|'My art is an extravagant art, a flaming vermilion, a blue soul flooding over my paintings'
Clearly the magic of Marc Chagall is in the images of childhood memories that float through many of his works. Untainted by acquaintance with modern experiments, Chagall's work is honest and direct in its revelation of the artist's character. We know him to have been a gentle, caring and passionate lover - the timeless image of himself and his beloved Bella in The Birthday (1915) sends our heart soaring to float with him on a cloud of ecstasy. We are sure of his devout relationship with his Jewish faith - numerous Chagall works draw on Jewish symbolism and reference Judaism including stained-glass masterpieces like The Twelve Tribes of Israel (1960-62); and we know that his heart was eternally connected to his childhood home of Vitebsk - nostalgic images of this small provincial ghetto in Russia are the backdrop to many of Chagall's best known works such as I and the Village (1911) a painting in which clear Cubist influences fracture the picture plane like a stained-glass window, and an atmosphere of fantasy envelops us as dreamlike images seem to float above the ground, dispensing with the conventions of space and perspective.
If we are to learn about Mark Chagall and his art we must look to his relationship with his childhood home town. Chagall himself stated in his autobiography 'The soil that nourished the roots of my art was Vitebsk'. When he entered this world on July 7, 1887 almost half of Vitebsk's inhabitants were Jewish and the Chagalls were devout Hassidic Jews. There were ten children in the family fed on the meagre wages of Chagall's father who was a fishmonger's assistant. Despite this obvious poverty Chagall never went hungry and his childhood was happily filled with rich experiences of the surrounding rural countryside, suburban blocks with small wooden houses and backyards filled with children and animals. He learned the violin and was given singing lessons and from an early age he drew and wrote poetry.
Against his parent's wishes Chagall decided that he wanted to pursue his passion to be an artist. In Vitebsk, however, he was suffocated by his parent's unsupportiveness and the lack of opportunities to study art. After a furious argument with his father he fled, in 1906, to St Petersburg with nothing but a few roubles.
Life was difficult for a Jew in the Russian capital during such unsettled times. Jews were forbidden to reside in St Petersburg unless their profession made it necessary. Chagall's life took on an element of fantasy as he engaged in an elaborate charade to hide from the authorities that he didn't have an official residence permit. Although he was jailed on one occasion he managed to avoid further scrutiny and was able to pursue his artistic studies first at the School of the Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Art, where he found the archaic approach stale and depressing. After two years he was able to find a more rewarding environment at the Zventseva School where he shared a studio with Tolstoy's daughter Vera and the dancer Nijinsky. In 1910 Chagall found a patron, Jewish Lawyer Max Vinaver who was prepared to pay his fare to Paris, and and provide him with a monthly allowance to study.
In Paris Chagall worked at a rapid pace surrounded by the creative energy of a city to which artists from all over the world flocked to pursue their art. His art 'desired Paris as a tree desires water'. A struggling artist on a small income, Chagall based himself in the poverty stricken area of 'La Ruche' where artists rented 'cheap' studios. He was sustained by his friends who encouraged him at every opportunity.
Robert and Sonia Delauney were important influences in Chagall's life and his art. A native Russian, Sonia made a point of including Chagall in many of her social gatherings. Robert Delauney's use of Cubist technique and his lyrical sense of colour was a strong influence on Chagall's assimilation of Cubist ideas. As with Delauney, Chagall felt that Cubism lacked poetry and colour. He lightened his palette and his compositions became more harmonious and unified. We see this transition of style as we compare the deep tones of early works such as in My Fiancée with Black Gloves (1909), to the expressive use of brighter and more varied colours in works such as Self Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912).
Chagall's poet friends Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaure celebrated his talent in their poems and assured him of the brilliance of his unique, expressive manner of painting. He sent a few paintings to the Salon des Indépendants, and to avante-garde exhibitions in Russia but he sold very little. In 1914 he took most of his paintings to Berlin on the prospect of an exhibition. He extended his trip to include his sister's wedding in Vitebsk and to visit his fiancée Bella. His holiday to Russia was prolonged for an indefinite period when war broke out in Europe. During this extended stay he married Bella. Their first child, a daughter named Ida, was born in 1916.
The upheavel of the Russian Revolution drew the nonpolitical Chagall into events. He was appointed Commissar of Art for Vitebsk and the surrounding region, but became disillusioned after criticisms of his teaching techniques. He moved to Moscow in 1920 and the back to Paris in 1923 after a nine year absence. Many of the paintings he had left there years before had disappeared from his studio. Finally after a period of further hardship commissions began to roll in and by 1930 his name was known worldwide.
Meanwhile the Nazi's were rapidly gaining power. In 1933 Goebbels ordered some of Chagall's work to be burnt. Chagall's concern for the fate of humanity is reflected in works of this period such as Solitude 1933 which conveys an overwhelming atmosphere of despondency with the huddled figure of a pious Jew seemingly depressed, longing for faraway Israel. When war finally broke out the Chagalls moved to the south of France and then to the US to escape the Nazi invasion of France. Chagall was kept busy during the war years with a series of commissions for theatrical and ballet designs.
Tragically Bella didn't live to see the end of the war, dying suddenly in 1944 just before peace was declared. Chagall was overcome with grief and ceased painting for months. It was not until he met Virginia Haggard that he was able to rise out of his depression. His relationship with Virginia (with whom he had a son) and more theatrical commissions helped him to get back into life.
In 1947 he returned to France first to Paris and then eventually making his home in Vence in the south. He married Valentine Brodsky ('Vava') in 1952. In the early 1960's he was commissioned to create some stained-glass windows for the Hadassah University Medical Centre, Jerusalem. This commission was of particular emotional significance for Chagall, touching the very heart of his relationship with his Jewish faith. "All the time I was working," he said, "I felt my father and my mother were looking over my shoulder, and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews of yesterday and a thousand years ago."
Stained-glass was also the medium he used when he created The America Windows 1977 (Chicago Institute of Art) to celebrate the US bicentennial. These windows are an expression of his gratitude to the United States where he'd found safe haven during WW2. In The America Windows Chagall celebrates the greatness of the United States and acclaims it as a country of freedom, liberty, culture and religious tolerance.
In 1985 Marc Chagall died just as his major retrospective was closing in Russia. He was buried at Saint-Paul. With his death the world was left the gifts of an artist whose work is timeless. Throughout his artistic life he assimilated many of the modern developments in art into his own personal style. He was influenced by, but never aligned to, movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism. His work is rich in the imagery of the folklore of his native Russia and Jewish life, and often takes on the appearance of a dream-like fantasy. The breadth of his abilities is shown in the fact that he was able to take on many challenges such as stained-glass, theatre and costume design and book illustration. Indeed Chagall, with such abilities, proved himself one of the 20th century's great masters of art.
1887 born on 7th July in Vitebsk Russia (present day Belarus)
1906-10 Studies in St Petersburg
1910 moves to Paris
1911 paints I and the Village
1915 paints The Birthday marries Bella Rosenfeld
1916 birth of Ida
1918 appointed commissar for the arts in Vitebsk
1920 moves to Moscow
1923 returns to Paris
1933 paints Solitude
1939 moves to the south of France
1941 goes to USA
1944 death of Bella
1948 permanently moves to France
1950 moves to Vence
1952 marries Valentina Brodsky
1960-62 Commission for the Hadassah University Medical Centre stained-glass windows The Twelve Tribes of Israel
1977 creates stained-glass windows The America Windows
1985 dies at Saint-Paul