At the beginning of the last century, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian and other acclaimed and unknown artists move to Paris, the art capital of the world. They must learn to survive in a society that is increasingly polarised, nationalistic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic. This exhibition tells the story of artists in a foreign country who, despite adverse conditions, have the courage to take art to new heights. The show is an incredible chance to see the work of the great modern masters in a new light, ánd to discover new artists.
Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and Others: Migrant Artists in Paris presents art from the superb collection of the Stedelijk Museum, and includes work by more than 50 artists, photographers and graphic designers. What’s more, the Stedelijk’s large collection of Chagalls will be on display for the first time in nearly 70 years: 40 works of art, including eight iconic paintings, some of which have been restored especially for the exhibition.
Today, Chagall, Picasso and Mondrian are known as masters of modern art, but behind their role as artistic pioneers lay struggle—all three, from different backgrounds, were migrants. In spite of their success and achievement, they faced the same insurmountable obstacle: they were not French. Picasso, born in Spain, arrives in Paris penniless, where he flourishes as a creative genius. And yet he remains loyal to his Spanish roots, and often identifies with being ‘different', a sentiment he frequently explores in his work.
As a Jewish-Russian in exile, Chagall faces loneliness, exclusion and outright anti-Semitism. Often packed with Jewish-Russian imagery like rabbis and synagogues, his paintings convey a sense of deep nostalgia. In his early years, the Dutchman Kees van Dongen also encounters difficulties. He eventually became one of Paris’ celebrated society painters, but in 1906 he complained that the newspapers consistently portrayed him as the sale étranger, or “the dirty foreigner”.
The art climate changes with the First World War. While before the war, despite the presence of xenophobia, modern art thrives, there is a strong tendency towards tradition and classical art after the war. Avant-garde artists respond to this desire, and it is during this time that Picasso creates his famous neoclassical work, and Chagall switches to the universal theme of love. But when Chagall is asked to illustrate the fables of La Fontaine, the press is outraged to see French national heritage depicted by a foreign Jew. Mondrian, on the other hand, attracted to the avant-garde before the war, stays true to his personal vision, and continues to paint abstract compositions in spite of the new trend in French taste.
The exhibition also highlights lesser-known stories that are directly related to migration and art. Some of the artworks depict the battle for decolonisation, a movement that erupts after 1918 when the sacrifice of the African troops, recruited to fight in the World War I, goes unrecognised. The show also explores the experiences of the black community in Paris, from the lives of the city’s many workers to electrifying personalities like the American dancer and activist Josephine Baker who, disillusioned by America, became a French citizen.
Another highlight is works of art by ground-breaking female artists, such as the Russian avant-garde artists Natalia Goncharova and Sonia Delaunay, the German Germaine Krull, who with her photo book Métal appropriates a ‘man’s subject’, to abstract artists such as Nicolaas Warb and Marlow Moss – male pseudonyms adopted by women artists.
The exhibition Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and Others: Migrant Artists in Paris shows work of, amongst others: Emmy Andriesse, Karel Appel, Eva Besnyö, Marc Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Kees van Dongen, Gisèle Freund, Natalia Goncharova, Wassily Kandinsky, Germaine Krull, Wifredo Lam, Jacques Lipchitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Piet Mondriaan, Marlow Moss, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Diego Rivera, Gino Severini, Jan Sluijters, Chaim Soutine, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Nicolaas Warb (= Sophia Warburg), and Ossip Zadkine.