Five things you probably didn’t know about Marc Chagall
ONE OF FRANCE’S GREATEST 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS WAS BORN A RUSSIAN
His real name was Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov. He was born in 1887 near Vitebsk, in the country now known as Belarus, which was then still part of the Russian empire. Although he is viewed as one of France’s greatest 20th Century artists, he came to Paris for the first time in 1910. He was 23 years old and steeped in Jewish tradition and Russian folklore. So when he painted the bridges of the Seine, he used decorative elements he remembered from his early years in the Russian Empire. He was naturalized French in 1937, mainly to shield himself from the anti-Semitism then rife in Central Europe.
HE WAS NOT A MEMBER OF ANY PARTICULAR MOVEMENT … HE CREATED HIS OWN SCHOOL
Although close to the avant-garde, and especially to aspects of Surrealism – the style of some of his works in the Wallector collection is reminiscent of that genre – Marc Chagall remained, artistically speaking, fiercely independent all of his life.
He never joined any specific movement, always choosing to keep a distance between his work and the dominant schools of the day.
His paintings make genial use of colour, and although it is impossible to categorize them, they do often bear some traits of surrealism.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, he got stuck in Belarus and could not return to Paris. He was forced to remain in Vitebsk, and so started painting the everyday life of the local Jewish community, whom the Russian persecuted as suspected spies. He founded a school of popular art in Vitebsk and acted as its head until his increasing differences with the Suprematist movement of Kazimir Malevic forced him to resign in 1920. Chagall’s family took in many Jewish refugees expelled from area bordering on Lithuania. Although he was not particularly observant, it was a time when he returned to his Hasidic roots and when his paintings reflected his reverence for the Jewish people.
A SPECIAL LINK WITH RELIGION
He returned to Berlin in 1922, and then travelled on to Paris. There, in 1923, he met Ambroise Vollard, a publisher and bookseller, who commissioned 30 gouaches and 100 etchings to illustrate the Fables of La Fontaine (1924-1925), 118 engravings for Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, (1925-1931) but also, and above all, a series of illustrations for the Bible (1930). Chagall agreed to illustrate the Old Testament.
Chagall is noted for his oil paintings on canvas, etchings and sculptures, but he also wrote poetry and produced stained glass. His work with stained glass may be viewed in France in Metz, Moissac, Reims, Sarrebourg, Le Saillant and Nice, but also at United Nations Headquarters in New York as well as in Germany, England, Switzerland and Jerusalem.
His favourite subjects were prophets, patriarchs, warriors and kings. Extremely interesting are the parallels he drew between past and present, e.g. between the persecution of Jesus and the persecution of the Jews in Europe in the 1940s.
VICHY FRANCE AND EXILE TO THE UNITED STATES
As is well known, the Second World War and the years immediately before was a time when Europe was no longer a safe place for Jews. Chagall too was a victim of this climate of repression. Soon after he started his work on the Bible, Hitler came to power and started a campaign against art. German authorities mocked Chagall’s painting and the artist fled to Vichy France.
Chagall’s daughter was quick to realize that they had to move elsewhere quickly, given the Vichy regime’s close ties with Nazi Germany. With the help of Alfred Barr, who worked for MOMA of New York, Marc Chagall’s name was added to a list of endangered European artists, all candidates for evacuation to the United States. Varian Fry, an American journalist, and Hiram Bingham IV, the US Vice- Consul in Marseilles, ran a rescue operation for these European artists and intellectuals, providing them with visas to the United States. Marc Chagall was one of the 2 000 or so people saved thanks to their work. He lived in exile in America for some years, along with many other French and European intellectuals, among them the Italian painter Fortunato Depero.
WE OWE HIM THE CEILING OF THE GARNIER OPERA HOUSE IN PARIS
André Malraux, who was French Minister of Culture under General de Gaulle, commissioned Chagall to work on the Garnier Opera House. The inauguration took place in September, 1964, when the now famous painted ceiling under the cupola, was unveiled. Chagall’s ceiling paid tribute to the Opera in the broadest sense, drawing inspiration from the works of 14 famous composers, including Berlioz, Debussy and Mozart, but also Tchaikovsky and Wagner. Carmen’s Bizet and Verdi’s La Traviata may be admired in the central section.
It is said that Chagall was awarded the project because Malraux was a fervent admirer of his use of colour. As Pablo Picasso once remarked: “When Matisse is dead, Chagall will be the last person to really understand colour.