Marc Chagall (06. July 1887 – 28.March 1985), born Moishe Shagal, was a Russian artist. Though he was associated with several major artistic styles and created his works in almost every artistic medium, it would be best to call him an early modernist and one of the last great story-tellers. Overall, he is one of the most successful artists of the 20th century and for decades he was considered the world’s preeminent Jewish artist.
Chagall was born in a Lithuanian Jewish family near the Belarusian city of Vitebsk. Belarus was then part of the Russian Empire that from the late 18th century on had confined Jews to live in the Pale of Settlement – a stretch of land at the western border of the Russian Empire that included modern Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. This restriction gave rise to the Shtetls, the typical Jewish market-villages of Eastern Europe that provided the community with everything from schools and hospitals to an own language and identity. It was a culture that became more or less completely annihilated by the Nazis during WWII.
At that time of Chagall’s childhood Vitebsk had a population of approx. 66,000 people; half of the population was Jewish. The city was almost completely built from wood (what means most of it was destructed during the occupation of the Nazis). And though his father was employed by a herring merchant, doing what Chagall recalls as ‘hellish work, the work of a galley slave’, and his mother sold groceries from home, the main source of income of the Jewish population in town was from manufacture of clothes, furniture and various agricultural tools.
Chagall was the youngest of six children. His parents were observant Hasidic Jews. Despite or because of their hard lives they found spiritual satisfaction in a life defined by their faith and organized by prayer, though this made them outsiders in a frequently hostile society. It made his father get up every morning summer or winter at 6 o’clock to go to the synagogue and pray.
This, his Jewish identity as the boy from simple means from the rich, but doomed culture of the shtetl, influenced Chagall throughout his career. Whether he tried his hand in Cubism, Symbolism, Fauvism or Surrealism, he always remained the Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk.
The Russian Empire didn’t allow Jews to attend regular high school. So, after Chagall went to a religious school until age 13, his mother bribed a professor at the local high school to gain admittance for her son. Everyone with bad thoughts leave the room now and come back after you cooled down, this is not Forrest Gump. She bribed the professor with money.
At this school Marc Chagall encountered for the very first time in his life the concept of art when he saw a fellow student draw. He picked up a pen himself and decided to become an artist. He joined the art school of realist painter Yehuda Pen, who offered to teach him free of charge. However, Chagall soon realized that academic portrait painting wasn’t his thing. He moved on to St. Petersburg to study under Leon Bakst and in 1910 he relocated to Paris, where he developed his artistic style until 1914.
The art scene in Paris in 1910 was still dominated by Cubism. Artists searched for ways to incorporate the element of time into their work by analyzing objects from different viewpoints, breaking them up and reassembling them into abstracted forms. Chagall loved colors and folklore and spirituality – everything he knew from home – and thought of art as something that developed from the inside out. He too looked at objects, but his creations were based on what his psyche came up with upon seeing them.
Hence, his presence in Paris wasn’t noticed first by other painters, but by poets like Cendrars and Apollinaire and avant-garde luminaries like Leger and Delaunay. He enrolled at the art academy La Palette and found work at a different academy. In his spare time he visited the numerous galleries and museums in Paris as well as Montmartre and Quartier Latin, where he studied the work of anyone of name and importance in the arts. But most of all, though homesick he enjoyed the unknown freedom without falling for its downsides.
During this time in Paris most of his Vitebsk paintings were created. He used Fauvistic and Cubistic ideas yet also developed a whole repertoire of quirky motifs from floating figures to livestock with visible, tiny offspring in their wombs. It was like Chagall painted dreams in which he yarned and glorified what he left behind at his childhood home with the means and techniques he discovered abroad. These paintings are illogical and fantastic, something neither factual illustration nor non-figurative abstraction. They are poetry and story-telling with a multitude of metaphors unknown otherwise in modern painting. Later, they would become a formative influence on Surrealism.
1914 his love to his fiancée, Bella, drove him back to Vitebsk. On his way there he exhibited in Berlin, Germany with great success and planned to stay in Russia only long enough to marry. Yet, with the beginning of WWI the Russian borders closed. Instead of leaving again immediately, he exhibited in Moscow and St. Petersburg and a number of wealthy collectors started buying his work. He also took on work as illustrator of Yiddish books. The October Revolution 1917 offered him a new opportunity as he was made commissioner of arts for Vitebsk.
In this position he founded the Vitebsk Arts College, which became the most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union. There he attempted to create an atmosphere of bourgeois individualism, a collective of independently minded artists, each with their own unique style. Yet, his attempts failed as some key faculty members disapproved of his intentions and preferred Suprematist art. So, he resigned and moved away again. First he relocated his family to Moscow and 1923 back to Paris, where he hoped to develop his art in a more comfortable environment.
Chagall stayed in France until 1941. He entered a business relationship with the French art dealer Vollard. He traveled. In 1926 he had his first exhibition in New York though he only got universally recognized in the French art scene in 1927. He was inspired to do etchings for a series of illustrated books including the Bible, which he started to work on 1931.
Chagall was so involved in his art that he didn’t realizes what was cooking up in Europe – not when the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933 and immediately started to ridicule his art and said that it was degenerated like so many else, not when Nazi Germany invaded France and installed the collaborating Vichy government, not when the Vichy government began to redefine French citizenship in order to strip undesirables, including naturalized citizens, of their French nationality. He only woke up when in October 1940 the Vichy government began approving anti-Semitic laws and started to remove Jews from public and academic positions. At that time however, the Chagalls were trapped, as the only possible refuge, USA, was unaffordable for them.
They were rescued due to the help of Alfred Barr of the MoMA, who managed to have Chagall’s name added to the list of prominent artists, whose lives were at risk and who the US should try to extricate, and due to the help of the American journalist Varian Fry and the American Vice-Consul in Marseilles Hiram Bingham IV, who ran a rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visa. Chagall and his wife arrived in New York the day before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Their daughter and her husband followed with a case of Chagall’s art on the refugee ship SS Navemar.
Chagall had a hard time to resettle into yet another country and culture. He had received the Carnegie Prize in 1939 and discovered that he was a celebrity – mostly against his will. It helped him that the streets of New York in these days were filled with writers, painters, composers and other intellectuals, who sought refuge from Europe. And he loved to mingle into the Jewish life in Manhattan where he could read the newspapers in Yiddish and eat the well-known food. But the contemporary art scene didn’t understand Chagall and knew little yet about what was called Parisian Surrealism. It wasn’t until Henri Matisse’s son Pierre became his representative and manager that the attitude towards Chagall changed. He was commissioned to design the sets and costumes for the ballet Aleko by the choreographer Leonid Massine of the New York Ballet Theatre and it became a triumph.
But New York didn’t spare Chagall of tragedy. He had to come to terms with the news coming from Europe about the destruction of Vitebsk and about concentration camps. In 1944 his wife Bella died suddenly and something broke in Chagall. After stopping work altogether for many months afterwards, he resumed painting to preserve her memory and soon his mind blended her in with the millions of Jewish victims.
In 1948 Chagall returned to Paris and France as a widely recognized artist. He chose to live at the Cote d’Azur not too far from either Picasso or Matisse. Yet, while the three respected each other and sometimes worked even together, the competition between them prevented a long-term friendship. In the years to come Chagall did not just produce paintings and graphic art, but everything from sculptures and ceramics to murals and stained glass windows, and even mosaics and tapestries. One of the many masterpieces of these years was the decoration of the ceiling of the Paris Opera in 1963. His commission was highly controversial and one again he wasn’t seen as the French he was by this time for many years already, but as the Russian Jew, who was to paint the heart of a French monument. All critics shut up however, when his work was revealed as with his colors and his dreamlike creations he was the perfect fit for the job.
He died at the age of 97 in 1985. The preeminent Jewish artist of the 20th century, who never forgot his roots in a town that was obliterated (from a population of 240,000 only 118 inhabitants of Vitebsk survived WWII) – had it not been for a stranger stepping up at his funeral saying the kaddish, he had died without the Jewish rites.