The German art public met Marc Chagall sometimes with unbridled enthusiasm, sometimes with regressive criticism and defamation. So how can we explain his ultimately glorious incorporation into German art memory?

“A cosmic child lives among us. Marc Chagall. The fairytale prince with absolute color”, opined the German art critic Theodor Däubler in 1916, and with this poetic description adds his voice to the abundance of expressions of admiration within the German art scene at that time. But not infrequently, at the beginning of the 20th century, admiring and appreciative voices such as Däubler’s were also mixed with expressions of criticism – a contradictory relationship that is paradigmatic of Chagall’s reception in the German sphere. So how can we explain his ultimately glorious incorporation into German art memory?

The starting point for Chagall’s reception in Germany was the first German Autumn Salon of 1913 at the Berlin gallery “Der Sturm”. This was the first time Marc Chagall’s works were exhibited in the avantgarde gallery and the first time they came up against a German art audience. The Jewish publisher and gallery-owner Herwarth Walden exhibited three of Chagall’s works alongside works of Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, and other avant-garde movements. For its part, the press, however, by no means showed appreciation for the works on display, and there was sharp criticism of the various new forms of expression exhibited by the emerging artists of Modernism. This contrasted sharply with art critics such as Theodor Däubler who took a great interest in the new formal language that young artists such as Chagall visualized in their works and advocated their dissemination. Between 1913 and 1933, 200 works by Marc Chagall entered the collections of German art-lovers and museums, but despite the German public’s eagerness to buy, the relationship between artist and buyer still lacked mutual consolidation. Author Meret Meyer emphasizes in this context that Marc Chagall himself neither participated particularly in person in his own artistic status gaining a foothold in the German art world of the day, nor did he plan longer stays in Germany. So what was the key to the spread of his art?

Publisher and gallery owner Herwarth Walden and his wife Nell. Image via

Chagall in Berlin: between unbridled enthusiasm and regressive criticism

The traces lead time and again to Berlin. Marc Chagall traveled to the German metropolis for the first time for his first solo exhibition at Walden’s Gallery in 1914. On display within the small space were 34 oil paintings, most of which were pieces from his prolific and stylistically formative Paris period, and more than 100 watercolors and drawings. The novelty of his form of expression – especially the choice of colors and themes – did not go unmentioned in the German art press, which praised the exhibition. After his visit to Berlin, the artist traveled back to his native Vitebsk, where he married his girlfriend Bella Rosenfeld. However, the young couple’s ambition to travel back to Paris was thwarted by the outbreak of World War I, as a consequence of which the artist did not return to France until 1922 via a stopover in Berlin.

Magazine cover from „Der Sturm",1914, Image via

This visit to Germany in particular – a nine-month stay in Berlin with his wife Bella and their daughter – was marked by unease: In 1914, Marc Chagall had given gallery-owner Walden a large number of paintings and drawings for an exhibition, which the latter then sold to German collectors during the World War I and thereafter. They readily incorporated Chagall’s works into their collections, but due to inflation, the artist received little money for these crucial items from his early creative period and he hence initiated legal proceedings against Walden on June 12, 1923, which were not finally settled until 1926. The artist thus received back some of the sold works from the collection of Nell Walden, the wife of the gallery-owner, but in financial and material terms the sale of his early works by the gallerist continued to be hugely damaging for Chagall.

At the same time, publishers offered the artist the prospect of exhibiting his works or presenting them in magazines and catalogs, a tactic that Chagall nevertheless opposed. Meret Meyer believes this was an attempt by Chagall to prevent himself being pigeonholed as an “Expressionist” or a “Jewish artist”, tags that the art scene tried to attach to him.

Nell Walden,1926, Image via

His last visit to Berlin was a trip in 1930, when he attended the opening of an exhibition of his gouaches on Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables at the Flechtheim Gallery. After his meeting with the German Impressionist Max Liebermann at the latter’s residence in the center of Berlin, Chagall went back to Paris, never to return to Germany. The Holocaust and its consequences, which also affected the artist and his family, formed a present theme in his artistic work in the years that followed and influenced his relationship with Germany. It should also be mentioned that although the German art world of the 1910s and 1920s appreciated his art, the wider German public lacked an understanding of the new, diverse forms of Modernist art.

As art historian Annette Weber points out, this was a case of being stuck in the traditional, retrograde artistic tastes of the German Wilhelmine era – something that facilitated the Nazis’ later expropriation and vilification of “degenerate” art, which included Chagall’s works. No later than the beginning of the 1920s, anti-Semitic attacks on the artist and his art are discernible in isolated press reports. It is therefore not surprising that Marc Chagall, as a well-known Jewish artist, was given a special place in the Nazi art exhibition of the same name, “Degenerate Art,” and that his works were ostracized under suspicion of being Bolshevik propaganda. According to Weber, this was a calculated appropriation of Chagall “as the epitome of the ‘degenerate’ artist”.

Marc Chagall, Apocalypse in Lilac (Capriccio), 1945 (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022, photo: Ben Uri Collection

The exhibition "Entartete Kunst", July 19. - November 30., 1937, Image via

From “degenerate art” to the painter of German-Jewish rapprochement

After fleeing to the U.S., Chagall returned to France at the end of the 1940s, from where the fame of the artist and his works steadily increased with the crucial support of his daughter Ida. Among other things, a comprehensive retrospective of his oeuvre, held in Paris in 1947, achieved great impact. His daughter also provided the impetus for large-scale exhibitions in Germany, for example in Hanover in 1955 and in Hamburg and Munich in 1959.

However, what other developments made the exemplary rise of the reception of Chagall by the German art scene possible, since his success with the post-war public can by no means be taken for granted? The enthusiastic collector base formed during the interwar period had long since dissolved owing to the death or exile of many art lovers, and Annette Weber also points out that there was little interest on the part of the public in dealing with recent history. It was politics that played the key role in initially driving the presentation of formerly persecuted and oppressed artists, and various exhibitions, the lending of works, and other strategies were used to provide a platform for avantgarde artists. For many exhibition visitors, Chagall’s figurative paintings offered easier access to Modernist art than the works of the abstract masters. Indeed, the very first retrospectives of Chagall’s oeuvre attracted crowds and shortly thereafter aroused the interest of German museums and collectors, who once again included the artist’s works in their collections.

In particular, projects such as the creation of the large-scale painting “Commedia dell’arte” for the opera in Frankfurt in 1958-9 shored up Marc Chagall’s popularity in Germany. In addition to political motivations to promote a Jewish artist, enthusiasm for Chagall’s themes also spilled over into popular culture. In contrast to the interwar period, the artist was no longer received only in art circles, and his late work in particular is considered suitable for the masses, mixing figurative motifs with bright, friendly colors.

Marc Chagall, Cow with a Parasol, 1946 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022, Photo: bpk / The Metropolitan Museum of Art
View of the Chagall-Hall during a premiere 2021, photo: Tetyana Lux

Various motifs, such as Marc Chagall’s biblical illustrations, also represented an ever-popular pictorial theme for the public, which – like politics – appropriated Chagall’s works as a surface onto which they could project German-Jewish rapprochement. Various art critics*, such as Meret Meyer and Annette Weber, highlight the extraordinary praise of his work, especially the “biblical image(s) interpreted metaphorically and, above all, ahistorically,” noting their function as a kind of template that equally visualizes “Franco-German (...) understanding and Judeo-Christian reconciliation.”

 “Do not call me a fantasist. On the contrary, I am a realist, I love the earth,” Chagall wrote in his 1922 book “My Life,” thus formulating a claim to his work that has not always been reflected in the history of its reception. Among other things, lesser-noted works from the 1930s and 1940s open up broader perspectives on the artist’s oeuvre, showing a conglomerate of Marc Chagall’s critical and reflective views of contemporary events. In these paintings, the bright colors and supposedly cheerful expression are often replaced by a darker color palette and varied forms. This deviation, in terms of both content and indeed art, from what is known as “the” work of Marc Chagall enriches our contemporary view of this great Modernist artist.


4 NOVEMBER 2022 – 19 FEBRUARY 2023