Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Born: July 7, 1887
Died: March 28, 1985
Belorussian-born French painter, printmaker, and designer whose works combine images from personal experience with formal symbolic and aesthetic elements by virtue of their inner poetic force, rather than by rules of pictorial logic. Preceding Surrealism, his early works, such as I and the Village (1911), were among the first expressions of psychic reality in modern art. His works in various mediums include sets for plays and ballets, etchings illustrating the Bible, and stained-glass windows.
Chagall was born in a small city in the western Russian Empire not far from the Polish frontier. His family, which included eight children besides himself, was devoutly Jewish and, like the majority of the some 20,000 Jews in Vitebsk, humble without being poverty-stricken; the father worked in a herring warehouse, and the mother ran a shop where she sold fish, flour, sugar, and spices. The boy attended the heder, the Jewish elementary school, and later on he went to the local public school, where instruction was in Russian. After learning the elements of drawing at school, he studied painting in the studio of a local realist, Jehuda Pen, and in 1907 went to St. Petersburg, where he studied intermittently for three years, eventually under Léon Bakst, who at the time was beginning a brilliant career as a stage designer. Characteristic works of this period of early maturity are the nightmarish The Dead Man (1908), in which a roof violinist is already present, and My Fiancée with Black Gloves (1909), in which a portrait becomes an occasion for experimenting with an arrangement in black and white.
In 1910, with a living allowance provided by a St. Petersburg patron, Chagall went to Paris. After a year and a half in rooms in Montparnasse, he moved into a studio on the edge of town in the ramshackle settlement for bohemian artists that was known as La Ruche (“the Beehive”). He met the avant-garde poets Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, and Guillaume Apollinaire, as well as a number of young painters destined to become famous: the Expressionist Chaim Soutine, the abstract colourist Robert Delaunay, and the Cubists Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Fernand Léger, and André Lhote. In such company nearly every sort of pictorial audacity was encouraged, and Chagall responded to the stimulus by rapidly developing the poetic and seemingly irrational tendencies he had begun to display in Russia. At the same time, under the influence of the Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Fauvist pictures he saw in Paris museums and commercial galleries, he gave up the usually sombre palette he had employed at home.
The four years of this first stay in the French capital are often considered his best phase. Representative works are the Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912), I and the Village (1911), Hommage à Apollinaire(1911-12), Calvary (1912), The Fiddler (1912), and Paris Through the Window (1913). In these pictures Chagall was already, in essentials, the artist he would continue to be for the next 60 years. His colours, although occasionally thin, are beginning to have their eventually characteristic complexity and resonance. The often whimsical figurative elements, frequently upside down, are distributed on the canvas in an arbitrary fashion, producing an effect that sometimes resembles a film montage and can suggest, as it is evidently intended to, the inner space of a reverie. The general atmosphere can imply a Yiddish joke, a Russian fairy tale, or a vaudeville turn. Often the principal personage is the romantically handsome, curly-headed, rather Oriental-looking young painter himself. Memories of childhood and of Vitebsk are already one of the main sources for imagery.
After exhibiting in the annual Paris Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne, Chagall had his first one-man show in Berlin in 1914, in the gallery of the modernist publication Der Sturm, and made a strong impression on German Expressionist circles. After visiting the exhibition, he went on to Vitebsk, where he was caught by the outbreak of World War I. Working for the moment in a relatively realistic style, he painted local scenes and a series of studies of old men; examples of the series are The Praying Jew (or The Rabbi of Vitebsk; 1914) and Jew in Green (1914). In 1915 he married Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a wealthy Vitebsk merchant; among the many paintings in which she appears from this date onward are the depiction of flying lovers entitled Birthday (1915-23) and the high-spirited, acrobatic Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine (1917).
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 found Chagall at first enthusiastic; he became commissar for art in the Vitebsk region and launched into ambitious projects for a local academy and museum. But after two and a half years of intense activity, marked by increasingly bitter aesthetic and political quarrels, he gave up and moved to Moscow. There he turned his attention for a while to the stage, producing the sets and costumes for plays by the Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem and murals for the Kamerny Theatre. In 1922 he left Russia for good, going first to Berlin, where he discovered that a large number of the pictures he had left behind in 1914 had disappeared. In 1923, this time with a wife and daughter, he settled once again in Paris.
Chagall had learned the techniques of engraving while in Berlin. Through his friend Cendrars he met the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who immediately commissioned a series of etchings to illustrate a special edition of Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls and thus launched Chagall on a long career as a printmaker. During the next three years, 107 full-page plates for the Gogol book were executed. But by then Vollard had arrived at another idea: an edition of Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables with coloured illustrations resembling 18th-century prints. Chagall prepared 100 gouaches for reproduction, but it soon became evident that his colours were too complex for the printing process envisaged, and so he switched to black-and-white etchings, completing the plates in 1931. By this time Vollard had come up with still another idea: a series of etchings illustrating the Bible. Sixty-six plates were completed by Chagall by 1939, when World War II and the death of Vollard halted work on the project; after the war the total was raised to 105. The Paris publisher E. Tériade, picking up at the many places where Vollard had left off, brought out Dead Souls in 1948 (with 11 more etchings for the chapter headings, making 118 in all), La Fontaine’s Fables in 1952 (with two cover etchings, making 102 in all), and the Bible in 1956. Along with these much delayed ventures, Chagall was the producer of a number of smaller collections of engravings, many single plates, and an impressive quantity of coloured lithographs and monotypes.
During the 1920s and the early ’30s, his painting declined in the total of large canvases turned out and also, in the opinion of many critics, in quality; at any rate it became more obviously poetical and more and more popular with the general public. Examples are the Bride and Groom with Eiffel Tower (1928) and The Circus (1931). With the rise of Adolf Hitler, however, and the growing threat of a new world conflict, the artist began to have visions of a very different sort, which are reflected in the powerful White Crucifixion(1938). Throughout this interwar period he traveled extensively, working in Brittany in 1924, in southern France in 1926, in Palestine in 1931 (as preparation for the Bible etchings), and, between 1932 and 1937, in Holland, Spain, Poland, and Italy. In 1931 he published, in a French adaptation, My Life, which he had written earlier in Russian. His reputation as a modern master was confirmed by a large retrospective exhibition in 1933 at the Kunsthalle, Basel, Switz.
With the outbreak of World War II, he moved to the Loire district of France and then, as the Nazi menace for all European Jews became increasingly real, further and further south. Finally, in July 1941, he and his family took refuge in the United States; he spent most of the next few years in New York City or its neighbourhood. For a while Chagall continued in his painting to develop themes he had already treated in France; typical works of this period are the Yellow Crucifixion (1943) and The Feathers and the Flowers(1943). But in 1944 his wife Bella died, and memories of her, often in a Vitebsk setting, became a recurring pictorial motif. She appears as a weeping wife and a phantom bride in Around Her (1945) and, again, as the bride in The Wedding Candles (1945) and Nocturne (1947).
In 1945 Chagall designed the backdrops and costumes for a New York City production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. American art critics and collectors, who had not always been favourably disposed toward his work, were given an opportunity to revise their opinions in a large retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1946 and at the Art Institute of Chicago a few months later.
In 1948 he settled again in France, first in the suburbs of Paris and finally on the French Riviera at Vence and nearby Saint-Paul. In 1952 he married Vava Brodsky and began, at the age of 65, what might almost be called a new career–although the familiar, poetic, memory-derived motifs continued to appear in his work. Between 1953 and 1956, without forgetting his native Vitebsk, he produced a series of paintings inspired by his affection for Paris. In 1958 he did the sets and costumes for a production of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé at the Paris Opéra. After 1958 he designed a number of stained-glass windows, first for the Cathedral of Metz (1958-60) and the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem (1960-61). In 1964 he unveiled a window for the United Nations building in New York City and completed a new ceiling for the Paris Opéra, and two years later he completed two large mural paintings, The Sources of Music and The Triumph of Music, for the new home of the New York Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. In 1967 he created the sets and costumes for a Metropolitan Opera production of W.A. Mozart’s Magic Flute. In 1973 the Museum of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message was dedicated at Nice, France, and in 1977 France honoured him with a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. In 1977 Chagall’s The American Windows were unveiled at the Art Institute of Chicago.
A repertory of images that includes massive bouquets, melancholy clowns, flying lovers, fantastic animals, biblical prophets, and fiddlers on roofs helped to make Chagall one of the most popular of the major innovators in the 20th-century school of Paris. This dreamlike subject matter is presented in rich colours and in a fluent, painterly style that–while reflecting an awareness of such pre-1914 movements as Expressionism, Cubism, 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 large total production, there is agreement that at its best it reached a level of visual metaphor seldom attempted in modern art.