Images of flight pervade much of the painter Marc Chagall’s work. Some of Chagall’s works depict people and objects defying the earth’s gravity, hovering over a scene below. These images reflect the earthly and heavenly figures of Chagall’s real and idealized life and world, and they offer a window of understanding into the artist’s mind and work.
Chagall’s Humble Beginnings
Chagall, born in 1887, found inspiration for much of his work in his upbringing in Vitebsk, Belorussia. There, a folktale is told of an artist named Chaim, the son of Isaac Segal (Chagall’s family name was Segal before it was changed by Chagall). According to legend, Chaim Segal painted in three synagogues in three different towns, and when he completed painting, he fell off his ladder and died, with each of the three different synagogues claiming he had died in their synagogue. Chagall adopted this man as his fictitious grandfather in his autobiography. In reality, his mother was supportive of the artistic talent Chagall had discovered in himself, though his father was less so.
Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg on scholarship and counted among his most influential teachers the Jewish artist and magazine illustrator Leon Bakst. Chagall’s works from this time, like In Front of Father’s House (1908) and The Violinist (1910), show the familiar setting of his homeland.
In St. Petersburg, Chagall met Max Vinaver, who became his patron, sending Chagall to Paris and offering a monthly allowance. According to Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator of the 2001 Jewish Museum of New York exhibition “Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections,” Chagall developed his unique style in these years prior to World War I.
Chagall took his homeland with him to Paris and created works that solidified the Russian identity found in his paintings, including Mother Russia (1912-1913) and I and My Village (1911). H. W. Janson notes, “Chagall here relives the experiences of his childhood, experiences so important to him that his imagination shaped and reshaped them without ever getting rid of their memories.”
Floating Above Reality
Chagall was in Russia at the start of World War I and was unable to return to Paris. Chagall’s work of this time reflects an interesting dichotomy between his personal life and the world at large. While the world was engaged in war, Chagall found–with his wife Bella, whom he had married in 1915–the ability to float above the world’s reality and portray a time of great love. This reality reflects in Chagall’s painting The Birthday (1915), which shows him and his wife seemingly elevated by the love between them, able to float above the world’s reality and experience a time of great love. This is in contrast to his painting, The Canopy (1912), a wedding scene painted during his time in Paris, where bride and groom are grounded under the huppah (Jewish wedding canopy).
Chagall remained in Russia until 1922, with positions in Vitebsk and Moscow. Works from this time are included his mural for Moscow’s Jewish Theatre. Encyclopedia Judaica notes that his work in Moscow showed the influence of artists like Picasso and this”did not please the artistically reactionary party officials.” In the summer of 1922, he left Russia with his family and returned to France.
In 1930, Ambroise Vollard commissioned Chagall to create illustrations to the Bible, for which he traveled to the Land of Israel. Chagall revisited Biblical scenes again over the years and Chagall’s Museum of the Biblical Message, opened in Nice in 1972, displays his Biblical Message cycle. The wings of the angels portrayed in these Biblical scenes, like The Dream of Jacob (1930-32) and Abraham Approaching Sodom with Three Angels (1929-30), extend nearly from head to toe, affirming the potential to soar, as is typical of many Chagall figures.
In 1937, the Nazis confiscated 650 works from German museums for an exhibit of “Degenerate Art,” to be mocked and disgraced by the millions who visited the exhibit. Chagall’s work was among this art, and again his life was changed by political circumstances, as he and Bella sought refuge in the United States. White Crucifixion (1938) portrays a pogrom scene that may have echoed what Chagall saw in the world at the time of this painting. Bella died in 1944, and after World War II, Chagall returned to France and married Valentine Brodsky.
As for Jewish identity, Chagall declared, “If a painter is Jewish and paints life, how can he help having Jewish elements in his work! But if he is a good painter, there will be more than that. The Jewish element will be there, but his art will tend to approach the universal.” Nevertheless, Chagall had a special tie to Israel, and in the winter and summer of 2003, the Israel Museum of Jerusalem exhibited Chagall’s works from Israeli collections with a special focus Chagall’s connection to Israel.
Chagall also maintained a powerful association with Israel through the stained-glass windows he designed for Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center.
At the dedication in 1962, Chagall stood under the windows that depict the 12 tribes of Israel and asked, “How is it that the air and earth of Vitebsk, my birthplace, and of thousands of years of exile, find themselves mingled in the air and earth of Jerusalem? How could I have thought that not only my hands with their colors would direct me in my work, but that the poor hands of my parents and of others and still others with their mute lips and their closed eyes, who gathered and whispered behind me would direct me as if they also wished to take part in my life?”
Chagall’s life spanned pogroms, two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the rebirth of the State of Israel. Chagall’s message in words and in works reaffirms that earth and air do co-mingle. The path of Jewish history flows through both earth and air and it is all these elements and more that Chagall portrays in his art.