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French contribution to ærenaissance'

2000-10-17 13:39

Johannesburg - Henry Vergon displays the same kind of energy as the omnipresent violin player in many of French painter Marc Chagall's earlier work, representing Vitebsk, the town of his birth in Russia.

And Vergon is just as passionate as the violin player when he gets taking about the planning and organising during the past two years of a seminal exhibition of Chagall oils to be opened at the Standard Bank gallery on Tuesday evening, 17 October.

Henri is particularly enthusiastic over the origin of the exhibitions, when the French Institute decided it was crucial for the international art world to open the doors for interaction with South Africa.

He talks about the South African curators who accompanied him to France and about the French, who in turn, had been highly impressed with the art infrastructure they found here. Both countries feel they attempted the enterprise as equal partners and that they have made a huge technical, logistical and financial success.

He finds the exhibition a result of the African Renaissance, since it questions obsolete perceptions that Europe maintains about Africa. The attitude has undergone such a dramatic change, that for the first time in history The MusTe National d'Art Moderne, the Georges Pompidou in Paris have agreed to a loan of original oil paintings to a private institution such as the Standard Bank.

Vergon said there had been no doubt at all over the choice of artist to bring to South Africa. Chagall had been the natural choice as his work is so approachable, because it is genial and frank, the exuberance of his use of colour, the incredible suggestion of light present in all his work and because of the ubiquitous love theme that is woven into all his painting.

The works on this exhibition represent his Mediterranean period (1949 - 1977), when following exile in New York during the Second World War, his beloved Bala died and he was forced to rediscover himself as a painter.

He put down new roots in an old country when he settled in St Paul in the south of France.

An interesting aspect of our convestation centred on how Vergon saw the relationship between Chagall's work and the South African context.

Similar to Chagall, who tells stories in his paintings, Africa has a long oral history. As Chagall had been forced to redefine himself, similarly we have to in a post-apartheid era. Similar to Chagall, who repeatedly incorporated the same corpus of image motives, such as the cow, the violin player and the loving couple form his Russian Vitebsk past, Vergon perceived that Africa also celebrates continuously its ancestors by placing images on graves.

Vergon points out that Chagall's work of this period is characterised by Bibical themes, as well as his experiments with new media such as pottery, tapestries and stained glass windows.

The same richness in theme is displayed in the Cape leg of the Chagall exhibition, which is to be mounted in the National Art Gallery. High quality works of the same period will be on show there. The only difference being that they are mainly graphic works and illustrated books.

I ended my convestation with Vergon by telling him how surprised the florist had been when my wife and I approached her with countless Chagall still life reproductions, asking her to copy them when we ordered our wedding bouquet.

I would like to offer Henri Vergon and his team who staged this wonderful exhibition one of these bouquets.

  • The Chagall exhibition will close on November 25 in Johannesburg and on January 14 in Cape Town.