Marc Chagall

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Chagall was a master of several artistic media, including stained glass, printmaking, mosaic, stage design, mural, ceramic, and tapestry, but he is best known for his paintings that depict the fantastical states of dreams and memories. The distinctive Chagallian appearance of an artistic work portrays a world of vibrantly colored figures in incongruous juxtaposition and magical abrogation of natural law, the kind of vision that many people experience in their sleep.

Early Life

Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal in a village with a substantial Jewish population in what became the western Soviet republic of Belorussia. His family was active in the mystical Jewish sect called Hasidism. The quality of Chagall’s childhood may be gauged by the presence of the huts of Vitebsk in almost all of his paintings, testifying to pleasant memories of his youth, a characteristic that sets Chagall apart from many twentieth century artists. This is especially surprising because Chagall grew up in a period when Russian life regularly was punctuated with brutal violence against Jews.

Young Marc received his early education from a synagogue cantor and then through a brief enrollment in a village school. He did not take well to school, so his parents apprenticed him to a photographer. That training did not suit him either. Painting attracted him, and he moved to St. Petersburg in 1907 to study in an art school. He did not do well as a student of art. Chagall explained the apparent futility of his varied experiences of learning as the result of the impossibility of his being taught anything. He said he could do only what was instinctive for him. Instinct led him to paint, and his work pleased one attorney well enough for him to buy two of Chagall’s works and to send him to Paris with a monthly stipend.

Life’ Work

In Paris, pictures flowed from Chagall’s brush in a veritable torrent. In the course of hundreds of paintings, he found his personally distinguishing characteristics of colors with airy brilliance and figures without apparent weight. From this five-year period come some of his most famous and representative works, including I and the Village (1911), Self Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912), The Fiddler (1912), and The Praying Jew, or Rabbi of Vitebsk (1914).

Despite regular exhibition of his works, Chagall failed to find a market for them. He returned to Russia in 1915, partly to escape his penurious existence in France and more so to persuade his childhood sweetheart, Bella Rosenfeld, to marry him. The couple married on July 25, 1915. Their happy and productive partnership lasted until her death in 1944. Chagall celebrated the romance of the early years of marriage with tenderly affectionate paintings such as Birthday, Double Portrait with a Glass of Wine (1917), and Over the Town (1917-1918). In the last one, for example, two figures in a lovers’ embrace float ecstatically above a cluster of Russian huts and fences surmounted by the Orthodox Church of Vitebsk.

Chagall served the czarist state from 1915 to 1917 as a clerk in an army office in the capital. He served the revolutionary Bolshevik state after the November revolution of 1917 with much more enthusiasm as commissar of the arts for his native Vitebsk province, assuming this post on September 12, 1918. There he worked diligently to establish a system of art education for young people. His dedication to providing art for the people and not merely for an elite was unqualified; he set aside his personal creative activity in order to perform his service to society. Yet he faced continued frustration from the unappreciative criticism of literalists who could not understand green cows and levitated horses.

Chagall recruited to his school the artistic genius Kasimir Malevich, whose employment backfired upon him. The point of conflict between Chagall and Malevich was symptomatic of the tension that remained throughout his nearly seven decades of creative work, namely, the desirability of art’s representing objects. In 1919, Malevich carried the banner of suprematism, which abjured representational art to concentrate on pure shape and color independent of figures. Chagall had no hesitation about the inclusion of figures in art; for him complete artistic representation must add to the three-dimensional world of physical things a fourth dimension, the psychic. Chagall had no heart for battle over art style, and he left Vitebsk permanently in May, 1920. Chagall moved to Moscow, but he found the conditions there inhospitable to his artistic impulse. Moscow was receptive to two extremes in painting with which Chagall was not comfortable, either objectless art or strictly figurative reality. His topsy-turvy world of unfettered fantasy fit badly in the revolutionary state of workers and peasants. With the help of Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky, Chagall received permission to leave the Soviet Union. He did not return for fifty years.

Chagall settled in France, with his wife and daughter, to begin a seventeen-year stay during which his artistic fame slowly grew to grand proportions....

(The entire section is 2146 words.)