The Menlo Roundtable

Breaking Modernist Conventions: The Role of Nostalgia and the Past in the Works of Marc Chagall in Comparison to the Works of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman

Confronted with times of unease, the people of the late 19th and early 20th Century turned to Modernism, a movement of great cultural diversity and expression. But within this era of such diversity came division.

Many traditional Modernists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman used the abstract to ground their viewers in the present, and did not consider past practices of Belle Époque (1880-1914) artists to be worthy of any portrayal at all if society was to ever move forward. They were both a part of the Color-Field movement, a branch of Abstract Expressionism that is characterized by two dimensional portrayals of colors spread extensively on a canvas to emphasize the individual expression of color itself. A true traditional Modernist sticks to those values of minimalism and focuses on a present feeling or experience, rejecting the traditions of European art and representational subject matter.

On the other hand, Marc Chagall, a poet and a dreamer, was a part of the artistic experimentation of this era but his art diverges too far to be called a traditional Modernist. Traditional Modernism grounds the viewer in the present as a way of progressing towards a future free from the grievances of the past, but Chagall chooses to look back to the past with feelings of nostalgia and intimacy, granting his art an elusive and fantastical presence.

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