Chagall, Marc (1887–1985)

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CHAGALL, MARC (1887–1985)



Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal in Vitebsk, Byelorussia. He was the eldest of nine brothers and sisters and throughout his life was profoundly influenced by the Yiddish culture of his childhood. Marc Chagall drew inspiration from the mores, traditional costumes, fables, and Russian and Jewish folklore of his native land. In 1906 he began his training as a painter at the studio of Yehuda Pen in Vitebsk. The following year he left for St. Petersburg, where he became the protégé of a lawyer who covered his expenses, which allowed him to develop his talents at several art schools.

In late 1910 he discovered the impressionists at Paul Durand-Ruel's gallery and met Robert Delaunay in Montparnasse, and in 1911 he moved into La Ruche (The hive), a cluster of studios where he and other painters and poets of the Paris School worked and exchanged ideas. Through his association with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, and many others, Chagall became acquainted with the successive phases of the avant-garde. He painted To Russia, Donkeys and Others (1911–1912, title provided by his friend the poet Blaise Cendrars), Homage to Apollinaire (1911–1912), and Russian Village under the Moon (1911), using cubist construction in combination with his own pictorial language. Spaces with displaced elements subvert the rational order of planes, dimensions, figures, and objects. Chagall drew from the lessons of the avant-garde and let the human figures in his art completely break free from the laws of gravitation. They float in the air, heads sometimes detached from bodies, alongside cows, bulls, or goats. Chagall added to Delaunay's "Orphic" spaces a rich range of colors that diffuse light into space. His sojourn in Paris led him to the definitive avant-garde form of his art: the decomposition of elements coexists with the painterpoet's personal universe, dominated by an atmosphere of fable, a symbolic visual language derived from folk art.

When he returned to Russia in 1914, on the eve of World War I, the colors and forms in his paintings changed and their poetic and religious aspects became increasingly evident. Chagall returned to Vitebsk and painted numerous self-portraits and portraits of those around him, juxtaposed with or holding in their hands objects from daily life, which appear as recurrent motifs. Transformed or in a state of levitation, violins, lamps, samovars, chairs, and pendulum clocks are depicted alongside elements typical of the Russian countryside: wooden houses, Orthodox churches, peasants, soldiers, livestock, and poultry. Within this universe Chagall portrayed Jewish elders, sometimes suspended in space; these figures allude either to the Jewish luftmensch (someone who lives in the air and subsists entirely on air, and buys and sells dreams) or to the Wandering Jew hovering over the town. In 1915, in response to his marriage to Bella Rosenfeld, Chagall painted the Lovers series.

In 1917, following the October Revolution in Russia, Chagall was named commissar of fine arts in the Vitebsk regional department of education by Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, then people's commissar of education and culture for the entire country. Chagall dedicated himself completely to creating a school of folk art and a community studio, which opened in 1919. The suprematist concepts of Kazimir Malevich, then teaching at the painting school alongside El Lissitzky and Jean Pougny, conflicted with the pedagogical precepts of Chagall, however, who resigned and left Vitebsk, moving to Moscow. There he undertook work for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET), where he painted a group of panels known as "Chagall's box" (two of the panels are now missing). Chagall later left Russia again for Paris.


To Russia, Donkeys and Others. 1911–1912. Oil on canvas. 157 x 122 cm. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris.

Homage to Apollinaire. 1911–1912. Oil, gold dust, and silver on canvas. 200 x 189.5 cm. Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands.

The Russian Village under the Moon. 1911. Oil on canvas. 126 x 104 cm. Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, Munich, Germany.

The Lovers series. 1914–1916.

"Chagall's box": Paintings for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET). Alexei Granovsky, director. Seven monumental paintings remain (the curtain and ceiling have been lost). Paintings for all walls on sewn sheeting (2.84 m x 7.87 m, left wall); on the right-hand wall four images of arts pertaining to theater: Music, Dance, Theater, and Literature, surmounted by a long frieze, The Wedding Feast. Facing the stage, square image Love on Stage.

During the 1920s and 1930s Marc Chagall added more outlining to his shapes, combined different media (oil, pastel, gouache), and produced paintings with Christian themes. The primary colors he preferred are set off by intense whites, his figures now haloed in light. He made greater use of the impasto technique and began to play with multiple planes. In 1926 a series of one-man shows in Paris and New York made Chagall famous. Viewers discovered a body of work that was universal in scope and open to different interpretations but that always incorporated a poetic semantics and elements that were autobiographical, often drawn from the many trips he had taken at the beginning of the 1930s (to Palestine, Holland, Spain, and Italy). Like those of many other artists—all the more so because Chagall was Jewish—his paintings were taken down and destroyed by the Nazis. In 1933, on Joseph Goebbels's orders, a burning of Chagall's works was organized in Mannheim. Marc Chagall became a naturalized French citizen in 1937, then left for the United States in 1941. When he was not doing commissions, he displayed in his works horrendous motifs in response to the barbarism of the war and the Holocaust. His figures became scattered signs within a space that was increasingly imaginary and spiritual, devoid of any reference to natural laws. Apart from exhibits in New York and Chicago, the first retrospective of the painter's works was held in 1947 at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris. The following year Chagall returned to France, where an edition of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls (1842), illustrated with 107 engraved plates by the artist, was published, having been commissioned by the art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard, whom Chagall had met in Paris in 1923. In 1930 Vollard had commissioned him to illustrate the Bible; that commission was not completed until 1952, and the work was published only in 1956. Chagall produced an extremely large and varied body of graphic work, inspired by his unique personal outlook. The lithographs (accentuated with black outlines); the drawings in black and white or in color, with reds, blues, and yellows dominating; the etchings; the pastel drawings; and the watercolors constitute proper exhibitions. Chagall eventually settled in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he devoted himself to lithography and ceramics. In 1957, again wishing to diversify his media, he began work on a series of stainedglass windows for sites in Plateau d'Assy, Metz, Jerusalem, New York, London, Zurich, Reims, and Nice.

A multidisciplinary artist, Chagall always infused his work with music, theater, and dance. As early as 1910 he was attending performances of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. Moreover, he always painted expressly for the theater. Beginning in 1942 he did paintings for established theaters in the United States and Mexico, and he designed the sets and costumes for Igor Stravinksy's Firebird in 1945. In 1964, commissioned by André Malraux, he painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera; his frescoes are adorned with colorful muses, centaurs, angels, cellos, and houses, and allowed him once again to explore the concept of levitating figures and objects. In 1966 he began work on the mural paintings at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City, and in 1967, also for the Met, he designed the sets for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Magic Flute. From this point on the themes of his multifigure works included the circus, religious subjects, and universal mythologies, which were always linked to more personal myths. Chagall had achieved international recognition. In 1973 the Chagall Museum was inaugurated in Nice, and the artist embarked on a final trip to the Soviet Union. Chagall died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1985. Two years later, a major Chagall exhibit opened in Moscow.

See alsoBraque, Georges; Cubism; Léger, Fernand; Painting, Avant-Garde; Picasso, Pablo; Surrealism.


Primary Sources

Chagall, Marc. My Life. Translated by Elisabeth Abbott. New York, 1994. Translation of Mein Leben.

Secondary Sources

Alexander, Sidney. Marc Chagall: A Biography. New York, 1978.

Bohn-Duchen, Monica. Chagall. London, 1998.

Cassou, Jean. Chagall. Paris, 1966.

Guerman, Mikhail Iourevitch. Le pays qui se trouve en mon âme la Russie. Translated by Jean-Louis Chavarot. St. Petersburg, 1995.

Marc Chagall: Les années russes, 1907–1922. Exhibition catalog. Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 13 April–17 September 1995. Paris, 1995.

Marc Chagall: L'oeuvre gravé. Exhibition catalog. Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, 4 July–5 October 1987. Paris, 1987.

Meyer, Franz. Marc Chagall. Translated by Philippe Jacottet. Paris, 1962.

Schneider, Pierre. Chagall à travers le siècle. Paris, 1995.

Caroline Tron-Carroz

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Chagall, Marc (1887–1985)

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