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






"We all know that a good person can be a bad artist.


But no one will ever be a genuine artist unless he is a great

human being and thus also a good one."

Marc Chagall


"Painting as Poetry"



Russia: The Early Years





Marc Chagall: poet, dreamer, exotic apparition. Throughout his long life, the role of outsider and artistic eccentric came naturally to him. Chagall seemed a kind of intermediary between worlds: whether as a Jew with a lordly disdain for the ancient ban on image-making, or as a Russian who went beyond the realm of familiar self-sufficiency, or as the son of poor parents, growing up in a large and needy family, yet going on to establish himself in the sophisticated world of elegant artistic salons. The potential for assimilation and the liberality that distinguish Western culture are best assessed by its responses to outsiders; and Chagall personified the singular charm of the outsider his whole life long. His biography was far from everyday, and its reflection in his art took on the form of strange images. His life and art together added up to this image of a lonesome visionary, a citizen of the world with much of the child still in him, a stranger lost in wonder - an image which the artist did everything to cultivate. Profoundly religious and with a deep love of the homeland, his work is arguably the most urgent appeal for tolerance and respect of all that is different that modem times could make.

Marc Chagall, the eldest of nine children, was born on 7th July, 1887, into a family of Vitebsk Jews. The world of Eastern Jewry was both narrow and peaceful, going its quiet way between synagogue, fireside and shop (according to Chagall's own tongue-in-cheek account in My Life). Though only half of his home town's population of 50,000 were Jews, Vitebsk had all the characteristic traits of the shtetl: wooden houses, a rural atmosphere, poverty. Thanks to his mother, Marc was enabled to go on to the official state school after he had finished at the cheder (Jewish elementary school). Strictly speaking, Jews were not admitted to the state schools, but Feiga-Ita, enterprising woman that she was, bribed the teacher. So it was that Marc had the chance to escape the toils of neighbourly and nepotistic connections; instead of remaining trapped in humble confinement, he took violin and singing lessons, began to draw, and spoke Russian rather than Yiddish. Above all, he made contact with the bourgeois world where cosmopolitan and cultural interests were valued; a life style that his father, Sachar, who sold herrings and was perpetually weary, could never have offered him.

The young Chagall was persistent enough to obtain the residence permit which Jews needed for the capital. In the winter of 1906/1907, together with his friend Viktor Mekler, he moved to St. Petersburg. In Vitebsk he had attended Yehuda Pen's art school, and now he was out for a thorough artistic training in the cultural heart of Russia. 'Young Girl on a Sofa', a portrait of his sister Mariaska, which he painted on a visit home in 1907, is one of his earliest works and testifies to a new-found artistic confidence (which was vital in view of his family's scepticism). As if in a photograph, the girl is seen reclining on an outsize divan, legs coquettishly crossed, wearing a beret. Chagall's family were Orthodox Jews, but they were willing to be photographed, and so this painting, with its everyday motifs and rather stiff pose, has something of the familiar and accepted air of camerawork. The decora-tive flatness, the blurred distinction between the figure and the blanket and the soft, rounded lines contouring the body reflect the influence of contemporary St. Petersburg painting. None of this can quite conceal the technical weaknesses of the piece, however, particularly evident in Mariaska's limbs.

"My father had blue eyes but his hands were covered in calluses. He worked, prayed, and kept his peace. Like him, I was silent too. What was to become of me? Was 1 to stay like that my whole life long, sitting by a wall, or would 1 haul barrels about, too? I took a look at my hands. My hands were too soft... I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of my life. Yes, that was what 1 was looking for. But in my home parts 1 was the only one who had ever uttered the words 'art' or 'artist'. 'What is an artist?' I asked."



Young Girl on a Sofa (Mariaska)


'Red Nude Sitting Up' , painted a year later (also in Vitebsk), is a very different work, more powerful and of greater originality. Chagall had just won a scholarship to the celebrated Svanseva School where Leon Bakst taught, who was a major link with the West and an influential advocate of symbolist painting. Bakst wrote for the periodical Mir Iskusstra (The World of Art). Through Bakst, Chagall acquired a finely tuned sense of his role as an artist and must have been helped towards new means of visual expression. In this new piece of work, the artist shows his nude frontally and with a weighty, direct physicality that is quite unlike the etude-like reticence of the picture of Mariaska. The unconventional red shades and their contrast with the green of the plant suggest that Chagall was familiar with recent French painting, in particular with that of Henri Matisse, an impression that is confirmed by the fragmented rendering of the figure, making it torso-like and rapt.

"With my 27 roubles in my pocket, the only money my father ever gave me for a journey, I disappear, still rosy-cheeked and curly-haired, to St. Petersburg, accompanied by my friends. The die is cast.''



Red Nude Sitting Up


Chagall was not the smug and lordly artist-prince he portrayed himself as in the 'Self-portrait with Brushes', where we see him gazing disrespectfully out of the picture. But by 1909 he was no longer a naive lad either. Now, in his apprentice years in the capital, away from his own origins among the simple folk of the provinces, Chagall was able to turn to the subjects and motifs that were to be typical of his future work: village scenes, peasant life, intimate views of a small world. Not until he sensed this contrast with his Bohemian life in the big city, with its financial problems and the possibility of fame, did Chagall acquire his tender and loving eye for the life of the shtetl.

"My name is Marc, my emotional life is sensitive and my purse is empty, but they say I have talent.''



Self-portrait with Brushes


It is this tension that enriches the quality of another work of 1909, 'The Family or Maternity'. The large areas, tranquil figures and simple gestures produce a monumental sense of dignity, translating everyday Jewish rituals into a timeless realm of iconic peacefulness. Compositionally, the painting derives from a traditional Western configuration of the circumcision of Christ with the high priest, madonna and child, with Joseph discreetly remaining in the background. Giving us the option of reading his painting allegorically by borrowing the formal arrangement of a Christian story for his everyday scene, Chagall preserves the ambiguity of his own artistic technique, which was midway between naivety and symbolically gestural formality - much in the way that Paul Gauguin, his idol at that time, painted the Nativity in the South Seas.


"When I considered my father beneath I his lamp I dreamt of skies and stars far from our street. All the poetry of life was in my father's sadness and silence, to my mind. There was the inexhaustible source of my dreams: my father, who could be compared to the immobile, secretive and silent cow that sleeps on the roof of the hut."


The Family or Maternity


'Russian Wedding', on the other hand, appears to be a genre painting, but in fact reflects a happy development in Chagall's own private life. In autumn 1909, through Thea Bachmann, he became acquainted with Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a Jewish jeweller, who also came from Vitebsk and who was studying in Moscow. She too had left her original homeland. In 1915 she was to marry Chagall, and many of his paintings, which were dedicated to her, were to draw their special harmony from their relationship.

In My Life Chagall writes that he "... found the house full of serious men and women", "and the crowds of black figures dimmed the daylight. Noise, whispers, then suddenly the piercing cry of a new-born child. Mama, half-naked, lay in bed, pale, a tender pink. My youngest brother was seeing the light of the world."' In 1910 Chagall worked up this scene into the painting 'Birth', a key work in the art of his early Russian years. With its dramatic lighting, the scene might be happening on a stage, and shows what Chagall had learnt from Bakst, who often designed stage sets. To the left we see the exhausted mother lying on the bed, the sheets heavily bloodstained, the impact heightened by the red canopy. The wet-nurse, in hieratic posture, is holding the baby somewhat awkwardly. Beneath the bed crouches a bearded figure, maybe the father. From the right we see inquisitive neighbours and farmers shoving into the room (an old Jew is leading a cow) and others are participating in the happenings by looking in at the window.


Russian Wedding




The traditional cast of a Christian Nativity are all present here: the Holy Family, the wet-nurse and herdsmen, coming in to share in the event. But the artist has eliminated whatever the Biblical tale offers in the way of anecdote, and indeed there is a strict structural divison between the birth scene with the two women on the left, and the right-hand half where the men are mere onlookers. The personal experience described in My Life, the everyday event of birth, and the allusion to the Christian motif have all been integrated into a unifying structural principle that is fundamental and quite independent of any specific culture.

In 'Birth' we see at its most ambitious Chagall's attempt, so characteristic of his early work, and well documented in his autobiography, to transcend conceptual boundaries and create new syntheses. But even if the visual logistics are clear and assured, the formal solution remains unsatisfying. The ideas are persuasive, but the picture falls apart into two halves. In his quest for an artistic language that might render the complexity of his conceptual insights, Chagall could no longer expect inspiration from Russian art, itself in its infancy. The only place to find answers was in the capital of the art world: Paris.


Woman with a Bouquet


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