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Chagall

Category: Artist and sculptor

Marc Zakharovich Chagall (ʃJuly1887 – 28 March 1985) was a Belarussian-Russian-French artist.  His art is probably the most symbol filled you will ever find, but because of the idiosyncracies of the way art critics work, they classify him as ‘an early modernist’, which only goes to show that applying intellectual labels to art doesn’t work.  He produced works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.  He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.

Marc Chagall was born Moishe Segal in a Jewish family in a village near the city of Vitebsk (Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire). At the time of his birth, Vitebsk's population was about 66,000, with half the population being Jewish.  It was a picturesque city of churches and synagogues, built mostly of wood.

Chagall was the eldest of nine children. Most of what is known about Chagall's early life has come from his autobiography, My Life. In it, he described the major influence that the culture of Hasidic Judaism had on his life as an artist. Vitebsk itself had been a centre of that culture dating from the 1730s with its teachings derived from the Kabbalah. In other words Marc Chagall’s early life was steeped in spiritualism, symbolism, ritual, faith and prayer.  He went to a Jewish school, and studied Hebrew and the Bible.
"the hassidic spirit was the basis and source of nourishment for all his art.  As cosmopolitan an artist as he would later become, his storehouse of visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and ubiquitous fiddlers...he took the scenes of childhood and invested them with an emotional charge so intense that it could only be discharged obliquely through an obsessive repetition of the same cryptic symbols... “

So we can conclude that he was an extremely spiritual man, who never lost that spirituality.  Years later, at the age of 57 while living in America, Chagall wrote a letter addressed to ‘My City Vitebsk’:

Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? ... You thought,
”the boy seeks something, seeks such a special subtlety, … I don't know why he couldn't find it with us, in the city—in his homeland. …I can see, I am etched in the boy's heart, but he is still 'flying,' he is still striving to take off, he has 'wind' in his head." ...
 I did not live with you, but I didn't have one single painting that didn't breathe with your spirit and reflection.

In 1906, he moved to St. Petersburg which was then the capital of Russia and the centre of the country's artistic life. He enrolled in a prestigious art school and studied there for two years.  Between 1908 to 1910, Chagall was a student of Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. Chagall stayed in St. Petersburg until 1910, often visiting Vitebsk where he met Bella Rosenfeld and love entered his life.
"Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me."[In my Life]

In 1910, Chagall relocated to Paris to develop his artistic style.  Initially life was very hard for the 23-year-old Chagall, who was unable to speak French. But, he was not completely alone, as Paris was also home to many painters, writers, poets, composers, dancers, and other émigrés from the Russian Empire. In Paris, he enrolled at Académie de La Palette, an avant-garde school of art.

It is fairly clear when you read the descriptions of Chagall’s paintings that no one who writes about him is spiritually inclined.  They do not know what ecstatic flight is, the symbolism of the fiddler, the animal symbolism, the Mother and Father imagery, mystic marriage and the entire cultural heritage of circus, clowns, theatre, puppets and acrobats.  One is apt to find uncomprehending quotes like the following:
Chagall developed a whole repertoire of quirky motifs: ghostly figures floating in the sky, ... the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down”.

Because he missed his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebsk and was afraid of losing her, Chagall decided to accept an invitation from a noted art dealer in Berlin to exhibit his work, his intention being to continue on to Belarus, marry Bella, and then return with her to Paris. Chagall took 40 canvases and 160 gouaches, watercolours and drawings to be exhibited. The exhibit, held at Herwarth Walden's Sturm Gallery was a huge success.

After the exhibit, he continued on to Vitebsk, but the First World War began and the Russian border was closed.  A year later, love triumphed and he married Bella Rosenfeld and they had their first child, Ida, settling in Vitebsk. 

In 1915, Chagall began exhibiting his work in Moscow, first exhibiting his works at a well-known salon and in 1916 exhibiting pictures in St. Petersburg. This exposure brought recognition, and a number of wealthy collectors began buying his art. He also began illustrating a number of Yiddish books with ink drawings. He illustrated I. L. Peretz's The Magician in 1917. Chagall was then 30 years old.  Whilst in Moscow, he created a number of large background murals as stage sets which Chagall described as a "storehouse of symbols".

The October Revolution of 1917 was a dangerous time for Chagall. By then he was one of the Russia's most distinguished artists.  He accepted a job as commissar of arts for Vitebsk and founded the Vitebsk Arts College, which eventually became the "most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union".

Famine spread after the war ended in 1918. The Chagalls moved to a smaller, less expensive, town near Moscow.  After spending the years between 1921 and 1922 living in primitive conditions, he decided to go back to France so that he could develop his art in a more comfortable country. In 1923, Chagall left Moscow to return to France. By 1926 he had his first exhibition in the United States at the Reinhardt gallery of New York which included about 100 works, although he did not travel to the opening. He instead stayed in France, "painting ceaselessly".  But after having made his name in the French art world, Chagall also travelled extensively:
I should like to recall how advantageous my travels outside of France have been for me in an artistic sense—in Holland or in Spain, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, or simply in the south of France. There, in the south, for the first time in my life, I saw that rich greenness—the like of which I had never seen in my own country. In Holland I thought I discovered that familiar and throbbing light, like the light between the late afternoon and dusk. In Italy I found that peace of the museums which the sunlight brought to life. In Spain I was happy to find the inspiration of a mystical, if sometimes cruel, past, to find the song of its sky and of its people”.

Chagall visited Palestine in February 1931 and ended up staying for two months. He stated that "In the East I found the Bible and part of my own being."  On his return and between 1931 and 1934 he worked "obsessively" on illustrations for The Bible. He told Franz Meyer: “I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time”.

These images are again full of symbolic meaning.  The Bible is a largely symbolic book, thus Chagall was in an ideal position to use his knowledge of the symbolism in his illustrations.  Again, we have the complete lack of understanding by those who write about these illustrations, this quote is seriously embarrassing, I won’t name the author:
in one of his early Bible images, Abraham and the Three Angels, the angels sit and chat over a glass of wine as if they have just dropped by for dinner".  Wine is of course symbolic as is the chalice or cup.

By 1936, he had completed 32 out of the total of 105 plates. By 1939, at the beginning of World War II, he had finished 66. The series was only completed in 1956, and was published by Edition Tériade.

Not long after Chagall began his work on the Bible, Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany. After Germany invaded and occupied France, the Chagalls naively remained in Vichy France, unaware that French Jews, with the help of the Vichy government, were being collected and sent to German concentration camps, from which few would return. Chagall had been so involved with his art, that it was not until October 1940, after the Vichy government began approving anti-Semitic laws, that he began to understand what was happening, the Chagalls finally woke up to the danger they faced.

After pleas by their daughter Ida, who "perceived the need to act fast", and with help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was saved by having his name added to the list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate. He left France in May 1941, "when it was almost too late". Chagall and Bella arrived in New York on 23 June 1941, which was the next day after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

In America he discovered that he had already achieved "international stature", but felt ill-suited in this new role in a foreign country whose language he could not yet speak. He became a celebrity mostly against his will, feeling lost in the strange surroundings.  He settled in New York, but had a difficult time.  Contemporary artists did not yet understand or even like Chagall's art, "they had little in common with a folkloristic storyteller of Russo-Jewish extraction with a propensity for mysticism."

Eventually his art was accepted and he was offered a commission by choreographer Leonid Massine, of the New York Ballet Theatre to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet, Aleko. He created four large backdrops.  When the ballet premiered on 8 September 1942 it was considered a "remarkable success." Edwin Denby wrote of the opening that Chagall's work:
has turned into a dramatized exhibition of giant paintings... It surpasses anything Chagall has done on the easel scale, and it is a breathtaking experience, of a kind one hardly expects in the theatre.”

Then things started to go terribly wrong again.  Chagall learned of the destruction of his home town Vitebsk, as well as the murder of millions of Jews in concentration camps.  And on 2 September 1944, Bella died suddenly due to a virus infection.  Overwhelmed with grief, he stopped all work for many months, and when he did resume painting his first pictures were concerned with preserving Bella's memory..  “the enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration.“

After a year of living with his daughter Ida, he ‘entered into a romance’ with Virginia Haggard, a great-niece of the author Sir Henry Rider Haggard; their relationship endured seven years.  By 1946, he began making plans to return to Paris. He went back for good during the autumn of 1947, where he attended the opening of the exhibition of his works at the Musée National d'Art Moderne.  He went to live in the Côte d'Azur which by that time had become somewhat of an "artistic centre". In April 1952, Virginia Haggard left Chagall for the photographer Charles Leirens.  Meanwhile, Chagall's daughter Ida had introduced him to Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background. She had became his secretary, and agreed to stay only if Chagall married her. The marriage took place in July 1952.

Marc Chagall painting "Harlequins" (les Arlequins) - completed 1968.

In the years ahead he was able to produce not just paintings and graphic art, but also numerous sculptures and ceramics, including wall tiles, painted vases, plates and jugs. He also began working in larger-scale formats, producing large murals, stained glass windows, mosaics and tapestries.  In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera.  It took the 77-year-old artist a year to complete. The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet (220 sq. meters) and required 440 pounds of paint.

Chagall's last work was a commissioned piece of art for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (for all disabled people of the world). Yavett Cauquil Pierce was weaving the tapestry under Chagall's supervision and was the last person to work with Chagall before his death. She left Vava and Marc Chagall's home at 4 pm on March 28th after discussing and matching the final colors from the maquette painting for the tapestry. He died that evening.

Author Serena Davies writes that "By the time he died in France in 1985—the last surviving master of European modernism, outliving Joan Miró by two years—he had experienced at first hand the high hopes and crushing disappointments of the Russian revolution, and had witnessed the end of the Pale, the near annihilation of European Jewry, and the obliteration of Vitebsk, his home town, where only 118 of a population of 240,000 survived the Second World War."

Ultimately Chagall was an artistic mystic.  He was not a practicing Jew, so he was not religious, he had risen above religion and through his paintings and stained glass, he continually tried to suggest a more "universal message".
"My painting represents not the dream of one people but of all humanity”.

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