Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map



1887 - 1985

Painting as Poetry



Part I

"Painting as Poetry"

Part II

Daphnis and Chloe

Drawings for the Bible


Other Paintings

Part III




"Chagall is a greatly talented colourist and devotes

 himself to anything his mystical, pagan imagination impels him to.

His art is very sensual."





The Paris Years




Russia's young up-and-coming artists were likelier to be better received in Paris than in their own country. Sergei Diaghilev's Russian Ballet, the entire troupe of dancers, musicians, writers and painters, had scored a sensation there with their mixture of sublimity and exoticism and had awakened longings for the vast spaces of the East. Russia was "in". Alexei von Jawlensky, Vassili Kandinsky, Jacques Lipchitz. and all the artists who were to achieve worldwide fame, took advantage of the fashion to get to know modernism at its place of birth. Bakst had arrived in 1909 to work with Diaghilev. In 1910 Chagall too made the four-day rail trip in the autumn, taking with him the spartan funds his St. Petersburg patron, Max Winawer, allowed him and hopes of being supported by the numerous Russians in Paris. He moved into his first studio on Montmartre, in a fellow Russian's flat.

"All that prevented me from returning immediately was the distance between Paris and my home town". Chagall writes in his memoirs, still complaining about the upheaval which so unsettled this country-born artist. Indeed, the young Chagall plunged into the world of art, going the rounds of galleries to see the Impressionists at Paul Durand-Ruel's, Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh at the Galerie Bemheim (the first time he saw them in the original), and the astonishing Matisse at the autumn salon. Above all, he discovered the Old Masters: "The Louvre put an end to my uncertainty." In paintings such as 'The Model", done soon after his arrival, we see his new engagement with the French artistic tradition. Chagall's palette, it is true, retains the earthy darkness of his Russian pictures, but the thick application of the paint and the frayed, fibrous juxtaposition of colourful brushstrokes reflect contemporary colour theories. Chagall's subject is a studio scene, and thus a meditation on his own work, but his model is holding a brush as well and painting a picture herself, which metaphorically creates an atmosphere of prevalent creativity, an artistic commitment that reaches into all aspects of everyday life. "Starting with the market, where I could only buy a piece of a cucumber since I had no money; through the worker in his blue overalls, to the keenest disciples of Cubism, everything testified to a definite sense of measure and clarity, a precise sense of form," writes Chagall, describing this creative flair. It was a flair he wanted to appropriate in his own work.


"At that time I had grasped that I had to go to Paris. The soil that had nourished the roots of my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needs water. I had no other reason for leaving my homeland, and I believe that in my paintings I have always remained true to it."


The Model



The artist did all that was in his power to promote the legend of his own poverty. Not only the cucumber he could only afford a piece of, not only the herring whose head he ate one day and tail the next, but even the very paintings he did in this early Paris period remind us of how poor Chagall was. Many of them are painted on canvas that had already been painted on and Chagall proved skillful at manipulating contrasts of light and dark, inherited through this re-use, for his own purposes of lighting. While the re-use of old canvases was good for demonstrating financial difficulties, in time it also became an expressive medium in its own right, and indeed a characteristic aesthetic procedure of the Cubists.

'Interior II', painted in 1911, shows us Chagall's first tentative ventures into Cubism. The Cubist idiom is seen in the angular shapes that mark the woman's skirt and the table edge, but beyond this seemingly abstract centre the picture also has a narrative content. In wild abandon, a woman is failing upon a bearded man and dragging a goat behind her. The man, who makes a fearful and defensive impression, cowering in his chair, is fending her off by grasping her thigh. The man's distress and the woman's wrathful instinctuality are conveyed by means of a centuries-old compositional trick by which, as in the reading process, we are made to interpret the dynamics of motion along a line from left to right.

Interior II


In 'To my Betrothed', painted at the same time, Chagall evolved a more contemporary approach to the same subject, though in the treatment of sexuality this painting is once again archetypal. Here, the full vitality of the subject is developed (albeit the compositional structure is distinguished by its total tranquillity within the terms of the visual medium): the woman twines about the shoulders of the bull-headed man like a snake, spitting into his face, while the man, with every appearance of calmness, grasps at her leg with a gesture that suggests desire rather than defence. The tale and its symbolic content are inseparable. They have become this way not only through the unity of human and animal, but particularly through the woman's radial movement, a demonstration of power which seems impossible for the man to escape from. If 'Interior II' could still be viewed as a harmless genre scene, that was no longer feasible now. Indeed, it was only after protracted argument that Chagall was allowed to exhibit this painting at the 1912 spring salon at all. He was accused of painting pornography. What gave this picture its bold suggestiveness was the simple compositional variation of arranging the motifs in circular form about a centre rather than stringing them in one linear direction. It was a procedure Chagall had learnt from Cubism. In fact, Cubism was to solve many of Chagall's early technical problems.


"In Paris I went to neither the art academy nor to the professors. The city itself was my teacher, in all things, every minute of the day. The market folk, the waiters, the hotel porters, the farmers, the workers. They were enveloped in something of that astounding atmosphere of enlightened freedom (lumiere-libcrte) that I had never come across anywhere else."


To my Betrothed

Self-Portrait with Goat

Chagall's link with Cubism was forged not so much by Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque, the movement's founding fathers, as by Robert Delaunay. who was married to the Russian painter Sonia Terk. The orthodox Cubists' coolly dissecting gaze was not the way Chagall and Delaunay looked at things, nor were they interested in the solitary dignity of concrete objects, which enabled the Cubists to make even painted canvas their subject. And the dichotomy of abstraction and representation, Braque's and Picasso's integral method by which ordinary scrutiny of a thing would be amplified by everyday available knowledge of its uses, was of secondary importance to them too. For Delaunay, and especially for Chagall, Cubism represented an artistic language for the expression of the world's magic, the secret life of things, beyond mere functionality. It provided them with geometrical patterns, models for ordering dreams, experiences, desires and visions, ways of re-creating them in terms of a visual logic that could be grasped by others. Imagined realities were complicated enough, and needed an appropriate medium; and the Russian's visions, jostling for expression in his Paris years, found their needs answered to by the complexity of Cubist forms.

Near the Paris abattoirs there was an artists' colony known as 'La Ruche' (the beehive) from the shape of its central building, a do-decagonal wooden pavilion. This was one of the places that gave Paris its reputation as an art metropolis; painters and sculptors from all over the world gathered there in quest of international careers. There were nearly 140 studios there, rudimentary and dirty, but cheap; and in the winter of 1911/1912 Chagall moved into one of them. His neighbours included a number of Russians, among them Chaim Soutine, a wilful and grouchy eccentric, an Eastern Jew like Chagall. With the move, a change occurred in the format of Chagall's works; he now had more space than in his little quarters in Montmartre and was able to paint on bigger canvases. Many of the pictures he did at 'La Ruche' bear the date 1911, but in fact the artist did not date them immediately on completion, and when he did so later, looking back, he rather mixed up the chronological order of his works. For his own purposes, he grouped his oeuvre into cycles which he then dated according to the promptings of some inner time-schedule which had little to do with the realities of the calendar. This may seem a trivial point, but here, too, Chagall proves a master of ironic deception, affecting to despise conventions of orderliness and only conceding allegiance to a clownish inner world of his own.

Reclining Nude


"There in the Louvre, looking at paintings by Manet, Millet and others. I realised why my links to Russia and Russian art were so slack, why I did not even speak their language."


'I and the Village'  is dated 1911 but was painted at 'La Ruche'; it is Chagall's definitive programmatic painting of the Paris years. The radial, centrifugal structure of the picture has here become the major compositional principle. Chagall starts out from Delaunay's use of sectional, sliced images - with the analogy of circle and sun as a figurative element in what is an otherwise abstract configuration of colour - and goes on to achieve a pictorial unity through the yoking of motifs taken from different realms of given reality. The four sections of the work are dominated by archetypal human and animal figures as well as Nature (in the form of a twig) and Civilisation (the village). Narration and plot are no longer needed; the geometrical arrangement, criss-crossing the picture with diagonals and arcs, suffices to give order to the subject. Two of Cubism's most electrifying devices, the juxtaposition of motifs and a certain transparency in the forms, are tested here for their ability to realise images from memory as well as visions and fragments of the most diverse kinds of reality in a painting. The head of the lamb, its contours creating the space for the milking scene, houses and people standing on their heads, and proportions contrary to all experience are arranged on associative lines and stand for a reality beyond the visible world, for an imaginative realm in which memories become symbols. For, indeed, all of the details in 'I and the Village' are taken from memory. The artist has availed himself of Cubism, which places so strong an emphasis on concrete appearance, in order to create an autonomous world dependent on nothing but his own psychology. "Once in Paris I was finally able to express the (somehow) culinary joy I had sometimes felt in Russia - the joy of my childhood memories of Vitebsk," writes Chagall. Not until he was in Paris did he find the means to open up his own inner world, his feelings of happiness, his longing for the little realm of his childhood.

I and the Village


The title 'I and the Village' is notable for its imaginative succinctness, at odds (as it were) with the interplay of ambiguities in the painted scene. Like 'To my Betrothed' or 'To Russia, with Asses and Others' the title was thought out by Blaise Cendrars, Chagall's most important companion during the Paris years. Compared to the distinctly rigorous intellectuality of his fellow painters, the evocative staccato of images and the anarchic merriness of the linguistic coinages in Cendrars's poems and novels represented a counterpart to Chagall's associative world of wonders. The people who supported Chagall in his chosen approach, sharing his taste for poetry and likewise questing for the hidden significance of things, were literary people. "A genius, as split as a peach," Cendrars said of his friend. Chagall riposted with 'Half Past Three (The Poet)'. The poet is seen sitting alone at a table. Coffee cup in hand, a tempting bottle of brandy at his side, he seems to be in the throes of poetic inspiration. At all events he inhabits some imaginary, super-natural world; his head, his spirit, free of the body, even beyond the grid of diagonals that the world of images is contained in.

To Russia, with Asses and Others


Half Past Three (The Poet)


"But perhaps my art is the art of a lunatic, I thought, mere glittering quicksilver, a blue soul breaking in upon my pictures."


This homage to coffee house literati shows Chagall already in the process of moving on beyond Cubism and the geometrical manner. The interwoven lines had previously merely served to achieve a sense of order; now they appear as an integral part of the painting's statement, enveloping the figure of the poet and, by emphasizing the freedom of the head, underlining the independence of the power of inspiration. Chagall was out to appropriate the imaginative strength of the poet and his independence of the principle of order. His geometrical structures abruptly became metaphors, the major bearers of poetic meaning.


Guillaume Apollinaire called Chagall's pictorial worlds "surna-turel"; later he was to call them '"surreal". This concept, as Surrealism, was to give a name to an era. The inventor of the term, Apollinaire, was not so much Chagall's friend as his mentor, and tirelessly tried to organize exhibition space for him. Chagall paid his thanks to him too, in 'Homage to Apollinaire'; though perhaps in this painting the artist somewhat too ambitiously plays with the aura of the mysterious stranger that Apollinaire had seen him as. At the centre of the composition (the circular shape matches the hint of a numbered dial) we see Adam and Eve with the apple, the two figures represented as one. Alongside this hermaphroditic myth there is a dedicatory inscription with the names of friends and linguistic symbols of the four elements. Chagall's own signature also appears in cryptic form, stripped of vowels and with a cabbalistic air. This rather mysterious mixture of various secret doctrines no doubt satisfied Chagall's wish for an art that would draw upon many cultures; but it can communicate only with the help of words, and in that respect its method is closer to poetry than to painting.

Homage to Apollinaire


"He is asleep
Now he is awake
And suddenly he is painting
He reaches for a church paints with a church
He reaches for a cow and paints with a cow
With a sardine
With skulls hands knives
Paints with the nerves of an ox
All the besmirched sufferings of little Jewish towns
Tormented by burning love from the depth
of Russia
For France
Death heart and desires
He paints with his thighs
Has his eyes in his behind
There it is Your face
It is You dear reader I
t is I
It is he
His own betrothed
The grocer on the corner
The milkmaid
New-born babies are being washed in
buckets of blood
Heavenly madness
Mouths gush forth fashions
The Eiffel Tower is like a corkscrew
Hands heaped on each other
He himself Jesus Christ
He lived a long youth on the cross
Every new day another suicide
And suddenly he is no longer painting
He was awake
Now he is asleep
Strangles himself with a tie
Chagall astonished Borne on by immortality"



"I remember Apollinaire's first visit to my studio in La 'Ruche' in 1912. Confronted with the pictures I had painted between 1908 and 1912, he used the word 'Surnaturalisme'. I had no way of guessing that 15 years later the surrealist movement would be coming along."



Guillaume Apollinaire


"I do not personally believe that scientific aims serve the cause of art well. Impressionism and Cubism are alien to me. It seems to me that art is first and foremost a condition of the soul.'" Chagall's works increasingly reflected this unease concerning the neutral beauty of the visible world (here expressed to Apollinaire) and his rejection of "an era that sings hymns to technology and deifies Progress". Paintings such as 'Adam and Eve', dated 1912, which still - with their dissectional analysis of form - owe everything to a sense of the intrinsic dynamics of shapes in art. prove typical for only a short period in Chagall's work. Soon his gaze returned in childishly naive manner to the magic of the world and he resumed his adventurous quest for the secrets told by things. The childhood experiences Chagall retells in his visual world are presented within the traditions of his origins as well as the anti-rational patterns of Russian thought and the strict veto on images that marked Jewish life. To this extent, Chagall's settings are never separable from a mystical, conceptual world where his motifs are transmuted into symbols that stand for some invisible reality.

Adam and Eve

The Man with the Pig

The second version of 'Birth', dated 1912, indeed reveals a far freer sense of access to the mysteries of Nature. The stiff pathos of the earlier version, where Chagall's desire for an artistic image impaired the expressive potential of the work, has gone, to be replaced by a cheerful acceptance of the story-telling urge. The young mother is still lying on her bloodstained sheets, but now she is surrounded by busy and colourful vitality: two women are conducting an excited conversation, others have nodded off at the stove, and to the right of the picture people are waiting to begin celebrating the happy event in a fit manner. The dynamics of visual shapes, introduced into Chagall's work by his borrowings from Cubism, adds a certain liveliness to the pictorial narrative. At last the childhood experiences which Chagall always made use of in his work have that vibrancy and charming vitality which, quite apart from any symbolic values, renders them accessible in the simplest of ways as an account of life. The poet's head askew on his shoulders and the soldier, holding his finger under the samovartap and saluting, while his cap raises itself (as in 'The Soldier drinks'), are often to be seen in this period of his oeuvre. The chatty tone is typical of Chagall.

As in the work of his great contemporary, Picasso, there are analytic and synthetic phases in alternation in Chagall's art. In the early Paris period, influenced by the analogous methods being applied by Cubism, Chagall explored his experiences through the interaction of motifs; he juxtaposed impressions and memories, linking them only by means of an abstract structure unifying the whole canvas space. Later in Paris he increasingly paid attention to the scene that dominated an entire picture, intensifying thought into one single moment where time appears to stand still. "Even as I was taking part in that unique upheaval in artistic techniques in France, in my own thoughts, in my soul as it were, I returned to my own country. I lived with my back turned to what was in front of me." Thus the artist described his focus on the past, writing in 1960; that return to the past was also a withdrawal from the art scene of the avant-garde, which equated artistic progress with novelty and with originality of language, both spoken or written.



The Soldier drinks


'The Cattle Dealer', dated 1912 but (like so many of Chagall's paintings) probably done later, reproduces instead the harmonious simplicity of peasant life. Metaphors of security and well-being dominate this rural scene: the unborn foal in the mare's belly, the lamb on the woman's shoulders (alluding to the Christian image of the Good Shepherd), the bridge across which the cart is quietly rolling. The relaxed overall impression, created by the compositional sequence of horizontals and verticals, might lead us to forget that these animals also mean the money deals of the market place; perhaps they are on their way to be slaughtered. Recollections of his homeland gave Chagall' sportrayal something of the harmless prettiness of genre painting. 'The Pinch of Snuff' pays still more striking homage to the homeland. The imperious figure of the bearded, sidelocked Jew. with phylactery and Star of David in the background and the book with Hebrew characters, call up a familiar image, while the colours give it the defamiliarized appearance of a vision. It is caught between near and far, everyday and exotic, and testifies eloquently to the artist's homesickness. The book's Hebrew lettering includes the name "Segal Mosche", the artist's own name in his home country, a name which he had internationalized, for the sake of convenience, into "Marc Chagall" when still in Russia. His wish to see the homeland once more was growing ever stronger.

The Cattle Deale


The Pinch of Snuff


In spring 1914 he got his chance. At Apollinaire's suggestion, Herwarth Walden, mentor of the Expressionists and editor of Der Sturm, Germany's most significant avant-garde art periodical, arranged Chagall's first major solo exhibition at his Berlin gallery. Though he had sold a few graphic works, Chagall had been doing bad business in Paris; the famous dealer's offer seemed tantamount to an international breakthrough. The irony of fate and politics decreed, however, that Chagall was to see none of the proceeds from these pictures. The outbreak of the First World War put his career back by years. "My paintings were showing off in the Potsdamer Strasse," Chagall recalled, "while nearby the cannons were being loaded." Nonetheless, on 13 th June, 1914, he travelled to Russia on a visitor's visa, which was valid for three months, to attend his sister's wedding, revive memories and see Bella again. Soon frontiers were closed, and a stay he had meant to last weeks became one of eight years. Chagall had returned to the scene of almost all his paintings. 'The Fiddler' is one of his last Paris works. The earlier version , dated 1912/1913, allows the tablecloth it is painted on to show through, and in this, and in the use of mutually contradictory proportions, is squarely within the Cubist ambit; in the later version, by contrast, a twisty track curves through the canvas, lending the scene spatial and dramatic unity. The red-clad fiddler, with the beggar lad behind him. waiting for a contribution, is the dominant figure. Traditionally he leads Jewish wedding processions: we can therefore see the two people in the background as a newly-wed couple. The weighty equilibrium is scarcely disturbed any more by grotesqueness, and only the use of colour preserves those elements of the imagination which (of course) these pictures, painted in the great Western metropolis, in fact represent. 'The Fiddler' tends to obscure its own artifice and affects a verisimilitude of the portrayed elements, despite the fact that they were not painted from life. Whatever the case, the painting includes expressive approaches which Chagall, the motifs now immediately before him in Russia, would be able to re-use unchanged.


The Fiddler


The Fiddler

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