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Home arrow Jewish Culture and Heritage arrow Marc Chagall. By Gilberte Jacaret
Sunday, 05 July 2015
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Marc Chagall. By Gilberte Jacaret Print E-mail
Marc Chagall... by Gilberte Jacaret

A few years ago, in the Chagall museum, on the wall, at the entrance of the main exhibition room, you could read the following lines written in French by our painter:
“Since my prime youth, I have been thoroughly fascinated by the Bible....
... It always seemed to me and it still seems to me that it has been the greatest spring of poetry ever. From that time on, I kept looking for that reflection in life and in art. The Bible is like an echo of nature and I kept trying to transmit this secret.

According to my strength, in the course of my life, although I get the impression that I am altogether somebody else, that I was born, we might say, between sky and earth, that, for me, the world looks like a desert where my soul roams about like a flaming torch. I have made these paintings led by this remote dream that, in this house where I leave them, men may try to find some kind of peace, spirituality, religiosity, a meaning to life.

These paintings in my mind do not represent the dream of one single people but that of humanity altogether. If any life is bound to end, we must give ours the colors of love and hope. In this love are met the social logic of life and the gist of every religion.

As for me, the perfection in art and in life is issued from that biblical source. Without that spirit, the only mechanics of logic and constructivism in Art as well as in life bears no fruit.
Maybe, in this House, the young and the less young will come in order to look for such an ideal of fraternity and love as my colors and my lines dreamt it.”

Chagall was born in Vitebsk, in Byelorussia in 1887. His first stay in France is an initiation and an experiment: 1910-1914. The second, 1923-1941 is a will to get assimilated. After taking refuge in the US, he settles for good in France in 1948. And glory steps in.

In the first part of this lecture, we shall see how Marc Chagall settles in St Petersburg in order to learn fine arts. He becomes initiated to Art Nouveau and meets Bella. In 1910, he comes to Paris and assimilates Modern Art within one autumn’s time. Until 1914, he keeps painting in his studio in la Ruche.

In Chagall’s iconography, hybridization includes a few recurring figures of his town. The human head is replaced by an animal head. Animals use human limbs to play music or to paint. The fish is a replica of his father’s figure who was a herring seller. And the birds are playing the violin and blowing the shoffar because their song is alike divine music. He sometimes paints himself as a rooster or a goat.

During the summer of 2007, the national museum Marc Chagall in Nice presented an exhibit called: Monsters, chimaeras and hybrid figures. Among them, Chagall recognizes himself in the dancing goat which represents an acrobat. In the Bible, the goat is the sacrificed creature.

The dancing goat could be both the representation of the artist, isolated from the group, a creator exposed to lack of understanding. Anyhow, by the power of his art, he has his message told: he dances in order to thank God. In the picture The Dance, the artist represents himself working in front of his easel. He is drawing a Christ on the Cross. Christ is represented like a rooster.

Apollinaire encouraged Chagall to dedicate himself to an animal universe and Chagall painted the androgynous figure in Homage to Apollinaire where you can see the poet and his muse. According to André Breton the metaphor was entering into the painting of the XXth century.

Chagall had an exhibit at the Independents’ show and at the Autumn show.

In 1914, Apollinaire wrote in the Paris journal dated June 2nd:” Chagall is a colorist full of a kind of imagination which is issued from the treats of popular Slavonic imagery and always surpasses it. His works are extremely various. His paintings may sometimes be monumental and no system whatsoever could make him feel embarrassed.” In his book: My life, Chagall tells us about Apollinaire visiting his studio. On the following day, he received Apollinaire’s poem: A travers L’Europe (Across Europe). After meeting Apollinaire and Cendrars in 1912, he painted a rabbit and a bird in a gouache dedicated to friendship.

In a second part of his life, in 1914, Chagall goes to Berlin where Herwarth Warden organizes Chagall’s first personal exhibit in his own gallery. Afterwards, Chagall goes to Vitebsk but war breaks out and he can no longer come back to Paris.

1914-1917: he is working in St Petersburg where he gets to know what Malevich’s suprematism means. Then he makes for Moscow in 1920.  He marries Bella. They have a daughter: Ida. He paints for the Theater of Jewish art. In an exhibition in Paris in 1995, at the museum of Modern Art of Paris, the Russian years 1907-1922, decorative panels for the Theater of Jewish Art were exhibited. There, you could see the painter-acrobat, his acid colors, and his daring irony. These paintings are both a ludicrous show and an improvised joke.

The painter is floating with his palette in his hand, the violinist has lost his head, and the tightrope walker and the ox stand with their feet on a wall. Orphism, suprematism, abstraction, cubism, allegory or affected naivety, Chagall brilliantly jumps from one subject to the next. Unlike the other painters of the School of Paris, he remains Jewish but represents the humane figure in spite of the fact that it was prohibited. Always filled with wonder, he is the solitary visionary, close to his country that realizes a religious work of art. He calls for tolerance and respect of differences.

In a third part: 1923-1941, he lives in Paris first, then in Céret, where he illustrates La Fontaine’s fables. Then he takes refuge in the Vaucluse, during the German occupation. Influenced by the importance of dreams, visions of the irrational in the elaboration of his art, he puts the metaphor into painting but Surrealists overdo the cult of the unconscious. It becomes excessive and ostentatious. With Chagall, there exists no contradiction between sticking to his dreams and restricting reality.

In 1924, Chagall’s first retrospective is shown in Paris. Then, in 1926, in New York, he presents The Circus. The love song is wonderfully expressed in: the lovers in the lilacs where, voluptuously nestled among a large bunch of flowers, a couple is passionately making love.
Jewish belief together with the Christian motive of Redemption merges into a message representative of the whole of Chagall’s work. His souvenirs as a child enlightened his whole life owing to Hassidism mostly. He developed his own symbols.

1931: he visits Palestine.

1937: he gets the French nationality. It is the time when Picasso presents Guernica.

1938: Chagall makes his most political painting: The white Crucifixion where religion meets politics. In the center, a Christ, with a Jewish prayer shawl, is dying on the cross. All around, snow covers the background, and Chagall sets endless images of desolation: soldiers, with the red flag in their hands, are charging emigrants trying to embark on a ship. A rabbi is displayed with a notice around his neck.

A synagogue is burning and the liturgical objects are strewed on the ground. In a corner, on the right, an old bearded Jew is running to a saving exile, with his rug sack on his back. This picture is a symbol of violence and disarray.

At that time, Germans were occupying the whole of France. Chagall got caught in a round up in Marseille. Anyhow, thanks to an American journalist, the Germans let him go and he could make it for the US.

In a fourth part of his life, he lives in New York until 1948. Bella dies in 1944. For Chagall, that exile in the US is a success. He stands out as a great painter. He gives the finishing touch to his style and his iconography which will make him famous worldwide.

In a fifth part of his life, he is back in France. He produces too much. He even keeps repeating the same subjects. He paints: The war, in 1966 where white and black are predominant. A town is burning, helpless people keep running away. Even at the top of his career, he has not forgotten that he had been an exiled.

In the last part of this study, 1948-1985, he has been living on the French Riviera with his newly –wed wife: Valentine Brodsky, Vava.
In 1951, he travels in Israel. He then describes the Bible as the greatest source of poetry of all times. He starts a gigantic work announcing the Biblical message which puts forth a decorative cycle relating the biblical story. He puts the finishing touch in 1966. It becomes Chagall’s gift to the French State which exhibits it in the Louvre in 1960.

At that time, at the age of 73, Chagall and Charles Marq embark into the experiment of stained glass for the cathedral in Metz. Then Chagall realizes a mosaic for the Faculty of law.

The synagogue of Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital has been inaugurated on February 6, 1962, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Foundation of Hadassah in the US. In the inside of the building, the grounds of the walls are made with the Jerusalem stone.

In 1958, Chagall agreed to realize the stained glass on the theme of the 12 tribes of Israel without representing the humane figure. Men are represented by animal iconography. It was the same in the Romanesque iconography which, in churches, symbolize the evangelists by angels and animals. It is enlightened in this inside by the sunrays filtering through Marc Chagall’s magnificent stained glasses.

Chagall and his assistant Charles Marq finalized a special process in order to plaster the painting on the glass on an entire single panel instead of limiting himself to the traditional technique consisting in isolating each piece of glass painted by strips of lead.

The stained glasses represent Jacob’s 12 sons that were the fathers of 12 tribes. You can see animals, fish, flowers and many Jewish symbols floating around. If you closely look at it, you get to discover that Chagall relates some moments of the whole of the Jewish history with its tragedies and victories and his personal past life in the shtetl of Vitebsk where he was born and grew up.

One day, he said: “during all this time I have kept working, I had the impression that my father and mother were looking at me. Behind them stood Jewish people and millions of other Jews that died yesterday or a thousand years ago. The Bible has inspired the artist and particularly the Genesis, when Jacob blesses his 12 sons in chapter 49.

The main colors in each stained glass were inspired by the blessings. So is the description of the Great Priest’s breastplate: “and they shall take gold, and blue, and purple, and scarlet and fine twined linen…and thou shall set in it settings in it settings of stones…”

The stained glasses were exhibited in Paris, in the Luxembourg Garden and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York before being sent to Jerusalem in 1962.
After seeing them, the Minister of Culture, André Malraux asked Chagall to decorate the ceiling of the Opera in Paris. Then, in 1973, Malraux was in Nice when Chagall inaugurated the National museum of the biblical message in Nice.

For Chagall, art and religion bear an ideal of love and fraternity. The visitor can feel it in this museum and he can enjoy the serene beauty of its blue stain-glassed Auditorium.

The list of his important works is very long in a few countries. He is neither cubist nor surrealist. In all his pictures, there is a touch of the Russian soul and the birds appear in nearly all of them. He had been through pogroms and such atrocities before escaping from France and reaching the US at the time of the Holocaust. In the Crucifixion blanche, (the white crucifixion), the martyrs become equal to angels and fly over the devastated town.

In each of his paintings, he tells a story happening in a place where the physical laws no longer exist. Things which look normally different become similar naturally. Past enters present and the so-called lifeless objects start moving. In his dreamlike world, his wild fantasy bears the complexity of his soul.

None of the artists of the XXth century could draw together what looked so different for other people. He knew how to bridge all differences whether it is religious, ideological and even artistic. And the public was longing for his message of humane fraternity in a world of peace.

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