This exhibition was the first to present Marc Chagall (1887–1895) in Prague. In his catalogue introduction, the gallerist Hugo Feigl laments that due to high transport costs the show did not contain Chagall's large oils, a drawback noted in all the show's press reviews. Yet the exhibition left a significant mark on the history of Czech art. With 40 medium and large-format gouaches and 12 small oils on display, it drew the public's attention and was thoroughly discussed in both the Czech and German press.
Feigl had also included Chagall in his previous exhibitions. Two of Chagall's works were represented at Feigl's Exhibition of Jewish Artists of the 19th and 20th Centuries: a still life in oil (the show's most expensive painting) and a small watercolour. The Exhibition of Contemporary French Watercolours, held at Feigl's gallery in February and March 1931, contained two watercolours by Chagall. Chagall's solo exhibition in November 1934 came in the period following Chagall's successful shows in Paris, New York and Brussels. In Germany, Chagall met with open hostility—upon Goebbel's direct order in 1933, his artworks were publicly burnt in Mannheim. It is therefore likely that Feigl's primary motives for organizing Chagall's solo exhibition in Prague were not only professional or economic but also altruistic—he wanted to express his full support for an artist whose Jewish origin placed him on the Nazi black list.
Feigl regarded Chagall as “one of the most interesting phenomena of the Paris school.” His catalogue introduction briefly introduces the artist, emphasizing that Chagall drew on both the Russian folk art tradition and the Orthodox Jewish milieu of his youth, while processing the “problems of contemporary French art, and Cubism in particular.” Chagall's “world of imaginative visions” or even “fairy-tale world” rests on two pillars: the beauty of artistic means of expression and the dignity of Chagall's childlike soul. Both of these theses appear in reviews and reports from the exhibition.
Most critics describe Chagall as a Russian Jew or a “racial artist” [V. J. 1934], a term used at the time to suggest one's Jewish origin. The reviews then offer an outline of Chagall's life followed by more or less detailed description and analysis of his work. For example, the reviewer for České slovo focuses on Chagall's childlike imagination: “This child studied with the French—but even in their school, he kept his naivete and tenderness...he never let professionalism tarnish his youthfulness [S. 1934]. Another journalist is openly negative, writing that Chagall “smears colours around like a small child” [Kr. 1934]. In his view, Chagall's “most absurd pictorial poems” are “close to the poets Apollinaire and Cocteau.” Further on, the critic writes that of the 52 original artworks on display “only about 13 captivate us through their fresh imagination; regarding the rest, most of it could have been painted by a child.” A critic from Právo lidu calls Chagall a “painter-poet” and discusses the question of the academic standard: “clumsiness, either intended or accidental, would deem an artist unfit for the academy, and behold, here we find it in the work of a mature artist … This is proof that academic precision is not a necessary requirement.” [jk 1934]
Chagall's ties to Surrealism are another often-discussed theme. Viktor Nikodým from Národní osvobození called Chagall a forefather of Surrealism who parodied life using “a grotesquely Jewish but also quite Dadaist humour” [Nikodým 1934]. A critic with the initials A. B. M. (Antonín Matějček?) published an extensive and sophisticated review in Národní střed. He writes that Chagall “organically connects his childhood fantasies with Surrealism. In this way, he makes all his objects even more unreal … And from village folk poetics, Chagall proceeds directly to Surrealist poetics” [A. B. M. 1934]. Today, with the hindsight of many decades, art historians no longer connect Chagall's work with Surrealism.
Aside from very positive, neutral and slightly negative reviews, there were also entirely negative evaluations, such as a short review published in Samostatnost. The author calls Chagall “an uncultivated artistic character … indulging in worshiping insanely revolting artistic deformities” and concludes with the statement that “the exhibition is an embarrassing testimony to the painter's astonishingly inflated self-confidence” [Eipem 1934]. Chagall's exhibition in Prague clearly stirred up emotions, a reaction to the artist's innovative style but possibly also to his Jewish origin and references to Jewishness in his work.
The Chagall show in Prague was his first solo exhibition in Bohemia and the only one held during the First Czechoslovak Republic. The next solo exhibition of Chagall took place in the spring of 1948 at the Brno House of Art.
A. B. M. 1934: A. B. M., Malíř rodových představ a francouzské kultury, Národní střed XVI, 1934, 2. 12.
Eipem 1934: Eipem, Soudobé umělecké výstavy v Praze, Samostatnost XVI, 1934, 22. 11.
jk 1934: jk, Dvě výstavy, Právo lidu XXXXIII, 1934, 21. 11.
Kr. 1934: Kr., Půvabná ztřeštěnost, Nedělní list VIII, 1934, 11. 11.
Nikodým 1934: Viktor Nikodým, Velký židovský malíř-básník, Národní osvobození XI, 1934, 25. 11.
S. 1934: S., Výstava Marca Chagalla, České slovo XXVIII, 1934, 24. 11.
V. J. 1934: V. J., Z pražských výstav, Národ X, 1934, 22. 11.
Arno Pařík, Výstavní činnost Galerie Hugo Feigl, manuscript, Praha 2010