Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
"Everything can change in our demoralised world, with the exception of the heart, the love of man and his desire to know the divine."; "Painting, like all poetry, participates in the divine (...)"; "I chose painting, it was as essential to me as food; it appeared to me like a window through which I would fly towards another world (...)".
Marc Chagall thus resumed what was at stake in his pictorial art, ideas that would continue to sustain him despite obstacles and challenges throughout his long career. Indeed he was not reluctant to advance against the tide, whether he had to break the law prohibiting the production of images, which was in force in the Russian shtetls (Jewish market-towns) of his childhood (which would, however, imbue his entire work), or whether he had to fight to maintain his freedom against the dominance of modernist trends.
Born in 1887 in Vitebsk, a small Belarusian town in the Russian Empire, he studied in Saint Petersburg with Léon Bakst before going to Paris, the capital of artistic modernity. He settled in la Ruche in 1912 among avant-garde painters and writers such as Cendrars and Apollinaire, and Léger and Delaunay: the young Chagall discovered Fauvism and the first and second generations of Cubism all at the same time. But straight away he revealed a very personal art, marked by an original element of 'fantasy' that Apollinaire described as 'supernatural'. These images were very often the literal adaptation of Yiddish expressions, such as the figure with the back-to-front head, or the head detached from the body to represent an inebriated man. Similarly, he would take Yiddish symbolism linked to animals familiar from his childhood (love or infidelity associated with the cockerel, tenderness and compassion with the nanny-goat, innocence associated with the calf). But it was far from the idea of a fairy-tale representation: for him it was a question of showing the reality of his inner world.
A native neoprimitivist due to his origins, Chagall was in agreement with the Parisian modernists in rejecting formal academic conventions: he would remain loyal to a 'puerile' aesthetic capable of revealing the essence of things, that he drew as much from Byzantine iconic art with its disproportionate figures, as from the popular imagery of 'lubki' (traditional prints) which brought together a wide variety of simple scenes. As he became aware of the dream-like components of his art, Chagall appeared more reticent to adopt new, simply formal, elements.
In May 1914 he left for Berlin for his first individual exhibition, and then when he was in Russia with his fiancé Bella, found he was unable to leave because of the war. Whilst the 1917 Revolution gave him an official position, his painting described in minute detail the life of the shtetl and developed at the same time a surrealist quality inhabited by familiar characters taking flight, such as the Wandering Jew or the pair of lovers, the latter a reflection of his being happily married.
Buoyed by the fact that Jews had finally been granted equal status, Chagall created a People's Art School where he invited members of the avant-garde to teach, such as Malevitch, the founder of Suprematism in 1915. But abstraction is the art of a world without God, according to Chagall, who in 1917 duly painted 'The Apparition' based on the Christian Annunciation to signify the artist's mission as divine messenger.
He settled in Moscow in 1920 and, disappointed by the power that Social Realism imposed on art at that time, Chagall produced a commission for the Jewish Theatre: a set inspired by all the modern styles without abandoning figurative art, erected as a manifesto for a new world founded on Love, for which he himself would be the advocate.
Stalin's arrival to power and an invitation from the art dealer Vollard convinced the artist to come back to Paris in September 1923. Wanting to put down roots in his adopted homeland, the new immigrant criss-crossed France and turned to the genre of landscape painting in favour of the more naturalistic aesthetic of a 'return to order', whilst Vollard commissioned him to do some book illustrations: it was the opportunity for Chagall to reinvest in and expand his own world, inspired by the Hasidic world of Vitebsk - hybrid beings, acrobats – and add the technique of crushing pigment to his stylistic range.
The fantastical and dreamlike dimension of his art encouraged the Surrealists to invite him to support their movement in 1924. He refused because he was looking not for automatism but the mastery of his imagination, as the numerous self-portraits included in his canvases suggest. André Breton would however make reference to Le Temps n'a point de rives (1930-1939) (a winged fish and a clock flying in the wind) in his essay 'Surrealism and Painting' (1941), admiring this art which mixes together narrative and symbolism even though the painter denied being 'literary'. Breton was not in a position to understand to what extent Chagall's painting was inhabited by Hasidic mysticism, which considers heaven and earth on the same level, with the aim of finding the unity that has been lost since the fall of Adam. This encouraged the painter to mix the finite and the infinite, the near and the cosmic, Eternity and History: 'God, You who hides in the clouds or behind the shoemaker's house.' He also put his personal life into images (experience, dreams, feelings and faith), which more than once joined the main story.
At the beginning of the 1930s, a trip to Palestine and a commission from Vollard for a Bible illustration – which would remain a major source of inspiration – soon coincided with mounting dangers, especially for the Jewish people. With Picasso, Chagall was the only avant-garde artist to involve his art in the denunciation of these horrors: after 'The Revolution' (1973) which expressed the universal aspiration of people, he put the figure of Christ on the cross into images of pogroms, which became a symbol of the suffering of a whole people (a series that started with La Crucifixion blanche, 1938).
Although he had been granted French citizenship he was arrested but eventually fled with his family to New York in 1941. His works, with the large black outline around his figures and dark or blood-red backgrounds, continued to evoke the European tragedy. However, the appearance of the small light of a candle, or lamplight from a family home, is a symbol of the unshakeable hope in divine and human love which triumphs in his triptych 'Résistance, Résurrection, Libération'.
In 1942, the Ballet Theatre of New York commissioned him to produce the set and costumes for 'Aleko' to the music of Rachmaninov, and it was the opportunity to come back to colour thanks to the discovery of the 'deep reds of Mexico' where the show opened. But that only happened progressively: the sudden death of his wife in 1944 and news of the war in Russia would be offset only by his meeting Virginia, with whom he had a son in 1946.
In 1948 Chagall came back to Paris, which he soon looked to own once again through a series of luminous and intensely coloured landscapes. But in 1950 he left for the Midi, near Nice, before settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1966, where he discovered ceramic art, then mosaics, embroidery and stained glass, which from then on he would develop in parallel with his painting for private or public commissions. After Virginia left him, Chagall found happiness again with a young Russian woman, Valentina. A new sense of light and harmony filled his art: the backgrounds are richly nuanced and the vibrant touch of colour ends up dissolving the outlines which until then had been predominant, creating by itself perspective or games of light and shade.
Apart from the themes given over to the decoration of theatres and concert halls, such as the Opera in Paris or the Lincoln Center in New York, Chagall essentially got his inspiration from the Bible. In 1955 he devoted himself to his 'Biblical Message', for which he wished to construct a specific building because 'these pictures do not represent the dream of a single people, but that of humanity.' The museum opened in 1973. With the agreement of the rabbinate, he responded to the commission from Father Couturier to decorate the baptistery of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce in Plateau d'Assy. From then on, all his large-scale creations, whether civil or religious, would testify to the universality of his art and the spiritual values of 'fraternity and love' that it conveyed.
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Art works from Marc Chagall
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