Saturday, September 15, 2012

From Russia with Love

Marc Chagall, 1960, ink and crayon on title page of The Birthday Of The World

I love Chagall. There, I said it. That hokey gaudy folksy sentimental sellout of an "artist." I love Chagall. I'll say it again. I always have. I don't care if he isn't respected by serious art people, or that I might lose their respect if I ever had it. I'd rather have Chagall. Any day of the week and yes, twice on Sundays. Especially on Sundays. Sunday morning is the best of the week, Sunday evening the worst. All in the same day. Go figure!

Chagall. Yes, I loved him as a kid. Loved the lavender print hanging on the wall in our Rome living-room next to the large studio window below which Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck filmed Roman Holiday a few years earlier. Loved being shown the newly installed murals in the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center  by our great friend Beverly Sills after tea at the Palm Room at the Plaza, her daughter Muffy exclaiming how "the chandeliers look like Mummy's earrings!" 

When I was at Exeter my art teacher Charles Carrico tried to bully me out of love with Chagall. Out of love with trite pictures of embracing lovers and flying cows playing violins. That was the year my sister was murdered in New York, and Carrico held my college future and beyond in the palm of his hand. Even though he totally set me back because I was frankly a too willing student, he did single-handedly instill in me that even in America one could be an artist, a painter, that I didn't have to be a set designer or illustrator or architect, something which had been drilled into me since returning to this country as a high school student. But I kept Chagall, even though I somewhat lost myself. His posters hung in my room. My sanctuary. Touch stones. Lights in the dark.

My great friend Martin Mugar just wrote a blog post about not letting the fickle and begrudging art world get to artists. He gave me a little shout out for suggesting that it is about keeping one's good health. A healthy attitude about what is important, about what you can and cannot control. I would agree, but I would add that it is not just about health, but about love: remembering the love that brought you to art in the first place, remembering that art is an act of appreciation, love, that it is the result of what we care about, love. When you have art, the love of art, you are never alone.

Chagall is all about love. The story of love, the power of love, the color of love and the love of color. So it is easy to forget that at one time he was a member of the modernist avant-garde that poured out of Russia and the later Soviet Union. That he hired Malevich and Lissitzky to join the faculty at Vitebsk. That he was friends with Leger in Paris, and Mondrian in New York. That he helped shape this revolution in art that was modernism.

I love color. It is said that after Matisse, Picasso considered Chagall the next great colorist. I can't argue with that. Color at all is considered gaudy in puritanical America. Cher's character in Moonstruck said as much when beneath the marvelous murals at the Met. Americans in general are afraid of color, probably because they don't understand it. Color is associated with bad taste and poverty. Color is all the poor can afford. My friend and adopted grandfather, the great American modernist Leon Polk Smith maintained that color could never be bad, that it was innocent, that it was joy and life, and only people made it bad with their ignorance. His greatest compliment to me was that I was "obviously a colorist. "

Richard Tuttle, my most difficult mentor, ascribed meaning to color, and preached a severe philosophy of color awareness, taking an altogether different attitude from Smith's, seeing color as man's expression in bold and literal terms. He believed that color spoke for us, but we just weren't paying attention. He found our obliviousness both painful and impossible to ignore. In some ways you could say that as a result, color meant more to him than anyone, that it's power was so awesome as to be as terrible as it was wonderful; that the damage it could do in the wrong hands made it frightening. 

Chagall's color has been called gypsy. Jeweled. Like stained glass. He was a Russian Jew. His work is both Russian and Jewish. My wife, Stacey, is of Russian Jewish descent. She always hated Chagall. He reminded her of what people hated about Jews, that people hated Jews at all. All of that really scared her. She wanted to fit in and turned her back on one of the richest cultural heritages the world has ever known. Today she is ok with Chagall, and somewhat proud of that heritage. I bought her this drawing by Chagall. It is from 1960, the year she was born, the birthday of the world, my world. It shows an artist holding a palette, painting flowers, nature's palette. Me.

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, September 2012