Having just completed my four part look at the quartet of Scottish Colourists I am turning to a painter from the same era but one who could not be more different in style. For my blog today I want to look at the early life of and two fascinating paintings by the Russian-Jewish artist, Marc Chagall. He was a painter of poetic, surreal images that to him, represented a topsy-turvy world, combining fantasy and spirituality with a modernist style
Marc Chagall, a name he did not use until 1915 when he arrived in Paris, was born Moishe Segal on the 7th of July 1887 in the small Jewish shetl of Liozna part of the town of Vitebsk, which was in the Russian Empire but now is situated in Belarus. He was the eldest of nine children born into a Hasidic Jewish family. His parents led a simple yet spartan life. His mother Feige-Ite ran a small grocery shop from their home. His grandfather worked as a teacher and a cantor in a local synagogue and had secured a position for Marc Chagall’s father as a clerk at a wholesale herring merchants but in Marc Chagall’s autobiography, My Life, he criticised his grandfather for his father’s placement and derided the job description of “clerk”. He wrote:
“…My grandfather, a teacher of religion, could think of nothing better than to place my father – his eldest son, still a child – as a clerk with a firm of herring wholesalers, and his youngest son with a barber. No, my father was not a clerk, but, for thirty-two years, a plain workman. He lifted heavy barrels, and my heart used to twist like a Turkish pretzel as I watched him carrying those loads and stirring the little herrings with his frozen hands……Sometimes my father’s clothes would glisten with herring brine. The light played above him, besides him. But his face, now yellow, now clear, would sometimes break into a wan smile…”
Chagall would always remember those early days of hardship and how hard his father worked to provide for his family. In his 1922 autobiography, My Life, Chagall recalled those difficult times:
“…Day after day, winter and summer, at six o’clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father’s lot… There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands…”
As a young child, Chagall went to the local heder, an elementary Jewish school in which children were taught to read the Torah and other books in Hebrew. Later he transferred to the local secular secondary school and it was here that young Chagall started to show an interest in art. The fact that he, as a Jew, was allowed to go to the local secular school was in itself rather unusual as according to government dictates at the time, Jewish children were not allowed to study at secular schools. In 1906 when Marc was nineteen years of age and with help from his mother, and despite his father’s protests, he enrolled at a private school of drawing, Artist Pen’s School of Drawing and Painting run by Yethuda Pen. Yethuda Pen was a talented Jewish artist and art teacher and one of the outstanding figures of the Jewish Renaissance in Russian and Belarusian art. Chagall remembers the day he first cast his eyes on the school and how it impressed him. He recounted the time in his autobiography:
“…I learned about Pen when I was riding on a streetcar. It was crossing the Cathedral Square and I saw a banner – white letters on blue: Artist Pen’s School. ‘What a cultured city is our Vitebsk,’ I thought...”
Later, in 1921, Chagall told his former tutor, Penn, about the day he first entered the college, accompanied by his mother, for an interview for a place on Penn’s art course and how nervous he was. He wrote:
“…I recall how, as a boy, I climbed the steps of your studio. And the tremor with which I awaited you: you were to decide my fate in my mother’s presence. I know how many other young boys in Vitebsk and the entire gubernia [administrative district] had their fates decided by you. For dozens of years your studio was the first to lure people in town… You have trained a vast generation of Jewish artists…”
He remained only a few months at Penn’s art school and in 1907 with little money, he left Vitebsk and headed for Saint Petersburg. Chagall had already seen and felt the full force of the anti-Semitic Russian laws in his home town but they paled into insignificance compared to the discriminatory policies against Jews in Saint Petersburg. However for Chagall these legal hardships and the fact that he had little money to live on, was of little consequence as he was now able to immerse himself in the whirlpool of artistic life. These were also revolutionary times and the revolutionary mood of the Russian people against their Tsarist ruler could be seen in every-day life, through avant-garde magazines and art exhibitions which pioneered new and modern western art. The art world was waking up to the new art of the French Fauves, the German Expressionists and the Italian Futurists. This was an exciting time for the young Russian artist, Chagall, and this new art would greatly influence him. Although he absorbed this new art and knew about the various artistic groupings, he was his own man and he wanted to stand alone and create his own unique artistic style. The one thing Chagall was determined about was that he would never ever forget his childhood background and the people of Vitebsk. He would never forget his family’s or his poor but happy upbringing and the family’s lowly status. He would never forget the hand to mouth existence and the importance of the land and the farms that provided food for its people. He would never forget the onion-shaped cupolas of the churches, the wooden houses with the grass roofs which helped insulate them. His home town of Vitebsk was tattooed on his very heart and he would always remember it in his art with great affection.
Whilst living in St Petersburg Marc Chagall earned a living by working at the editorial office of the Russian-Jewish periodical, Voskhod. He also carried on with his artistic studies first at the school of the Society for the Encouragement of Art Society of Art Supporters where he studied under the Russian painter and stage designer Nikolai Roerich and the following year he enrolled as a student at the Yelizaveta Zvantseva’s School of Drawing and Painting where one of his teachers was the great Russian artist and costume designer Leon Bakst. Bakst had lived in Paris from 1893 to 1897, where he studied at the Académie Julian, and he would eventually persuade Chagall to head for the French capital, the then art capital of the world, so as to best continue his artistic studies.
In 1909, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld who lived in his home town and had been visiting friends in St. Petersburg. It was love at first sight and within a short time they had become engaged. Although both Marc and Bella were from Vitebsk, their social worlds could not have been more different and for that reason Bella’s parents were very unhappy with the liaison. Bella’s parents, Shmule and Alta Rosenfeld were extremely wealthy and ran a very successful jewellery business back in Vitebsk and had managed to put Bella through the best education culminating at the University of Moscow. She was particularly interested in the workings of the theatre and in art, and whilst studying at university, she contributed articles to a Moscow newspaper. Chagall’s love for Bella, who became his wife in 1915, was deep and enduring and in his autobiography he wrote with passion about his true love:
“… Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul…”
In 1910, Chagall held his first solo exhibition, which was in the editorial office of the St Petersburg avant-garde magazine Apollon. One of the visitors to the exhibition was Maxim Vinaver, a lawyer and deputy of the State Duma. Vinaver, who was one of the outstanding figures in Russian Jewry of his time. He played a distinguished role as a Jewish communal leader, as well as one of the leaders of the Liberal Cadet Party. He was always a champion of the Jewish cause and as a deputy in the Russian Duma, Vinaver organized the Society to Secure Equality for the Jews in Russia. Impressed by the talent of Chagall, he became his patron and gave him a monetary scholarship and with this financial assistance Chagall was able to go to Paris to carry on his artistic studies. It was on arriving in the French capital that Moishe Segal adopted the French-sounding pseudonym, Marc Chagall.
I will leave the life story of Marc Chagall at this stage of his life and return to it in a later blog but for now I want to look at two of his paintings. The first painting, and one of his most famous, is entitled I and the Village, which he completed in 1911, whilst living in Paris. It is currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The painting on first sight is, like many of his works, unfathomable and one has to look carefully at all the elements depicted to try and understand what was going on in Chagall’s mind as he put brush to canvas. It is a dream-like image with many overlapping elements. This lively composition and the geometrical structures, such as lines, angles, triangles, circles, and squares clearly displays aspects of Cubism. Some would have us believe that Chagall’s assortment of large and small circular forms are meant to depict the sun’s revolution within our solar system as well as the earth’s revolution around the sun, and the moon’s revolution around the earth. The moon being in the lower left of the painting is causing an eclipse of the sun. However, maybe like me, this cosmic interpretation of the painting is possibly a step too far!
It is a collage of various objects. It portrays the artist’s memories of the Hasidic Community of Vitebsk in which he was brought up, a peasant community, which relied heavily on the land and their animals for food. There are human and animal elements in the work which are both fragmented and randomly assembled to produce an abstract composition. The colours Chagall uses are vibrant and he has produced a severe contrast between the red, the green and the blue which he has liberally used.
Let us look more closely at the work and see if we can unravel the meaning of some of its elements. If you look at the top right hand corner of the work you can make out a small town. There is a church with its onion-shaped cupola and some brightly coloured houses some of which are upside down. This inclusion, as he did in many of his works, is probably Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk and the fact that some of the houses are upturned could well be his way of illustrating that it is his town as visualised by him in his dream. In front of the row of houses is man dressed in black with a scythe over his shoulder, presumably returning home after a hard day’s work in the fields. In front of him is an upturned woman. The woman, according to some descriptions is playing a violin. However although people playing violins feature in many of Chagall’s works I beg to differ as far as this woman is concerned. I have studied pictures of the painting, inverted it to see her better, and have concluded she is simply a peasant woman swinging her arms as if dancing. I will let you decide. This dream-like depiction of the peasant woman whether a violinist or a dancer could be a reference to the importance that music and dance played for entertainment for the people of Chagall’s erstwhile small Jewish community.
The two main elements of the painting are, on the right, a green-faced man wearing a cap and on the left an animal. The green colour of his face is an example of Fauvism where the colour used is not the one we would normally associate with in reality. On the left is the head of an animal, possibly a horse or goat or cow. On its cheek Chagall has painted an image of smaller goat or cow being milked. If you look carefully you will see Chagall has drawn a line between the eye of the man and the eye of the animal and this probably refers to the close relationship, the inter-dependence between a peasant and his animal – a kind of “seeing eye to eye”, understanding the important relationship between man and beast. The man, who wears a cross around his neck, clutches hold of a small flowering branch, the seeds from which seem to be scattering, which could allude to the sowing of seed in the ground.
The reason why I chose Chagall for my blog today was because it was Valentine’s Day and I wanted to feature a painting which in some ways was the essence of true love between two people. I could have gone for The Kiss by Gustave Klimt or Francesco Hayer or some other erotic and sensuous painting but I came across the painting by Chagall entitled Birthday and in a way it said everything to me about the love between two people. Chagall painted the picture in 1915, the year he married his beloved Bella Rosenfeld. For Chagall his relationship with her was everything he could have wanted and I believe the couple in the painting are Marc and Bella.
Chagall painted Bella in many of his works and I believe this is one of them. The painting depicts the man and the woman. Although the woman’s face is clearly defined the man’s face is somewhat of a blur. In the work we see them both seemingly elevated by their love for each other. For them it was possible to float above the reality of the world and just enjoy each other’s company. Look at the feet of the man and the woman. They seem to be pointing in opposite directions. Maybe he has given her the bunch of flowers and has walked past her but realises that the flowers without a kiss is not enough and so he literally bends over backwards to please his loved one by offering up a kiss. She holds the flowers that he has given her and purses her lips in readiness for his kiss but he has walked past her. However before disappointment can set in he returns, lips ready to kiss his beloved girl! What could be more romantic? However there is much more to this work of art than the two lovers. Look at the amount of detail Chagall has put into the painting. See how he has depicted the seeds of the watermelon which lies on the counter, the exotically detailed Indian blanket which lies on the bed and the blue lace fabric which hangs below the window.
I end by wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day and hope that your loved one manages to bend over backwards for you !!!
The photo of Chagall’s home and Bella Rosenfeld were courtesy of http://www.marcchagallart.net/
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