So, one important thing to remember when studying art history is that sometimes you have to appreciate works you don’t personally find aesthetically appealing. This is the my relationship with chagall. Amongst all the painters who lived in Paris during the 1920s he seems the most tame to me. His fluffy characters and bright palette can almost fall into kitsch at times. But then again, one must remember that Chagall was not only a painter. He did stained glass windows all over the world, he did book illustrations, prints, stage sets, and even tapestries. He was an artistic craftsman, and he was also rooted in Jewish tradition.
Chagall was born in Vitebsk in what is now Belarus. While he was growing up anti semetism was rampant so many jews would hide their heritage and assimilate. Marc (Or his born name Moshe) on the other hand embraced his Jewish Identity and created works of art rooted in eastern european jewish traditions. Even the way he lays out his compositions seems to have more in common with ancient jewish art rather than modernism. But the big thing to remember about chagall is that he was a precursor to surrealism.
He went to school in st petersburgh in 1902, but at the time Jews weren’t allowed inside the city without special documentation so he had a friend set him up with some fake documents. He studied there, and did all the normal academic paintings and drawings. Painting landscapes and figures. In 1908 he was studying with Leon Bakst . Leon was also a Jew, but he had become sucessful and served as a role model to young Moshe (marc). It was during this time studying under Bakst that Chagall discovered experimental theater and the work of Gaugin. This was probably one of those art school “wow, this is exactly what I love” moments. By 1910 he wanted to get out of Russia and move to the art center of the world, Paris.
Once in Paris, Chagall soon realised that cubism was the dominant art form, and that he was a bit of an outsider. He had an unashamed view towards sentimentality which was the polar opposite to the cubist/materialistic view of the world. Nonetheless, instead of trying to be something he wasn’t, Chagall found his voice and kept on creating the paintings which we all know him for today.
Chagall was super excited to be in paris. However he still yearned for his small town where he grew up. In fact all of these paintings depicting Jewish Traditional Life in Eastern Europe were actually all painted while he lived in paris. In this sense they were more like dreams or fantasies of his own childhood. Yet, many times chagall would also use symbolism which shows that the paintings were something other than just an autobiography.
Chagalls wife was still back in Vitebsk while he was in Paris. Chagall became pre occupied with the idea of returning to russia long enough to marry Bella, and then coming back with her to Paris. In 1914 Chagall had a huge show in Berlin, and after the show he had planned on continuing on to Vitebsk where he’d quickly marry Bella and then return to Paris. As fate would have it, while Chagall was back in Vitebsk the first world war broke out. And Russia’s borders were quickly closed. So basically Chagall was stuck in a town with his new bride. They had their first child together, and chagall tried to convince Bella’s family that he would be able to provide for their family. They were worried about her marrying a poor Jewish painter.
So 5 years pass and Chagall continues to paint these dreamy looking paintings and he starts making a name for himself in the art world. Some well known collectors start buying his stuff, and he becomes a well known figure in the art world. In 1917 the October revolution offered chagall an opportunity, since he was one of the most famous artists the communists wanted to use him. The commies offered him the highest position an artist could have in the government. Something similar to the head of the National Endowment for the Arts or something like that. But Chagall didn’t want to be so high profile so he asked if he could be head of the Arts for his small town of Vitebsk. The commies agreed and let him start a school which quickly became the most prestigious art school in the Soviet Union. By 1918 famine had spread throughout the Soviet Union so Chagall had to move closer to Moscow to get a steady supply of food. During this team he did odd jobs and taught painting and drawing to children whose parents were killed in the war. By 1922 The Soviet Union was a hell hole and there was a feeling that the commies were about to take away everyones freedom. Chagall, formerly the most distinguished painter in the Soviet Union wanted to get out. He wasn’t alone. During the 20s a mass exodus of artists and writers and intelectuals fled Russia. During this same time was the rise of a movement called “constructivism” this could simply be called “art for arts sake” and it is one of the most important art movements of the 20th century. By 1933 Constructivism was labeled as “anti-revolutionary” and “bouegousie” so the communists banned it. Almost 60 years of shlocky social realist crap would take its place.
So needless to say. Chagall got the hell out of the Soviet Union. There wasn’t any artistic expression, and there wasn’t even food! He moved back to Paris with Bella. On his way back to paris he stopped in Berlin in hopes of finding some of his paintings from the show he had a decade previous (remember he had the show, and then left for Vitebsk after the opening night. So technically he got locked into the Soviet Union while he still had a major show up in Berlin!). Anyway, so he’s in Berlin trying to track down what happened to all the paintings from his show ten years ago. And they’re all gone. He can’t find anything. For this reason he started repainting these paintings, trying to hold onto that period of his life where he dreamed of Vitebsk from the streets of Paris. It didn’t take long and he was back in the art world again. By 1926 he had his first show in the United States and he was becoming well known as an international art star along with the other important Paris painters.
In 1931 he got a commission to illustrate the old testament of the Bible. He used it as an excuse to go to Palestine and visit all of the holy sites. During this time he felt an extremely close connection to his jewishness and he started studying everything about jewish mythology. During this time Chagall made the quote “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. “
Chagall became obsessed with Biblical paintings and travelled to Amsterdam to see the El Grecos and Rembrandts there.
In keeping with Chagalls terribble luck. Just as Chagall is at the crescendo of working on his super jewy book of the Old Testament guess who comes to power? Yeah. This asshole. It seems like you can’t go anywhere in 20th century art without running into him at some point. So, as soon as the nazis take power they basically take any art that they find hard to understand and they confiscate it or burn it. They even made a point to address Chagalls work in particular saying it was (demon voice) “Although the German press had once “swooned over him,” the new German leadership now made a mockery of Chagall’s art, describing them as “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air . . . representing [an] assault on Western civilization.” ummm. yeah. ok. I guess that means that we can fight terrorism by not eating falafel.
Anyway. The crazy thing is that in 1940 a lot of jews couldn’t believe what was happening, or were complete oblivious to it. Jews were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps and nobody knew. France hadn’t passed any anti-semetic laws yet so Chagall thought he was ok. It was his daughter Ida who basically told him that he needed to get the hell out of France. Thankfully since he was such a well known artist, and had previously had shows in the US, he was actually invited to come and be a refugee there. In 1941 he took the offer and moved to New York. He quickly acclimated himself and felt at home with all the other Eastern European Jews that were all over. Chagall didn’t really fit into the American scene right away. It was like, everyone knew his work was good, but no one really liked it. Kind of what I first thought of him as well to be honest. Anyway Matisses kid Pierre was also living in New York at the time so he set Chagall up with some huge shows in New York and Chicago. After this validation from the art world his work became super popular.
By 1945 the true horrors of the holocaust began to become public, and Chagalls home town of Vitebsk was completely destroyed. This was also the same year his wife Bella died due to a viral infection which wasn’t treated because of rationing of medicine for the war. In Chagall’s mind Bella was another victim of the holocaust albeit in different manner. Needless to say he blamed her death on Nazi Germany and this is something that would stay with him forever. You can see in his works that he is thinking about current events and making his personal story very closely connected to larger political issues.
In 1948 it is now safe to return back to France. Chagall returns to France. He begins an off and on relationship with a woman named Virginia Haggard. This fizzles out and Chagall is alone in Paris. His daughter Ida plays matchmaker and introduces him to Vava Brodsky who was also a russian jew. The two hit it off and get married very quickly. The ten years following could easily be called the “sell out” years, and have actually in my opinion given chagalls works a somewhat kitschy feel. It was during this decade that Chagall began painting and selling his work on everything. Pots, pans, jugs, tapestries, curtains, everything you can imagine. It was like he had an account on one of those online shops that asks you if you’d like this photo on a coffee mug or a mouse pad. With that being said I don’t think that his work became too kitschy, it’s more that Chagall really didn’t care about what the established norms of how a painter should act. Normally, a painter gets famous, has shows, sells paintings, and then makes more paintings in a similar style so people don’t get too confused. However Chagall was all over the place. Doing sets for ballets, making ceramics, sculptures, everything.
In 1963 he got a commission to paint the ceiling of the Opera hall in France. This created a controversy because it was a historical building and many people didn’t want to see it painted in a non traditional manner. There was also some underlying xenophobia directed at Chagall who was a jewish immigrant painting a historical french monument. To the criticism and xenophobia directed at chagall , chagall replied
“They really had it in for me…. It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen… work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them. “
Chagall was now 77. He spends a year on his back working on the Opera House. When it opens to the public the symphony plays Mozart’s Jupiter symphony in his honour. The entire opera house was dim as jupiter’s symphony played. As the music began to build the lights came on, and the crowd began to cheer. Chagall ceiling was a great success, and even the former critics had their mouths shut.
It is also during this time that Chagall starts making these giant stained glass windows all over the world. I was lucky enough to have one at my school at the School of the Art institute of Chicago. I remembered the scene from Ferris Bueller’s day off where they all went to the Art institute and he kisses his girlfriend in front of the Chagall window. I started telling girls that they kissed in front of the Chagall window for good luck, and that everyone knows this. Hey, it worked.
During the 70s Chagall continued to work producing works in various mediums. He lived until 1985 when he died at age 98.
I’ll wrap this up with a quote from Author Serena Davies which I believe succinctly wraps up what an epic life this man lead.
“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.”
He came from nowhere to achieve worldwide acclaim. Yet his fractured relationship with his Jewish identity was “unresolved and tragic,” Davies states. “He would have died with no Jewish rites, had not a Jewish stranger stepped forward and said the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over his coffin.”