There was only one Marc Chagall. Nobody to date has had the love for his fellow man, his God, his family and heritage more than this diminutive man with the great talent for color, emotion and reverence. A study of his work teaches one that this man was truly special. His works are masterpieces. His message still rings true. From lithography to paining with sharp colors, to sculpture, ceramics, glass or print making, Marc Chagall’s work will last forever.
Born in the Bellorussian village of Vitebsk in 1887, Chagall learned the values of love, family and religion from an early age. School for him was to do with art. He moved to St Petersburg as a teen-ager to study art. He was not an instant success so he changed schools until he came under the tutelage of Lev Bakst, his early mentor. From here he moved to Paris, where he lived among other Eastern European artists at the now famous La Ruche, the ‘beehive’. This circular building in the Vaugirard district was divided into pie-shaped wedges that became studios for the poor artists. It was here that Chagall met future greats like Blaise Cendrars, Appolinaire and Chaim Soutine. They, together with Leger and Robert Delaunay, would have an effect on Chagall.
I recently met an elderly woman who lived at La Ruche and knew Chagall. She paid him a great compliment when she told him he was not an artist but a poet. Chagall smiled. His art had truly become poetry.
There is so much to see in the surrealistic figures and the memories of his youth. Here one can see cattle, donkeys, fish and villages floating in space. Chagall was now a true craftsman. In Paris he had discovered his personal art forms. He was now incorporating geometrical shapes into his work but he was not a Cubist. He said he owed all he accomplished to Paris, which he called the true school of life.
He was now contributing to important salons in Paris and Moscow. By 1913 he added Berlin to his conquests. At the outset of WWI he returned to his native villagem where he married Bella Rosenberg and moved to St Petersburg. They had one daughter. Then, at the end of the war, he returned to Vitebsk as an art teacher. He left there to go to Berlin, then returned to his beloved Paris. Success followed in Italy, Holland, Poland and Spain. In France he produced a series on the Fables of Lafontaine. He moved in an art circle, befriended artists like Modigliani, and finally settled in the south of France at St-Paul-de-Vence.
When his beloved Bella died, in 1944, Chagall married Vava (Velentine) Brodski . It was then that he had the inspiration to create the series that is now his Biblical Message and is permanently installed in the suburbs of Nice. I never cease to be amazed at the way the biblical series jumps out at you; the size and the vivid colors are overwhelming. I especially invite you to see for yourself these masterful scenes from the Old Testament. They are filled with reverence as angels, tools, animals, carts and married couples float in space. There too you can see some of his ceramics, sketches and stained glass windows, but the biblical collection is stunning.
In the entrance to the Chagall museum is a photo of the artist, looking down and smiling. I stare into his eyes as though I am looking at an idol, which indeed he is. Then I think of the masterpieces he created with new techniques of stained glass for his tribal series now permanently at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem. Before the series was permanently installed in Jerusalem it was exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art. It was indeed a privilege to be able to see the series, as it was to see the glowing ceiling at the Paris Opera (since 1964) and the murals for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Add the cathedrals at Reims and Metz and the new Chagall museum in Vitebsk to the countless lithos, prints and colossal works in museums all over the world. His donated works hang permanently at the United Nations.
During the war, Chagall and his family took refuge in High Falls, New York. Here he did a series of 12 works on The Arabian Nights. In New York he designed costumes and stage decorations for Stravinsky’s Firebird. His retrospective exhibitions in New York and later in Chicago were great successes, but Chagall wanted to return to France which he did in 1947, beginning printmaking at the age of 63. He created series of 50 prints each but eventually accumulated over one thousand lithos and etchings. He died in St-Paul-de-Vence in March 1985 at the age of 98 years.
Chagall, along with CÃ©zanne, Picasso, Braque and others, is known by everyone who knows art and who appreciates his message of devotion to God, family and the miracle of creation.
The vision of that gentle, loving face haunts me. Marc Chagall was a giant among painters. His work displays his dream. His colors jump out at you. His canvasses team with his nostalgia, fantasy and a genuine love for God, nature and mankind.