Carnival Beside the Arctic Ocean

Newbury Street on the first sunny day in a week has almost a carnival atmosphere. No cotton candy or ferris
By Diana R. Laing

Newbury Street on the first sunny day in a week has almost a carnival atmosphere. No cotton candy or ferris wheels. Rather, sidewalk cafes with Cinzano ashtrays and people drinking creme de menthe and talking about Art and Life and Death and "Darling, did you know that Miranda has run off to Haiti with a jazz musician?"

It is the kind of street along which you promenade, admiring discreetly price-tag-less clothes, jewelry and paintings. On one side is the oldest non-profit craft cooperative in the USA, on the other the oldest guild of artists. All these places proclaim their uniqueness with the fervor of the faithful in possession of a fragment of the True Cross. And if this were Paris the artists would litter the sidewalks chronicling the scene.

The Pucker-Safrai Gallery at #173, a couple of blocks from the Public Library, is currently exhibiting a collection of Marc Chagall's graphics, in honor of his 90th birthday. Chagall's art has the surreal. fantastic quality of a fairground where the sideshows never end. He depicts horses and riders cavorting inside sitting rooms and paints the moon suspended from the branches of a potted plant. His figures generally ignore the dictates of Isaac Newton. People glide, lean, float and spin like marionettes. Sometimes they are gigantic, towering ever a pink Eiffel Tower like the Harlequia-costumed "Magicien en Rose," at other times dwarfed by flower bouquets.

Chagall's compositions juxtapose everyday types--lovers, dancers, clowns--with fantasy creatures and settings that include two-headed monsters, violinists with goats' heads and a host of other mythological figures in bizarre and often sinister landscapes. He draws heavily on recollections of his childhood in Russia and the folk tales of that country. And yet viewing these prints one feels an uncanny sense of deja vu regardless of nationality--it is as if Chagall had painted what he could remember of a dream of his, and it is the kind we have all had occasionally. It is one of those dreams where birds are bigger than donkeys and people can fly.

But it is not just the distortion of the familiar, or the Day-of-Judgment chaos of a world where the center cannot hold that is so compelling. What is original is the power of the artist to evoke one's nostalgia. Nostalgia is a concept often burdened with "precious" shades of meaning. Andrew Sarris once described "a vague nostalgia for ancient aesthetic battles only dimly defined through the mists of memory." A case in point. However, Chagall's is a nostalgia that, while occasionally self-conscious (as in the slightly-too-charming. "L'Homme Au Parapluie," a line sketch of a clown leaning on an umbrella), is seldom oppressive. It is a nostalgia of both the whimsical and the heroic variety. Don-Quixote-with-a-palette battling that deadly variety of "Art for Art's sake" that produces wall-sized canvases of black on black that cost a hefty amount of green bills on green.

The messages behind Chagall's prints are elusive--inevitable in abstract art--and at times one even wonders whether or not the artist is playing a huge joke, saying: Here is a man, ('L'Artiste Phenix) with the profile of the Emperor Constantine attached to a horse's head--now what do you make of that? Yet, beneath the surface of his painted world, seemingly defying nature as the sciences explain it, there is a vitality that belies the cavalier neglect of "realistic" technique. The "Bacchante" dancing beneath a red rainbow may be a figment of Chagall's imagination but she has amazing verve.

It is largely the artist's ability to convey the energy (and almost the noise and smell) of his subjects that makes him unique. His prints are rarely decorative for the sake of decoration alone. They may be funny, frightening, or magical but they are never static. His subjects may ignore the physical laws of gravity and classical theories of perspective but they are very much alive.

This capacity for empathy with his subject and--more of a challenge--the artist's skill at bringing his audience to a like understanding has its roots in the animism of the earliest primitive artists: French cave-mural painters, mask-fashioners of Africa and Eskimo sculptors. The belief that a spirit exists in every living thing implies that in order to fashion an image one must first understand exactly what sort of spirit moves the subject. By the same token, art initially served a practical function: it was believed that by symbolically capturing prey (one captured a portion of its spirit by painting or sculpting it) the chances of success in the field were much greater. What may appear pure ignorance and superstition to Western man has produced some of the most expressive works of art known. The collection of Eskimo sculpture in the second Pucker-Safrai gallery is a perfect example of an art free of preconceptions about its own nature, unhampered by stultifying theories. These soapstone carvings of Arctic wildlife were created by artists who hunted the animals they sculpted. And apparently the best carvers are also the best hunters. It all has to do with "knowing" the subject prey, a fact long-familiar to military strategists.

The Eskimos carve sea lions, bears, fish and birds. The forms are sinuous, graceful and smoothly polished. Every detail is included from curving, scimitar tusks to flippers braced against a rock. One sculpted walrus seems almost about to snort and lumber into the water with the gigantic plosh of several tons of blubber. After stalking these creatures for centuries the hunter-artists sculpt them with a combination of humor and awe.

As a result these green stone animals have a charm that is comparatively lacking in the artists' self-portraits. These, on the whole, are angular with distorted features. They seem to reflect the strain of a life of constant struggle with the elements. A striking example of this spirit is a family group carved out of a single block of black soapstone. The figures are huddled together. They are heavy, clumsy and coarse-featured, but oddly uncertain, despite their solidarity. Likewise, a carved hunter seems very much at the mercy of his surroundings. His axe raised and face contorted, he twists, almost Cubist, with a tremendous tension that must be a mixture of determination to kill his prey and fear, always fear. From warm and comfortable libraries it is easy to exclaim at the savagery of such an existence. It is harder to imagine what it must really feel like living there.

The animal sculptures--which form the bulk of the exhibition--are for the most part exquisitely crafted and touchable and do not disturb one in the way that the human figures do. However, like the Chagall graphics, they are seldom merely decorative. They, too, have an air of fantasy about them. But it is a variety quite different from the circus bustle of the Chagalls. On leaving the two exhibits one could be struck by the ephemeral quality of the prints in contrast with the timeless carvings.

The two exhibits will obviously impress different groups of people. And it is perhaps not entirely fair to compare two such different mediums from two such dissimilar cultures. Nevertheless it is interesting to consider the means by which an Eskimo and a Russian who emigrated to Paris in 1910 both manage to evoke the spirit of their milieus. The Arctic sculptures convey much of the vastness and harshness of life near the Poke and were carved almost instinctively. Chagall has depicted busy, crowded, complex European scenes and yet his inspiration seems likewise instinctual. Both collections illustrate folk traditions stretching back beyond memories. The difference lies in the ancestral memories and not in the faithfulness of interpretation.