Foreign Policy Blogs

Chagall and Europe’s 20th Century

The National Gallery of Art is one of my favorite places in Washington. I didn’t take a single art history class in college, and despite traveling to London, Paris, and Florence as a student I hadn’t retained any substantive knowledge or lasting interest in art until I settled in Washington for graduate school and discovered the National Gallery. I started as an Art Information Volunteer there earlier this year, and have been attending its exhibitions, gallery talks, films and lectures for almost a decade now.

The Gallery’s West Building, with a collection that spans Renaissance Italian art to French Impressionist masterworks, opened in 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry in World War II. The Gallery’s East Building and its collection of modern art spanning the 20th century to the present, followed in 1978. The buildings themselves were paid for by the Mellon family. The collections they house combine works that Mellon acquired, as well as the private collections of other prominent families in the art world and works that have been acquired since the Gallery’s opening with privately donated funds. The Gallery’s core collection includes masterworks – such as Raphael’s Alba Madonna – that Pittsburgh industrialist and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon purchased from The Hermitage when a nascent Soviet Union badly needed to acquire foreign exchange and rid itself of symbols of Western capitalism. There’s something (is it irony?) in this story  – an American capitalist buys masterpieces from a communist government, then turns them over to the people of his country like he’s some kind of socialist – that I find uniquely satisfying. According to biographer David Cannadine, Mellon was under some tax pressures that may have played a role in his establishing the Gallery during FDR’s presidency. He also wanted to bring great art to the nation’s capital. In either case, the history of private bequests that formed the Gallery allows it to remain free to the public – a rare treat among museums and certainly for one with so prominent a collection. That allows slow learners like me to acquire art educations gradually, on weekends and during an hour’s down time during the work day, without breaking the bank. As you may have gleaned from this paragraph that has turned into an unapologetic commercial for the Gallery, I’m grateful for whatever combination of largesse and tax trouble led to its creation. It has enriched my life immensely.

Why talk about all this on a blog on Europe? Every trip I make through the Gallery’s collections ties in with and somehow builds upon the twentieth century history I’ve been studying for years. Art history is, after all, history. But for me there’s no better way to test my perspective on historical events than by examining the work of those who lived through those events, from a vantage point outside my native country, and who may or may not have used their work to commented directly on the politics of their time. One such artist, who lived and worked literally around the world during the 20th century (and who, funny enough, doesn’t have much work on display in the National Gallery, though its collections hold many of his works), is one who I’m belatedly getting to know: Marc Chagall.

Chagall’s itinerant life took him – by choice or necessity – to nearly all the major capitals of Europe. Born in Belarus in 1887, he lived in Paris in his early twenties before returning to his home country just prior to the First World War. He had made a strong enough name for himself that the advent of the Soviet Union – far from posing a threat – actually resulted in a formal position with the regime centered on his founding an art school in his home town of Vitebsk. Chagall’s reputation grew after he returned to France, where he would live until the onset of World War II. Between the wars Chagall traveled to Palestine to work on an illustration of the Old Testament. When it came to Chagall and his contemporaries, however, Nazi Germany took the opposite tack from the Soviets. As both a modernist artist and a Jew, Chagall was an enemy of the regime, and was forced to flee Vichy France to the U.S. in May 1941. He would spend the war years Stateside before returning to France in 1948 for the remainder of his career.

Chagall’s biography is thus a biography of 20th century history. He saw Europe’s capitals – Paris, Berlin, Moscow – change governments and cultural mores. After surviving the century’s two most brutal wars he created a commemorative stained glass window in honor of United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammerskold in the early 1960s.

Even before living through some of the century’s darkest events, Chagall has begun to develop a visual style characterized by bright colors and dreamscapes. What fascinates me more than anything about his work – which I am again only just getting to know – is that the violence that surrounded him, although it must have influenced his art, doesn’t seem to define it. There is a sense of wonder throughout. One first notices warm colors and imaginative figures from some recognizable but parallel dimension – perhaps one Chagall created as a means of escape from the harsh realities of his times. Regardless, I am left with a great deal of hope upon immediate reflection of many of his works. For an artist working at the time he did, that simply astounds me. It’s a good thing to reflect on during the holiday season.

[From time to time I will share impressions on how art and my time at the National Gallery has impacted my understanding of Europe and its history.]



Michael Crowley
Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.