Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Marc Chagall: The Jewish Modernist

 Great Artists

Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love.
Marc Chagall 

The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.
Marc Chagall
When I am finishing a picture, I hold some G-d-made object up to it — a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree or my hand — as a final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there's a clash between the two, it's bad art.
Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall [1887-1985]: Chagall as a young artist in his early thirties. The photo taken in Paris, 1921.  Chagall was born Moshe Shagal in Liozna, Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. It was near the city of Vitebsk, which had 66,000 inhabitants, half Jewish. Chagall once said:  "Work isn't to make money; you work to justify life."
Photo Credit: Photographer unknown.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chagall_France_1921.jpg

Marc Chagall has been described two ways, as a major artist of the 20th century, the last of the modernists; and equally as a painter of Jewish themes that depict, in highly poetic and haunting, if not unreal images, life in the Russian city of Vitebsk at the turn of the twentieth century. Such images have been well-captured in such paintings as I and the Village (1911), The Fiddler (1913), The Praying Jew (1914) and Over Vitebsk (1920).

Chagall created original works in almost every artistic medium, including painting, stained glass, tapestries and fine art prints. Many had biblical themes and motifs, which was natural for a man who says that "ever since childhood, [he] has been captivated by the Bible."  His were paintings of the heart, as is clear in the quote above. Chagall's interest were in the human aspects of love, in all its innocent forms. His paintings, in vibrant colors also capture the child-like wonder around him.

His works, particularly his paintings and stain-glass pieces, have established Chagall, art critic Robert Hughes says, as "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century." Chagall does that honor justice, but he was also an artist whose themes, although Jewish in particular, stretched far beyond the canvas to reveal universal themes of suffering, love and passion.

In his art, he has managed to use the particular to convey the universal, a creative approach that he has taken throughout his artistic life, a thought that Michael J. Lewis brings out in Commentary magazine in October 2008:
It has always been difficult to untangle Chagall's two interlocking reputations—as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. To be sure, he was both. He experienced modernism's golden age in Paris, where he forged a highly personal synthesis of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism that was widely influential and that would, after a certain period of incubation, give rise to Surrealism. At the same time, he was most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native Vitebsk.
The Beginning

Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal in Liozno, a suburb of Vitebsk, Russia, on July 7, 1887, the eldest of nine children born to Khatskel Chagall and Feiga-Ita Chagall, a family of observant Jews. It was a close-knot community, and his father and mother were cousins. His father was a herring merchant, and his mother a housewife, running the house, a highly traditional family.  Like all traditional Jewish families, the young Chagall learned Torah and Talmud, the essentials of Judaism.

Vitebsk had a population of 66,000, half of its inhabitants Jewish. It has been described as a picturesque city of churches and synagogues, called the Russian Toledo", after the former cultural center of the Spanish Empire. Little of the city survived the destruction of the Second World War, including its inhabitants, which numbered only 118 people out of a original population of 240,000 before the war.

The young Chagall saw his father work hard, carrying heavy barrels but earning only 20 roubles a month. Chagall would later incorporate fish motifs "out of respect for his father", says Jacob Baal-Teshuva in his excellent biography on Chagall, Marc Chagall: 1887-1985 (2008). In an earlier autobiography, My Life, which he wrote between 1921 and 1922 when he was 35, Chagall recounts further on his childhood: 
Day after day, winter and summer, at six o'clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father's lot... There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands.
Despite prohibitions in Orthodox Judaism for making images, the young Chagall was destined to become a painter. With his mother's support, and despite his father's disapproval, Chagall pursued his interest in art, going to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1907, to study art with Leon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting.

Between 1910 and 1914, Chagall lived in Paris, to further his education. There, he came in contact with leading Cubist, Surrealist, and Fauvist painters, as well as many Russian émigrés. During this period, Chagall painted many of his most-known paintings that incorporated shtetl, or village life, using strong and bright colors to convey a dreamlike, non-representational quality that fuses fantasy with religion. The figures float freely above the harsh reality below them.

Chagall made many moves during the early years, predominantly to escape repression and oppressive political regimes. During the First World War, Chagall returned to Russia, chiefly because he missed his fiance. In May 1915, Chagall married his first love, muse and inspiration, Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler in Vitebsk.

As he described in his autobiography: "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." She would become the model for his famous series of paintings that showed flying figures. In 1916 the Chagalls had a daughter, Ida, which would be their only child.

White Crucifixion (1938): As Chagall says:  "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."
Artist: Marc Chagall, 1938
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:White_crucifixion.jpg

Life Together Abroad

In 1922, the Chagalls wisely left Russia and settled in France until 1941  During World War Two, the Chagalls barely escaped Nazi-occupied France for the United States, and arrived in New York City on June 23, 1941. The next day, Germany invaded Russia. 

With bad news about the wartime atrocities reaching Chagall, more bad news followed of a personal nature followed. His beloved Bella died of a viral infection on September 2, 1944, the war a contributing factor for an inability to get medicine to treat her. Chagall was devastated after the death of the love of his life, and stopped painting for a year.

Although he respected America, he missed France, and returned in 1948. In July 1952, he remarried, to a woman of similar Russian-Jewish background, Valentina (Vava) Brodsky.

One of his most famous paintings is White Crucifixion (1938). Chagall painted it in protest to the policies of the ruling Nationalist Socialist Party in Germany, says the AMICA Library:
Both as a Jew and as an abstract artist,Chagall was a target of Hitler's art censorship policies. His dealer in Germany,Herwarth Walden, was forced to close his Berlin gallery (Der Sturm), cease publication of its influential newsletter, and flee to the Soviet Union in 1932.

In 1937, the Nazis undertook a systematic inventory of modern art in German museums, removing some 16,000 works unacceptable to their taste to use in propaganda campaigns, to destroy, or to sell outside the country. Four works by Chagall were among those included in the 'Jewish' room of the infamous 'Degenerate Art' exhibition staged in Munich at the end of 1937, which mocked deviations from Nazi Party art standards.
The painting powerfully shows the suffering of Jesus, not only as a particular Jew, but also as representative of the Jewish people as a whole. His suffering is part of a long history of suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, including crusades, pogroms and other nationalistic and religiously centered attacks.

Jesus is shown undergoing the cruel death of crucifixion while wearing a prayer shawl, symbolic that his singular crime was being Jewish. This captured the leading sentiment of the time. Chagall was sadly prescient on where such policies of nationalism would eventually lead to: attempted genocide of a people.

When Chagall returned to Europe in 1948, he saw first-hand the swath of destruction, and learned more about the death camps that destroyed lives, peoples and nations. War rarely has any real victors, and none for humanity's sake. Chagall's art of this period tried to bring humanity together, having seeing the evils and destruction brought about by the narrow and intolerant views of nationalistic ideologies.

Chagall died in Saint-Paul de Vence, France, on March 28, 1985. He was 97.  He is buried at the  Saint-Paul Town Cemetery, Provence, France. Chagall left us a rich collection of work that has universal appeal.


  1. The Chagall works that are probably seen most often are the giant murals in the foyer of New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Chagall also did the scenery and costumes for Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE, which were used for many years but have since been replaced.

  2. Yes, Chagall was prolific in many media. Thank you for pointing this out.


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