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Exhibition ’Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and Others’: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam tells the story of migrant artists in early 20th century Paris

Marc Chagall, ’The Fiddler’, 1912-13, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Marc Chagall, ’The Fiddler’, 1912-13, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

In the first half of the twentieth century, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian and other artists, famous and unknown, flock to the world’s art capital: Paris. This exhibition tells the story of artists in a foreign country who take art to new, dizzying heights. And who must learn to survive in an increasingly polarised society and artistic milieu where freedom, openness and cosmopolitanism are threatened by nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The show is an incredible chance to see the work of the great modern masters in a new light, and to discover new artists.

Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and others: Migrant Artists in Paris presents art from the superb collection of the Stedelijk Museum, and includes work by more than 50 artists, photographers and graphic designers. What’s more, the Stedelijk’s large collection of Chagalls will be on display for the first time in 63 years: 38 works of art, including eight iconic paintings, some of which have been restored and extensively researched especially for the exhibition.

Their fame overshadows the fact that artists like Chagall, Picasso and Mondrian—driven by different motives, and from different backgrounds—were migrants. But in spite of their success and achievement, they frequently faced the same obstacle: they were not French. Spanish-born Pablo Picasso always felt like an outsider in France, but didn’t let it stifle his creative genius. And yet he remains loyal to his Spanish roots, and often identifies with being ‘other’, a sentiment he frequently explores in his work. As a Jewish-Russian in exile, Marc Chagall faces loneliness, exclusion and outright anti-Semitism. Often packed with Jewish-Russian imagery like rabbis and synagogues, his paintings convey a sense of deep longing for home. In his early years, the Dutchman Kees van Dongen also encounters difficulties. He eventually became one of Paris’ celebrated society painters, but in 1906 he complained that the newspapers consistently portrayed him as a foreigner.

World War One radically changes the artistic climate and modern art, which had been in vogue before the war, is now replaced by a yearning for traditional, classical art. Avant-garde artists take this trend on-board; this is when Picasso creates his famous neoclassical work, and Chagall tries to accommodate French taste by switching to the universal theme of love. Piet Mondrian, the man whose passion for the avant-garde was sparked in pre-war Paris, stays true to his personal vision, and continues to paint abstract compositions.

In the 1930s and 1940s, society becomes even more deeply divided. In the Parisian art world, the ‘École de Paris’, the cosmopolitan movement of foreign artists, clashes with the ‘École Française’, artists and critics who idealise rural France. When the now world-famous Chagall receives the prestigious commission to illustrate the fables of La Fontaine, the press is outraged to see French national heritage depicted by a foreign-born Jew.


The exhibition also highlights lesser-known stories that are directly related to migration and art. Some of the artworks depict the battle for decolonisation, a movement that erupts after 1918 when the sacrifice of the African troops, recruited to fight in World War One, goes unrecognised. The show also explores the experiences of the black community in Paris, from the city’s many workers to electrifying personalities like the American dancer and activist Josephine Baker who, disillusioned by America, became a French citizen.

Another highlight is work by ground-breaking female artists, such as the Russian avant-garde artists Natalia Goncharova and Sonia Delaunay, the German Germaine Krull who, with her photo book Métal, appropriates a ‘man’s subject’, to abstract artists such as Nicolaas Warb and Marlow Moss – male pseudonyms adopted by women artists. Despite the emergence of New York as an international art hub after 1945, Paris remains a magnet for artists, including those from South America such as the Cuban Alfredo Lam and the Argentinean Sesostris Vitullo, following in the footsteps of the Mexican Diego Rivera who settled in the French capital before the outbreak of World War Two.

A space in the exhibition has been transformed into a Salon. The Salon is the idea of musician, writer and columnist Massih Hutak, who conceived it as a space where visitors can jot down their comments and stories. Every month, the Salon zooms in on a different question. The answers visitors write down are hung on the wall as inspiration for the four Salon artists: Gershwin Bonevacia (the City Poet of Amsterdam), Massih Hutak, Rachel Rumai (writer, poet and performance artist) and Ikram El Messaoudi (illustrator). At the end of each month, the artists will stage an intervention—the Salon session—inspired by the answers people gave. To see the full programme go to

In the audio tour of the exhibition Massih Hutak, Rachel Rumai, Gershwin Bonevacia and Ikram El Messaoudi talk about how they look at the artworks in the exhibition. A musician, a writer, a poet and a visual artist who see the art of the past through modern eyes. Maurice Rummens, who curated the exhibition, also shares stories about the work. The audio tour is available in English and Dutch.

For visitors eager to dig deeper, there are Gallery Talks, free guided tours and workshops. The complete programme of activities can be found on

The exhibition is captured in the catalogue Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and others: Migrant Artists in Paris. Designed by Hilde and Janna Meeus, 72 pages, 21 x 17 cm, paperback with ring binder, ISBN Dutch: 978-90-5006-947-2 ISBN English: ISBN 978-90-5006-210-7. Available in English and Dutch, €14.95 from the museum shop and quality bookshops.

Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and others: Migrant Artists in Paris is part of STEDELIJK TURNS, an exhibition programme that re-examines and reinterprets the museum collection.

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