know from other sources that the angel represents Chagall's daughter, Ida, who was born in 1916; the couple were married on July 25, 1915 -- that is three years before the "Double Portrait" was finished.  There is a previous, more conventional wedding image that shows Chagall and his bride, Bella Rosental, facing one another -- the bride wears a conventional wedding dress buttoned up to her chin and Ida, as an angel, hovers between the happy couple; there is a little fiddler in a tree, a kitsch element that was not kitsch in 1918).

The most curious aspect of this painting is that Chagall's self-portrait, his face, doesn't match his body.  The facial self-portrait seems "cut and pasted" from some other source -- it's as if the head were photo-shopped onto the man's twisted body.  Furthermore, the face is painted with an eerie delicacy -- Chagall is, in fact, too pretty and his features have a sensitive refinement that is very different from the sweet, but cartoonishly simplified and idealized face of his wife, Bella.  (Bella's mother was suspicious of Chagall's good looks -- she reportedly said that Chagall was "too pretty" and suspected him of using rouge to color his cheeks.)  Viewed in actual size, the most remarkable thing about the picture is that Chagall's head seems to press forward -- it's not properly attached to his body and, actually, seems to hover in front of the picture plane.  (This curious effect is not really visible in a small reproduction of the image.)  The disconnect between Chagall's head and body is slightly disturbing.  It seems as if Chagall is suggesting that the glass of wine next to his face has "gone to his head' -- he is painting, I think, an image of intoxication.  The reason that Chagall's head isn't connected to his body is because he is drunk.  Another delicious detail in the painting is the correlation between the bride's undergarments and the hovering angel -- Chagall makes Eros the same color as his wife's underpants.  He correlates her thighs with the angel blessing the couple to suggest the carnal underpinnings of his love -- and this correlation becomes even more prominent when we understand that Ida is the physical product of their love, Chagall's daughter with Bella.  A final element in the painting that seems wonderfully true is Chagall's hand reaching down to cover one of his wife's eyes.  Love isn't wholly blind -- it's just half-blind. 

This is a wonderful picture.  The MIA is free and so, if you are in the neighborhood, stop by and take a look at this beautiful canvas. 

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