From Russia With Love
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From Russia With Love

New exhibit brings Chagall and his Russian modernist contemporaries to the AGO

"To Russia, Donkeys and Others." Marc Chagall, 1911.

Forget decorative gourds; at the Art Gallery of Ontario, this is the fall of Chagall.

From October 18 to January 15, the AGO will play host to the works of Marc Chagall and a number of his Russian contemporaries in Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde, an exhibition of 118 pieces drawn entirely from the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Torontoist got a sneak peak at the action yesterday.

The exhibit focuses on the work of Marc Chagall, the Russian-Jewish early modernist painter who ditched the shtetl of his upbringing to make art in 1910s Paris before returning to his native Russia on the edge of its revolution, a spiritual-geographic back-and-forth that would mark the artist’s life and and work until its end. But, while Chagall’s life was defined by recurring periods of self-imposed exile, there are clear thematic and stylistic parallels to be drawn between his work and that of other Russian early-modernists also featured in the AGO’s exhibit—Vasily Kandinsky, Aleksandr Rodtchenko, Natalia Gontcharova, and Ivan Puni among them. Curators Elizabeth Smith and Angela Lampe convey this narrative overlap by dividing the collection into five separately housed, chronological “chapters”: In Search of Roots, Artistic Advances in Paris and Russia, Return to Russia, Art and Revolution, and Chagall’s World of Theatre and the Circus. This arrangement also helps to physically utilize the unique constraints of the gallery space, aiding in the construction of a single story.

"Dans le Gris." Vasily Kandinsky, 1919.

“I had seen the show at Grenoble, and the spaces there were of course very different,” explains Smith, the AGO’s director of curatorial affairs, when asked about constructing an exhibition’s narrative. “So this gave us a great starting point to begin thinking about what sort of path we want to lead our visitors on, how do we maximize the potential of our more generous spaces in the Zacks Pavilion, and also of course consideration about audience.”

Smith mentions one chapter in particular, “Art and Revolution,” which physically stands apart from the others to reflect the profound effect of the Russian revolution on the creative output of the time, using a comparatively wider spacial allotment to feature a Constructivist film screening up against the works themselves.

“It’s a big emphasis of ours at AGO, to try to provide as much interpretive material as possible in the exhibitions to try to make them come alive,” she says.

It’s a form-follows-function strategy that, in this particular exhibition, seems to work beautifully. Chagall and pals would be pleased.