Marc Chagall (1887–1985)
Marc Chagall, the eldest of nine children, was born as Moyshe Segal in July 1887 in the Russian city of Vitebsk. His mother wanted him to be a clerk/accountant, but he saw his way out through enrollment at Yehuda Pen’s School of Painting and Design.
In 1905 he moved to St. Petersburg where he met Max Vinaver, one of the first Jewish deputies of the Duma (Parliament) who was impressed by Chagall’s work. Chagall entered the Zvantseva School where he was taught by Leon Bakst, one of the leaders of the Symbolist art movement. In 1910 he moved to Paris and by 1912 he moved to “La Rouche” where, according to Chagall, “the artistic bohemia of every land lived.” He was greatly influenced by Van Gogh, El Greco, Gauguin and Goya. During this time he struck up a friendship with Apollinaire and Chagall rejected the austerity of cubism in favor of a more lyrical art on the principles of color theory (Orphism). Like the French Fauvres who used color without inhibition, Chagall moved toward an expressionist art using “primitive” distortion, simplified line, and large areas of bold unbroken color.
He was also greatly influenced by his upbringing. Chagall once described “the mystique of Hasidism” as one of the fundamental sources of his art. According to Erich Neumann, “The warm, earthly fervor of Hasidic mysticism - a universe where logic was overturned by magic and metamorphosis, where reality became myth.” In this fusion of motifs taken from Jewish and Russian folk art, he began to develop an original language of symbols - his “Chagallian” universe: Floating lovers, a fiddler on the roof, flying horses, “blue air, love and flowers”.
In 1915 he married Bella and until her death of a viral infection in 1944, she remained Chagall’s constant companion and inspiration. In 1917, the October Revolution brought the emancipation of the Jews in Russia. Until 1920, when Chagall left Vitebsk for good, he moved to Moscow with Bella and their daughter Ida (born in 1916). There he devoted his life to running his Academy of Art. As conditions continued to deteriorate, he left Russia for Berlin with a collection of paintings and the nine notebooks containing the manuscript copy of his life.
By September of that year, Chagall was back in Paris, and for the next few years he worked tirelessly to produce a series of etchings for Gogol’s Dead Souls for Ambrose Vollard. Other commissions followed: the seventeenth century French classic, Fables of La Fontaine, Cirque and The Bible Series. By 1927, Chagall was one of the leading painters of Ecole de Paris, and his work was exhibited around the world.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Chagall became the major proponent of the Surrealists, a term coined by Apollinaire to describe his own play Les Mamelles de Teresias. Andre Breton, the doctrine theorist of the Surrealist movement would soon hail Chagall’s work as “the triumphal appearance…of metaphor of modern painting.”; “No work,” he wrote, “was ever so resolutely so magical.” Ricatto Canudo, the editor of the avant-garde periodical Montjoie!, described him as the “best colourist of our day.”
By 1941 France had become too dangerous for Jews and Chagall with Bella - who were now French citizens living in the south of France - accepted an invitation to find sanctuary in the United States. They arrived in New York on June 23rd, the day after German troops marched into Russia.
Nine months after Bella’s death in 1944, he began work again on his first color lithographs for The Four tales of the Arabian Nights. These thirteen compositions, published in 1948 confirmed his artistic affinity for the medium.
While in the United States, retrospective exhibitions were held at the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year his works were exhibited at the Musee National d’Art Moderne in Paris.
In 1948, Chagall decided to return to France. In 1952 he married again - a Russian Jewish émigré, Valentina (Vava) Brodsky - the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life.
He was commissioned by Teriade in 1952 to do a series of gouaches for Daphnis and Chloe. These original studies comprised the forty-two lithographs that were published in 1961 of the Daphnis and Chloe Suite. Concurrently, during 1956 he finished hand-coloring The Bible series for Teriade. In 1964 he completed his masterpiece in lithography, The Circus (Le Cirque).
Throughout the rest of his life, he continued to work in stained glass, costumes and sets for operas, floor and wall mosaics, paintings and etchings, and lithography.
In 1975, ten years before his death, Marc Chagall finished the last of his great lithographic cycles, Homer’s Odyssey. In 1977 he was the recipient of France’s highest public honor, The Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur. But an even greater honor awaited him: He was buried in a Catholic cemetery, embraced by the French as one of their own. Marc Chagall might have been born an unregarded and impoverished Jew; but, as his Russian surname is synonymous with “he strode”, the “poet-painter” of the twentieth century lived to be embraced as one of the most influential artists of all time.