A Farewell to Art, Ben Uri Gallery: Chagall’s fantasy figures show we are what dreams are made of

PUBLISHED: 16:00 08 November 2017

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Marc Chagall’s scenes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be seen at A Farewell To Art: Chagall, Shakespeare and Prospero at the gallery in Boundary Road

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Infused with his lifelong fascination with fantasy and illusion, Marc Chagall’s scenes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be seen at St John’s Wood’s Ben Uri Gallery this month.

Produced when the artist was 88, the rare lithographs depict magical scenes such as Aerial summoning the storm, and the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand surrounded by mythical creatures playing sweet airs on “a thousand twangling instruments”.

A Farewell To Art: Chagall, Shakespeare and Prospero at the gallery in Boundary Road explores the notion that the artist saw in Shakespeare’s play of betrayal, exile, redemption and retirement a reflection of the traumatic upheaval in his own life.

Born Moishe Segal in 1887 in what is now Belarus, Chagall moved to Paris aged 23 where he became influenced by modernism and cubism.

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But after being caught in his home town of Vitebsk during World War I he was unable to return to his adopted city until 1923.

Then, at the start of World War II, Chagall and his family were once more trapped, this time in Vichy France where Jewish residents were being deported East by the Nazis.

Placed on a list of prominent artists who needed rescue, he was smuggled out of the country in 1941 and lived in New York until 1948. However he returned to live on the Cote D’Azur until his death at the age of 97.

“It would be perfectly understandable if he compared himself to the exiled Prospero,” says exhibition curator Hanna Scolnicov.

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She also believes that just as Prospero famously breaks his magic staff and renounces “rough magic”, these illustrations can be interpreted as the ageing Chagall’s own farewell to his frenetic artistic output on large scale projects.

The exhibition is the first time these 50 rare illustrations - first published in 1975 for a version of the play by Editions Andre Sauret - have been seen in the UK. In them, Chagall’s own imaginary mythological world and love of fantasy shine through. The artist once called himself “a dreamer that never woke up” and said: “Even in my twenties I preferred dreaming about love and painting it in pictures.”

A Farewell To Art runs at Ben Uri Gallery until February 11, 2018. benuri.org. Entrance free.

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