01 October 2013

Chagall - memory, magic and symbolism

I lived in London for a few years in the mid 1970s and have revisited every second year for only four weeks at a time. So now it is time to return to the UK!! I need to put my husband back on the Singles’ Market, kiss my elderly parents goodbye, set up Skype for the children and grandchildren, and tell the boss I will see him… sometime in the future. An exhibition called Chagall: Modern Master is at the Tate Gallery Liverpool until the 6th October 2013.

The Pale of the Settlement was the area to which Jew­ish homes were restricted from 1772 on, when 500,000 Jews came under Rus­sian rule. By 1897 there were 5 million Jews in the Pale although the imp­or­tant cities were forbidden to Jews: Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev.

Marc Chagall/Moshe Zaharovich Shagal (1887-1985) was born in Vitebsk, now in Belarus on the bord­er with Russia. Almost half of Vitebsk's in­hab­itants were Jew­ish. The eldest of nine Chassidic children, he studied first in a religious school before mov­ing to a secular Russian school.

An artistic milieu had formed around a private art school headed by Yehuda Pen, Chagall's first teacher. Most of them were Jewish, as was Pen, himself. For Chagall, his native town was a deeply ingr­ained artistic tradition to which he long remained loyal. With moth­er's support, and despite his father's disapproval, Chag­all pursued his interest, going to St Pe­tersburg in 1907. In 1910 Chagall found a patron who was prepar­ed to pay his fare to Paris 

The Promenade 1917
175 x 168 cms
normally in the Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg

For 4 homesick years, Chagall lived in Paris where he ab­sorbed the works of the leading cubist, surrealist and fauvist ar­t­ists. Scores of ot­her tal­ented young men star­ted moving to Paris, to live or study th­ere: Pi­s­sarro, Modig­liani, Soutine, Cha­g­all, Kisl­ing, Pascin and Mané-Katz, the core of the School of Mont­parn­asse. Here their art blossom­ed; for them, France was a blessed land for young painters who could not freely express their tal­ents in Eastern Eu­r­ope. Chagall wrote: “The sun of Art then shone only on Paris”.

I wonder what the locals made of these for­eig­n­ers who spoke broken French with strong Russian and Polish accents. Most of the new­com­ers thought of themselves as both artists and foreigners, peo­p­le who chose to socialise together at cafés and in studios. A great cam­arad­erie grew among them and the lively group of poets, dealers and collectors who gathered in Montparnasse, their new neigh­bour­hood of cafés and boulevards. From c1907 to soon after WWI, these artis­ts ex­perimented with the stylistic innovations of the key avant-garde figures of the era, Gaug­uin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso.

In the pre war years, Chagall was still living in the La Ruche collective in pov­erty. Penn­il­ess painters, sculptors, writers, poets and composers came from Eastern Europe - to thrive in the creative at­mos­phere and cheap rent at artist com­munes like La Ruche. They lived with­out run­ning water, in damp, un­heated and rat-infested studios. Chagall lived on coffee and poetry readings from his equally imp­o­v­erished neigh­bours. And he painted at night.. all night. In the days, he took all kinds of jobs to survive.

When Chagall Frenchified himself, he did more than move home. His distinctive use of colour and form was der­ived partly from Russian expression­ism AND partly by Fren­ch cubism, although he later dev­e­l­op­ed subtle variations. He used deep tones in his early works eg My Fiancée with Black Gloves 1909: an educated, de­ter­min­ed, prog­r­ess­ive wom­an. So Chag­all's style of this per­iod was much like ot­her con­t­emp­orary French paint­ing, but his contents were not.

Robert and Sonia Delauney were important influences in Chagall's life and his art. Russian herself, Sonia incl­ud­ed Chagall in many of her social gatherings. Robert's use of Cubist techniques and colours was a strong inf­luence on Chag­all's assim­il­ation of Cubist ideas. The Soldier Dr­inks c1911 was his memory of tsarist soldiers who were bil­l­eted with families in the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese war. Mind, memory and magical symbolism, not realistic representation.

In time Chagall came to feel that Cubism lacked poetry and colour. He light­en­ed his palette and made his work more express­ive, harm­on­ious, unif­ied. Self Portrait with Seven Fingers 1913, still show­ing clear cubist influences, was more fan­t­asy and less portrait. Painted at La Ruche with its bare floorboards, Chagall painted a Russian scene on the canvas with an improb­ab­le Eiffel Tower through the window. On the back wall, see Russia and Paris written in Hebrew.

His spec­ial style often centred on imag­es from his child­hood in Vit­ebsk eg Pregnant Village Woman 1913. This was very colourful but a bit disconcer­t­ing for people to look at because it reminded the Jews of Russian ic­ons. But look closely on her right cheek; a man’s hairy face poked out. Presumably the village woman in her cotton dress, scarf and boots was in fact Mother Russia.

Dur­ing this per­iod, Chagall painted some of his most famous shtetl paintings. Strong, bright colours portrayed his world with simp­l­ic­ity, fantasy, religion and nostalgia eg Pinch of Snuff 1912, fil­l­ing his work with special Chagal­l-­­iness. Animals, work­ers, lov­ers, music­ians filled his canvases; the fiddler on the roof often returned, hovering above a scene below. He exhibited regul­ar­ly in Salon des Indepen­d­ents, and the 1912 Salon d’Automne.

Paris Through the Window 1913 had a touch of Cubism eg the semi transp­ar­ent overlapping planes of colour in the sky above the city. The Eiffel Tower was also a frequent subject in Delaunay and Chagall’s work, serving as a metap­hor for Paris and for mod­ernity it­self. Ot­h­er motifs suggested Vitebsk. The Janus figure was un­derstood as the artist looking at once westward to his new home in France and eastward to Russia. Chagall, however, ref­used literal interpr­et­at­­ions of his works, calling them just lyrical evocations

Music, 1920.
Murals from State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, Chagall held his first one-man show in at Der Sturm gallery Berlin, exhibiting work dominated by Jewish images and artists eg My Father 1914. He was visiting Rus­sia when the war broke out and could not get back to France, so he spent most of the war years in Russia. See Over Vitebsk 1914. He married Bel­la Rosen­feld in 1915, and played a role in the Russian revolution.

His years back in Russia were very creative. Soon he was director of the Art Academy in Vitebsk from 1918-9 and was art director of the Moscow Jewish St­ate Theatre from 1919-22. Chagall painted several murals in the theatre lobby and painted the settings for many Yiddish productions. But there were artistic and management disagr­ee­ments so in 1922, Chag­all left Russia. This time he intended to sett­le in France for good. Paris where art had again began to flourish after the horrors of the War to End All Wars.

Back in Paris in 1922, Chagall continued to produce Jewish scen­es from the east. He believ­ed that art from the Bible was naturally un­iversal, so in addition to images of the near contemp­orary Jewish world, Chag­all's images were inspired by themes from the Bible. His fasc­ination led to a series of 100+ Bible etchings, many of which inc­or­porate elements from Je­wish folklore and from life in Vitebsk.

As his career pr­ogressed in his post-Russia era, Paris was providing him with all the subj­ect matter he needed. “When all mem­ories of Vitebsk had evap­or­ated, and they were real and throbbing tokens that long nourish­ed my soul, I had to find something else: Paris.”

Literature, drama and dance are represented in the exhibition, including seven surviving murals created for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow in 1920. Thank you, Tate Liverpool!!


P. M. Doolan said...

This very same exhibition opened in Zurich and ran from February until May. I LOVED it, and ended up visiting it a number of times.

Annandale Galleries said...

Don't leave the country. Annandale Galleries in Sydney has had some Chagall works in the past.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I love reading about early 20th Century Paris. It seems that great minds and talents were constantly meeting there.

I can understand the impulse to travel to see a major exhibit. I can recall some that I regretfully missed being unable to travel, one example being the Herter Brothers exhibit in Houston.

Andrew said...

The are great works. I do like his description as lyrical evocations, perhaps frustrating those who could see so much in the works.

Hels said...


Of course you loved it :)

Sadly I only get 4 weeks of overseas travel-time a year and if Liverpool's times didn't suit, I would have really loved to know about the dates elsewhere.

By the way, where did most of the paintings come from - Russian collections?

Hels said...

Annandale Galleries

great url, many thanks

Hels said...


I don't think Chagall was quite right regarding “The sun of Art then shone only on Paris”. Not _only_. But there was something magic about a city that could support and encourage thousands of impoverished but ambitious young people. Locals of course and also immigrants from every other country on the planet.

Do you ever wish you could live in another era and another place? I would go back to 1895-1914, in Paris, Vienna or Berlin.

Hels said...


it also took me a very long time to trust Chagall's own description of his inspirations. Viewers always look for deep literary, historical or religious meanings in art. But magic and symbols were the important elements :)

jeronimus said...

Hope we get a major Chagall show in Aus one day.

Hels said...


The National Gallery of Victoria has a Winter Blockbuster each year:
Caravaggio in 2003,
Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay in 2004,
Vermeer and the Dutch masters in 2005,
Picasso: Love and War 1935-1945 in 2006,
Guggenheim Collection since the 1940s in 2007,
Art Deco 1910—1939 in 2008,
Salvador Dalí Liquid Desire in 2009,
European Masters: Städel Museum, C19th-20th in 2010,
Vienna Art and Design in 2011,
Napoleon: Revolution to Empire in 2012, and
Monet's Garden in 2013.

Super exhibitions; I went back to see the Vienna and the Art Deco several times. But nothing of Chagall.

Mandy Southgate said...

I had no idea that Chagall was Jewish never mind Belarusian! I had always thought he was French. Did you really come to the UK just now it was that wishful thinking like when I mentally spend winters in the Southern Hemisphere?

Hels said...


It is absolutely true. My husband eventually wanted to move back to Australia, so I had to leave the UK *sad sigh*.

But living through those British winters was not easy. So my compromise would be to have a small home in Melbourne for September-May and an even smaller home on the south coast of England for June-August.

Hels said...


Chagall was born Moshe Zaharovich Shagal. I will add his birth name to the post.