It didn't seem as if there could be any better news for Russian Jews than the fall of the czar in March 1917. Chagall was swept up in the general exuberance; his first thought was enormous relief that his days as an "illegal" resident in Petrograd [where only Jews with special permission could live] were over. In Chagall's memoir the months of Kerensky's short-lived semi-democratic Duma are parsed in a few quick ecstatic sentences, emblems of the freedom from restriction that Chagall undoubtedly felt, but they build to the dramatic and ominous arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station. Something about the famous "sealed train" sent shivers through Chagall, and amid the confusions and fervor of change, for perhaps the first time in his adult life he began to neglect his work.
Was Chagall a political animal? In his memoir he is frequently coy on the subject, often preferring to play the artist-naif, but his commitment at various times in his life was not insignificant, as is well illustrated in his discursive prose, particularly the articles that he published in the first eighteen months after the Revolution. Moreover, his paints, anecdotal by nature, often tell a story with a lesson for history: "Lenin turned it [Russia] upside down the way I turn my pictures," Chagall once wrote. but twenty years after the Revolution, painting in full knowledge of the murderous Soviet regime for which Lenin had laid the groundwork, and out of deep despair and disillusion with the entire Bolshevik experiment, Chagall turned Lenin ignominiously on his head at the center of his monumental painting The Revolution (1937).In fact, that very painting
is on display, with nary a mention of Chagall's words explaining why he turned Lenin upside down; looking at it yesterday, in the context of Chagall supposedly approving and being a beneficiary of Bolshevik largesse, it appeared as though, whimsically, Chagall had merely made Lenin the centrepiece of one of his circus paintings (they were on display, too--right before this one). All of which makes the exhibit's Procrustean effort to marry Chagall to this "forward looking" Revolution, and its small "r" "revolution" in art, not only dishonest, but more than a little grotesque.