Page 84 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 15

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l f r ed
e r n e r
EARLY three decades had to elapse between the earliest
monograph on Chagall (by A. Efross and J . Tugendhold,
Moscow, 1918) and the first book in English on the artist. The
fantastic, irrational elements in the paintings of this Russian
Jew were bound to be irritating to Britons and Americans, with
their more conservative modes of living and seeing. His first
American show, in 1926, a retrospective at New York’s Reinhardt
Galleries, fell flat. London did not give him a show until 1935,
long after Paris, Berlin and Brussels. In
Modern Art
(1934), the
American critic, Thomas Craven, gave him faint praise indeed:
“His disorderly [sic!] conceptions would be ridiculous, if they
did not convey a little of the vagabond poetry and the pathos
of his uprooted soul.”
Even as recently as 1948, a noted British critic, Eardley
Knollys, reporting on the Chagall show at London’s Tate Gallery,
spoke for many of his bewildered compatriots when he declared:
“We are slapped in the face by a vortex of symbols, blaring out
messages which may intrigue Freudian scientists and American
women’s clubs, but can give little pleasure to lovers of fine
The artist’s close friend, Professor Lionello Venturi, who had
taught at Turin, the Sorbonne, London University, and who,
during the last war, lectured at several American universities,
confessed his pessimism in the first book on Chagall to appear
in the English language (Pierre Matisse Editions, New York,
1945): “Unfortunately the public is still slow to admit in painting
the same freedom that it readily admits, for example, in even
the traditional language of poetry. Time must pass before
Chagall’s work receives the mature understanding and full rec­
ognition it deserves. Many rhetorical and erotic paintings exalted
today will be forgotten when Chagall’s forms and colors are still
giving joy to mankind. Then it will be seen that Chagall has made
one of the greatest contributions to the realization of freedom
in art.”
Unexpectedly, however, the huge retrospective of the following
year, staged by New York’s Museum of Modern A rt, was a
complete success. I f Chagall had won a victory over pedantry