The Seoul Arts Center is known for hosting prized musicians and presenting some of the finest musical performances in Korea. However, equally as famous are the various art exhibitions displayed throughout the year. From showcases of classical art to modern photography, the grand center is a place to visit for people of all ages and artistic backgrounds. This month accommodated artworks from around the world, such as French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures and the animated works of Your Name’s Shinkai Makoto. However, the one that piqued my curiosity was Marc Chagall, a Jewish artist of Russian and French descent born in Belarus. Admittedly, another reason for my interest was the source of the artworks, the Israel Museum. Having lived in Jerusalem for over ten years, I wished to vicariously revisit my old home through the paintings on the walls.
The exhibition is divided into five sections, each featuring a unique theme in Chagall’s artworks. The first section, “Portraits and Self-portraits”, not only introduces his friends and family, but also grants us a peek at the artist through his own eyes. His facial expressions vary greatly in each picture to the point where we cannot recognize him if it were not for his distinct curly hair. Looking closely, however, we can notice that his self-portraits share a certain characteristic — a lofty look that displays his conviction in himself as an artist.
In the second section, we delve deeper into his life as we examine the paintings included in his autobiography, My Life. With wars continuously plaguing Europe during this period and nations suffering heavy casualties, Chagall began the book early in his life under the assumption that he would not survive long either. Ironically, he had decades more to live as he would nearly reach the age of 100. In his lifetime, he experienced endless political unrest, from World War I leading straight into the Russian Revolution, followed by Stalin and his control of the arts, and most importantly, to World War II and the Holocaust. In this section, we truly get an overview of his life, from his dainty hometown, Vitebsk, to the horrors of the genocide.
The following section is perhaps most strongly associated with Chagall. We meet his only muse and love of life, Bella, through the artworks displayed in “Theme of Lovers”. As we see them gliding across the sky or embracing each other, we notice Chagall clinging onto his wife more often than vice versa. This is based on their actual personalities, as Chagall was rather feminine whereas Bella was relatively manlier. On the other hand, it is not only his romantic love that is displayed. In his later works, we get to see his love for humanity, which is rather surprising considering the trials in his life. However, this is what grants him the title of a true romantic.
Next, “Illustrations of the Bible” was a personal favorite. Chagall searches through his religious background for inspiration and discovers a greater meaning in his vocation. He had always felt apologetic to his race as he had safely fled the continent and timidly expressed his sorrow in his earlier paintings. Painting biblical figures provided him with a chance to honor his culture. The highlight of this section and the exhibition as a whole was the replica of the twelve stained-glass windows in the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, which represents each of the twelve tribes of Israel. While just a replica, the scene was breathtaking and leaves you curious about the original. Having passed by the hospital daily on my way to school, I regret not having visited the place even once.
Finally, in the “Books of Bella Chagall”, he uses the two short books that his wife wrote, Burning Light and First Encounter, as inspiration for his etchings. After the sudden death of his wife, his life as an artist took a pause. By transforming her writings into art, he was able to dedicate his time to her while reviving his career. The illustrations detail various Jewish holidays as well as personal anecdotes — they were a good summary of the exhibition and the life of Chagall.
Marc Chagall is introduced in the poster as “the artist that Koreans love the most.” While this statement may merely be a marketing scheme, he is certainly one of the most beloved artists of the twentieth century and will surely remain in my memory as a genuine artist and an unceasing lover.