Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love.
Marc Chagall never aligned himself with any single movement, but his influence is as vast as the number of styles he assimilated to create his work. Many of his peers pursued ambitious experiments that often led to abstraction, but Chagall’s distinction lies in his steady faith in power in figurative art, one that he maintained despite absorbing ideas from many different avant-garde movements.
As a prime example of a modern artist, Chagall mastered multiple media including oil painting, gouache painting, murals, watercolors, etching, ceramics, theater, drawing, stained-glass work and costume design.
He was born on July, 7, 1887 to Feige-Ite and Khatskl Shagal in Liozna, near Vitebsk, in Russian Empire, today Belarus. He was raised in a Hasidic family and attended local Jewish religious school where he studied the Old Testament and Hebrew. During this time, it was obligatory for Russian Jews since discrimination policies prohibited mixing of different racial and religious groups.
During his early schooling, Chagall adopted the habit of copying and drawing images from book, which developed into an emotional relationship with art, and eventually the choice to pursue it as a life career. He began to learn the fundamentals of drawing, but more importantly, he absorbed the world around him, storing away the imagery and themes that would feature largely in most of his work.
To continue his studies, in 1906, he moved in St Petersburg and enrolled at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. There, he briefly apprenticed under the artist and set designer, a devout Jew himself, Leon Bakst. He is believed to have encouraged Marc Chagall to introduce Jewish themes and imagery in his work, a practice that was pretty unpopular at this time in the Russian Empire.
At the impressionable age of 23, speaking no French, Chagall moved in Paris in 1910. It was the time when Cubism was emerging as the leading avant-garde movement, and young artist aligned himself with the new movement. Chagall responded to the stimulus by rapidly developing the poetics and seemingly irrational tendencies he had begun to display in Russia. Under the influence of the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Fauvist pictures, he gave up the usually somber palette he had employed at home.
In his early work, Chagall is obviously adopting dynamic composition and the abstract forms that characterized much of Cubism; yet, he came to reject the movement’s academic leanings infusing his work with touches of emotions and cheerful colours. In the Paris Through the Window (1913) the figure in the bottom right looks both ways, the couple bellow the Eiffel Tower seems to be split apart. On first glance, the picture may recall one of Robert Delaunay’s many fractured portraits of the Eiffel Tower rendered in the Orphic Cubism style. But, Chagall has no intention to dissect the view or the subject. Instead, he searches for beauty in details, creating ‘ sur-naturalist’ elements, such as two-faced head and floating human. The end result is a balanced and visually appealing snapshot of Paris.
In his Parisian period, Chagall often used subject matters from memory in his paintings; subjects included weddings, pastoral village scenes, fiddlers playing on rooftops. He kept close to his heart his home town of Vitebsk; the figures seem to float freely in the sky- Chagall’s lyrical and melancholic signatures of his far-away home. Fusing his own personal, a dreamlike imagery with hints of the fauvism and cubism, Chagall created his most lasting work. The four years of his stay in Paris are often considered Chagall’s best phase.
In the piece I and the Village (1911), abstraction is at the heart of this piece, it exists to decorate the picture rather than invite analysis of the image. This very approach: a blend of the figurative and modern, with a light, whimsical tone, would make the artist influential and famous.
During one of his visits to Russia Chagall fell in love and became engaged to the writer Bella Rosenfeld. Chagall met Bella, the daughter of a wealthy Russian jeweler, in 1909 in St Petersburg when she was 19 and he, seven years her senior, was attending art school.
In 1914, Chagall enjoyed a well-received exhibition of some 200 works in Berlin, all of which he would never recover. After the show, he returned to Vitebsk with plans to marry Bella. The same year, the two did marry, but the outbreak of the World War I stopped their plan to move back to Paris. For the next nine years The Chagalls would remain in Russia.
Her wife came to be a subject of many of his paintings. For instance, in the Belle with White Collar (1917) woman figure and her demure face stand over a lush pastoral landscape, larger than life, may have been inspired by the traditional subject, The Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This piece, while vibrant and expressive, stands as a lasting example of Chagall’s mastery of more traditional subjects and forms, yet he no less maintains the faintest of sur-naturalist elements throughout.
Few years after the war’s outbreak the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) occurred, an event that obliged Chagall to remain in Russia. He was given the political post of Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk. In his new post Chagall undertook various projects in the region, including the founding of the Academy of the Fine Arts in 1919. Despite these endeavors, differences among his colleagues eventually disillusioned Chagall. This teaching position conflicted with his nonpolitical nature; his overall work ethic and pace lessened due to the tense climate. In 1920, he relinquished the position and moved his family to Moscow, the post-revolution capital of Russia.
In Moscow, he was commissioned to create costumes and sets for various productions at the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, where he would paint a series of murals titled Introduction to the Jewish Theater.
Paris Pt. 2
By the 1922, however, Chagall found that his art had fallen out of favor, and seeking new horizons he left Russia for good. And, the next year, after years of scraping by in Moscow, Vitebsk and other towns, Chagall and Bella moved back to Paris.
In the heart of the Green Violinist (1923-24) is nostalgia for the artist’s rustic village. Fiddlers on rooftops were a popular motif of Chagall’s, stemming from his memories of Vitebsk. This very motif also reflects the artist’s deep devotion to his Jewish cultural roots; his subject who may represent the prophet Elijah is an extension of the rooftop, indicated by geometric shapes in his pant legs and by windows.
In the coming years of World War II, Europe was occupied; Hitler’s Third Reich reigned over a large portion of the continent, including Vichy France where Chagall and his family were living. It is said that Joseph Goebbels personally ordered the artist’s paintings to be burned. Singled out during the cultural ‘’cleansing’’, undertaken by the Nazis, Chagall’s work was ordered removed from museums throughout the country. Several pieces were subsequently burned, and others were featured in a 1937 exhibition of ‘’degenerate art’’ held in Munich.
Chagall is well known for his religious and Biblical motifs and subjects, but Christian symbolism present in White Crucifixion (1938) is surprising given Chagall’s devout Orthodox Jewish background. In this piece, Jesus wears a Jewish prayer shawl, and whilst he suffers on the cross, Jewish figures on all sides of him suffer as well fleeing from marauding invaders who burn a synagogue. This work is a clear indication of Chagall’s faith and his response to the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe at this time.
In that difficult time in which many artists were forced to seek refuge in the United States, in 1941, thanks to Chagall’s daughter Ida and some people from the art world, Chagall’s name was added to a list of European artists whose lives were at risk and in need of asylum. In June, 1941 Bella and Chagall arrived in United States.
Just before the war in Europe was about to close, Bella Chagall died from a viral infection, and Chagall’s hometown Vitebsk had been razed during the German invasion of Russia. Devastated and crippled with grief, Chagall’s work lessened dramatically.
The Real Notebook
After his wife’s death, Chagall kept her notebook, which he illustrated for the next 20 years, sketching on the blank pages and surrounding Bella’s writings with colourful posthumous portraits of her and the two of them together. In one sketch Bella is depicted in a patterned dress with a bowl of fruit, while another drawing shows her with dark circles around her eyes, possibly depicting her final illness. In probably the most moving image, Chagall, with a blue face and melancholy expression, is settled at his easel, contemplating a red painting of himself and Bella, on hand reaching out to touch the canvas with his other hand to his heart.
The 85-page notebook, which Chagall illustrated between 1944 and 1965 while he spent time living in New York and the south of France, also includes several self-portraits. Described as ‘’unique’’ by art experts, the intact collection is extremely rare as Chagall dismantled most of his sketchbooks and sold drawings individually.
Chagall never truly made New York his home, consequently, in 1947 the widower returned to France and settled in the southern city of Vence. After few years, he remarried to Valentine ‘Vava’ Brodsky in 1952.
He continued making artworks, but his later canvases are remarkably different than his better-known earlier works. His subjects and colors appear more melancholy, his brushwork became increasingly lyrical and abstract, almost reverting back in time to Post-Impressionist motifs.
The crowning achievements of the last two decades of his life were a series of large-scale commissions; in 1960, it was stained-glass windows that represented twelve tribes of Israel, these were installed at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, than memorial window Piece for the United Nations in 1964, The America Windows installed at the Chicago Institute for Art, 1977. Chagall’s commissions for murals also defined his late career; ceiling of the Paris Opera House in 1963, as well as The Sources of Music and The Triumphs of Music for the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1966.
Marc Chagall passed away on March, 28, 1985 in Saint-Paul, France, at the age of 97.
Chagall’s legacy reveals an artistic style that is both entirely his own and a rich amalgam of prevailing Modern art disciplines. His repertory of images, including melancholy, clowns, massive bouquets, flying lovers, biblical prophets, fantastic animals and fiddlers on roofs, helped to make him on of the most popular major innovators of the 20th century School of Paris. He presented dreamlike subject matter in rich colors and in a fluent, painterly style that, while reflecting an awareness of artistic movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and even abstraction, remained invariably personal.
Although critics sometimes complained of facile sentiments, uneven quality, and an excessive repetition of motifs in the artist’s total output, there is agreement that at its best it reached a level of visual metaphor seldom attempted in modern art.