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Art: Our own Chagall

The Art Museum draws from its holdings to present a rich Paris story of the artist, his comrades, and flowering modernism.

Beginning with Henri Matisse in 2008-09 and followed by Pablo Picasso last year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been offering focused close-ups of its exceptional holdings of early modernist art.

Now this impressive sequence continues with "Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle," a look at the emigre artists from Eastern Europe who helped to make Paris the center of the artistic avant-garde.

Chagall, who first came to the city in 1911, is the most prominent of this largely Jewish cohort, whom French critic André Warnod dubbed the School of Paris. He's responsible for more than a third of the 70 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper that make up the exhibition in the museum's Perelman building.

Only five works, including several major paintings by Chagall, are loans. (One of these, The Poet Reclining, won't arrive from London's Tate Modern until April 1.)

As with the Matisse and Picasso shows, this self-sufficiency confirms the Art Museum's enviable ability to tell a comprehensive story of modern art entirely through its own resources.

Besides Chagall, whose first Paris residence lasted three years, the show's 26 artists include a number of major talents, from Alexander Archipenko and Jacques Lipchitz to Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine, Louis Marcoussis, Natalia Goncharova, Jean Metzinger, and Ossip Zadkine.

Picasso, the most famous and influential modernist of all, is prominently absent. Curator Michael R. Taylor said he might have included the coinventor of cubism for context had there been more room in the gallery, even though Picasso stands outside the focus of the show.

For one thing, he wasn't in Chagall's "circle"; they didn't know each other before World War I. Chagall went back to his native Russia in the summer of 1914 for a visit, was trapped there by the war and then the Bolshevik Revolution, and didn't return to France until the fall of 1923. He and Picasso subsequently became acquainted.

More to the point, Chagall and many other artists in the show worked in the studio building at the southwest edge of Montparnasse known as La Ruche - the Beehive, because it was shaped like one. The artists he met there constituted the "circle" to which the show's title refers.

In Picasso's early Paris years, his studio was in a building known as the Bateau Lavoir - the Laundry Boat, in Montmartre, on the northern side of Paris.

As a Spanish emigre, Picasso was technically School of Paris, as were his countrymen Juan Gris and Joan Miró. We identify them as such according to the expanded definition of the term, which came to mean modern artists in France between the world wars.

When Warnod coined the term in 1925, he did so to combat anti-Semitic and fascist sentiments by recognizing the contributions that Eastern Europeans had made to the Paris art scene, Taylor said.

Taylor's emphasis on Chagall's coterie is not only legitimate but also useful, because it achieves exactly what Warnod had in mind. Picasso, Braque, Miró, and even Chagall have received so much attention that other contemporaries active in Paris tend to be eclipsed. "Paris Through the Window" reminds us how richly diverse the modernist ferment was, and particularly how much of it came from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Chagall dominates, not only in the number of works but also in the impact of innovative early masterpieces such as Half-Past Three (The Poet), one of the Art Museum's prizes, and Paris Through the Window, lent by the Guggenheim Museum. Both employ cubist fracturing of space and Delaunay's prismatic color. (Window purportedly depicts the view of the city from Chagall's La Ruche studio, which can't be possible because the Eiffel Tower is geographically displaced and thus too prominent.)

Both paintings communicate the dizzying exhilaration Chagall must have felt after relocating from provincial Vitebsk, his hometown in what is now Belarus, to the energetic sophistication of Paris. He was a trained artist before arriving in France, but the influences he quickly absorbed there, which transformed his art, are manifest.

One can contrast these Paris works with some that Taylor has included from the Russia-Soviet interlude of 1914-23, paintings such as Purim and Over Vitebsk, in which Chagall celebrates Jewish life and religious custom.

Several paintings that refer to World War I, Wounded Soldier and The Smolensk Newspaper, are more expressionist in mood. In 1943, Chagall affirmed his congenital romanticism by painting In the Night, in which he and his first wife, Bella, embrace on a Vitebsk street.

Taylor has devoted another section of the show to works, mostly on paper, related to the Ballets Russes, the company founded by impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Curtain and costume designs and stage settings were created by artists such as Goncharova, Léon Bakst, Alexandra Exter, Mikhail Larionov, and Boris Anisfeld.

Many of these ballet works come from a substantial gift of such material to the museum by the collector, curator, and critic Christian Brinton of West Chester, who lived in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. These works haven't been exhibited since the gift was made in 1941; Brinton died in 1942.

Although most of the artists in the show are familiar names - a few are even famous ones - bringing them together in this context, as participants in an avant-garde efflorescence centered on Paris, encourages us to see how they might have influenced one another while maintaining their individuality.

Such concentrations of talent and cross-pollination usually produce spectacular results, as they did in Holland in the 17th century, Paris in the mid-19th century, and again in Paris and New York in the early to mid-20th century. Yet these hothouse environments happen infrequently, and today they don't seem to happen much at all.

Paradoxically, this might be because communication has never been quicker or easier, just as dissemination of information has become more prolific. Artists, like the rest of society, seem to prefer connecting electronically rather than personally.

By contrast, one senses in a show like "Paris Through the Window" a communal excitement and stimulation that happen best when artists are working side by side, and not only see one another daily but also, more important, see art being made regularly, and discuss ideas face-to-face.

Art: Chagall's Paris

"Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle" continues in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through July 10. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $8 general, $7 for visitors 65 and older, $6 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish first Sunday of each month. Information: 215-763-8100 or