(1887–1985), artist. Marc Chagall was one of the most prominent European artists of the modern age. To this day, the frequent exhibitions of his work in many countries continue to draw large crowds. His art is polyphonic, combining the formal concerns of several modernist trends with cultural representations and an interest in the fantastic and the grotesque. Chagall combined a variety of sources, including aspects of Jewish, Russian, and French culture and images from Christian art, in his own whimsical art, based on his reinvented biography.
Literature. Marc Chagall, Moscow, 1920. Tempura and gouache on canvas. Panel from the mural on the four arts created by Chagall for "A Sholem Aleichem Evening," the Yiddish Chamber Theater’s first production in Moscow, 1920. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris) (The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
Chagall was born Moyshe Shagal (officially, Movsha Shagalov) in the Russian city of Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk, now in Belarus) on 24 June 1887 (at the time, 6 July in the European calendar), or, in Chagall’s perception, on the lucky date of 7.7.87 (see his “Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers”; 1913). Vitebsk was the capital of the most northeastern province in the Pale of Settlement, close to Russia proper and to the two Russian capitals Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Chagall, the first of eight siblings, was born when his mother was 16. Both of his parents came from Liozno (Bel., Liozna), a small town (60 km east of Vitebsk) famous for being the birthplace of Shneur Zalman, the founder of Lubavitch Hasidism; Chagall often visited his grandfather and extended family there. His own father was a manager (podriadchik) of a herring cellar in Vitebsk; and his mother managed a little grocery store, built and rented out apartments in her courtyard, and ran the household. Chagall attended heder from the age of 4 to 13. His language both at home and in heder was Yiddish.
After reaching the age of bar mitzvah, Chagall, for five years, attended a municipal high school. It was mostly closed to Jews, but his mother’s hefty bribe solved this problem. For several years, he also attended the art school of Yehudah (Iurii) Pen, a meticulous naturalistic artist interested in provincial mores and manners. Chagall befriended a group of Russian-speaking Jewish youth from wealthy or professional families (including his future wife Berta Rosenfeld); his circle admired him as a talented “artist of the people.”
In 1907, Chagall went to Saint Petersburg—a forbidden city for Jews—where he gained the second scholarship at the Imperial School for the Encouragement of the Arts and a residence permit. In 1909 he attended the “most European” School of Art in Russia, owned by Zvantseva and directed by Léon Bakst. In 1910 (or 1911?), with a stipend from the influential lawyer Maksim Vinaver, Chagall went to Paris, where he lived in the artists’ colony known as La Ruche (The Beehive), along with Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani, and other members of the Paris School. The “crazy Russian,” as he was called, was discovered by the French and German avant-garde. The poets Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, and the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters wrote poems about him, while Apollinaire dubbed his art surnaturel (foreshadowing the later label of surrealist). In 1914, at the age of 27, this poor Russian Jewish boy was invited from Paris to Berlin for his first one-man show by Herwarth Walden (Georg Lewin; 1878–1942?), Expressionist literary critic, editor of the influential journal Der Sturm, and owner of a gallery by the same name, which specialized in the international avant-garde.
In June 1914, Chagall traveled to Russia. World War I broke out in August and the artist, in his own words, “got stuck” in his homeland for eight years. In 1915, he married Berta (Basha) Rosenfeld, the daughter of a well-to-do jeweler and Lubavitch Hasid; their daughter Ida was born in 1916. During the war, Chagall served in the supply office of the Russian army in Saint Petersburg. He also exhibited frequently in both Russian capitals, and witnessed the February and October Revolutions of 1917 in Saint Petersburg.
In the Snow. Marc Chagall, 1922-1930. Gouache, ink, and watercolor on paper. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. (Gift of Solomon R. Guggenheim, 41.453. © 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris)
In 1918, Chagall was appointed by the new Bolshevik Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharsky as “Plenipotentiary on Matters of Art in Vitebsk Province.” He established a People’s Art College in Vitebsk; the school attracted some of the best Russian avant-garde artists as professors, including Kazimir Malevich, founder of suprematism; his follower and Chagall’s former disciple El Lissitzky; and Chagall’s former teacher Iurii Pen. To the party authorities in Vitebsk, Chagall claimed that revolutionary art is not art about or by proletarians but art that creates a revolution in the history of art, parallel, but not subordinate to the social revolution of the Bolsheviks. The abstract suprematists, who gave up figural painting, however, were more radical in their artistic revolution and attracted revolutionary students. Chagall lost his base and went to Moscow, where he created the murals for the innovative Yiddish Chamber Theater. In 1922, he left Soviet Russia and spent a year in Berlin, studying the techniques of engraving and lithography with the German Jewish artist Hermann Struck (whom he met later in Palestine). In September 1923, the Chagalls arrived in Paris; Berta was renamed Bella, Moyshe (Moisei to his friends) became Marc (after the sculptor Mark Antokol’skii), and the surname Shagal was spelled Chagall. In France he became famous and affluent, enjoyed close relations with French intellectuals, and finally became a French citizen in 1937.
Der shtrom, no. 2 (1923). Illustration by Marc Chagall. The Museum of Modern Art. (Gift of The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Donation of Elaine Lustig Cohen, 158.2001.B. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Marc Chagall © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.)
In his art, Chagall developed an imaginary world, based on the legend of his hometown and his mythologized autobiography (see image at left, top). Far away from the real Vitebsk (“Vitebsk is dead,” he wrote), he began to expand the thematic scope of his work and illustrated the fictional worlds of others, including Gogol’s Dead Souls, A Thousand and One Nights, Daphnis and Chloe, the fables of La Fontaine, and the Bible. In 1931, the Chagalls spent several months in Palestine, where he was fascinated by the vision of Jewish renewal embodied in workers’ communes. Chagall was also involved in initiatives to build Jewish museums in Tel Aviv (1931) and Vilna (1935).
In 1909–1910, influenced by Russian Symbolism, Chagall had begun to write Russian poetry, but stopped after he left for Paris. After attending YIVO’s World Convention conference in Vilna in 1935, he began to write in Yiddish, composing a long autobiographical poem titled “Mayn alte heym” (My Old Home), published in 1937 in both the Literarishe bleter in Warsaw and the Tsukunft in New York. Throughout his life, he continued to write Yiddish poetry, speeches, and essays. In June 1940, when the Germans occupied France, the Chagalls fled to the Unoccupied Zone in the south, but they were stripped of their French citizenship and stood in danger of deportation. Chagall appealed for help to his friends the Yiddish writers Yoysef Opatoshu and Shmuel Niger in New York. With the aid of the American Rescue Committee headed by Varian Fry in Marseilles, they left France in May 1941. Invited by J. Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, and with the help of Solomon Guggenheim, they traveled through Spain and Portugal and arrived in New York on 21 June 1941. Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse and owner of a New York gallery specializing in European modernists, became Chagall’s dealer and organized 26 exhibitions of his works in the course of the years.
During the war, Chagall’s contacts in New York were mainly with Yiddish writers. He gave lectures and wrote articles in Yiddish for left-leaning cultural organizations and was a board member of the Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists, and Scientists, which supported the Soviet war effort (its honorary president was Albert Einstein). After Bella Chagall died in September 1944, Chagall entered into a seven-year intimate relationship with Virginia Haggard, the daughter of a British diplomat, who was 28 years his junior (Chagall referred to her as his second wife). They had a son, David, and built a home in High Falls, New York, but in August 1948 they returned to Europe, where he received first prize for his etchings in the Venice Biennial.
In 1949, after his return to France, Chagall was appointed honorary president of MRAP (Mouvement contre le Racisme, l’Antisémitisme et pour la Paix; Movement against Racism, Antisemitism, and for Peace), which included French cultural figures, African intellectuals, the chief rabbi of France, and many Jewish organizations. He also participated in the Soviet-inspired Peace Congress in Paris. Though not a Communist, because of these associations he was refused a return visa to the United States until 1958 (the State Department circular described him as “painter and political crackpot”).
Khalyastre (The Gang), vol. 2, 1924. The cover is illustrated by Marc Chagall and features a figure (right) holding up a flag that reads, in Yiddish: “Paris.” YIVO. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris)
In April 1952, Haggard left Chagall. Soon after, he married Vava (Valentina) Brodsky, with whom he spent the rest of his life, mainly in their house in St.-Paul de Vence. During his second French period, he expanded his media from painting, drawing, and etching to sculpture, ceramics, tapestry, mosaics, and stained glass windows for cathedrals and synagogues, such as the Twelve Tribes windows at the chapel in the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. He also produced many lithographs. The French government bestowed several honors on Chagall, including the Cross of the Legion of Honor, a huge retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, an invitation to paint the ceiling of the national Paris Opera, and the establishment of a national museum in Nice called Marc Chagall the Biblical Message (Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall).
Through Léon Bakst, Chagall was influenced by the French fauves painters and celebrated the emancipation of color: colors were freed from realism, flowed beyond the boundaries of objects, covered several figures, or created their own areas on the canvas, rectangular and monochromatic (as in suprematism) or freely expressive, thus calling attention to the autonomous interplay of colors. He was a master of an unreal fictional world: the sizes of figures were disproportionate, figures defied gravity and floated in the air with their heads or limbs swimming separately; figures and objects were broken up into geometrical shapes or appeared beside each other with no realistic continuity. Yet Chagall rarely became entirely abstract (except in some areas of a painting): the representations of his fictional world worked in counterpoint to all formal devices. His figures, as modular units, recurred in ever new combinations. He was the painter of the Jewish small town, including its churches and cathedrals, its cows, roosters, and goats, yet later he added to this repertoire abstracted lovers, flowers, birds, or scenes of Paris.
Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922). Designed by Marc Chagall. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / ADAGP, Paris. Print courtesy of YIVO)
Many of Chagall’s basic images were influenced by Yiddish language and literature. Thus the Wandering Jew floating above Vitebsk is derived from the realization of the Yiddish idiom, “Er geyt iber di hayzer” (“He walks over the houses”; i.e., he is a beggar or a wandering peddler), combined with the literary image of the eternal Wandering Jew, adopted by modern Jewish culture from Christian antisemitic stereotypes. Chagall’s emerging Jewish consciousness was influenced by the flood of Jewish refugees exiled from the front-line towns, who came to Vitebsk in 1914–1915. During the war he signed several paintings “Moyshe Segal,” alluding to his presumed ancestor, the eighteenth-century synagogue painter Chaim Segal of Mohilev (“Shagal” is a dialect pronunciation of “Segal”).
In his mural Introduction to the Yiddish [Jewish] Theater, painted in 1920 in revolutionary Moscow, Chagall stood the old (religious) world on its head: the praying Jew became a grotesque comedian, thus preserving the imagery of Yiddish literature for a new, revolutionary Jewish culture. The paintings of the four arts—Dance, Music, Literature, Drama—drew on traditional Jewish professions. Thus in Music, Chagall’s soaring violinist with a green face wears “cubicized” pants and a prayer shawl with similar patterns, suggesting that “cubist” forms existed in the Jewish tradition itself. In Literature, a traditional scribe, wearing a prayer shawl, writes a Torah scroll, but the text is amol iz geven (“once upon a time”), the opening of Yiddish folktales.
Throughout the years, Chagall stayed in touch with contemporary Yiddish writers and illustrated several of their works, notably the journal Khalyastre (1924), edited by the Yiddish translator of his autobiography Perets Markish, 34 drawings for the 3-volume collected poetry of Avrom Liessin, posthumously published in New York in 1938, the Soviet Yiddish poet Itsik Fefer’s wartime poetry, and Avrom Sutzkever’s long poems Siberia and Fiddle Rose. He frequently corresponded in Yiddish with the novelist Yosef Opatoshu in New York, his editor, the poet Sutzkever in Tel Aviv, the speaker of the Israeli Knesset Kadish Luz, and others in the Jewish domain. With time, the Jewish aspects of his work grew more subdued and Chagall devoted a great deal of his energy to illustrating the Bible as the foundation and common source of Jewish and Christian culture. Indeed, the Bible images combined the memories of his childhood with the mythological past. He read the Bible in Yiddish and quoted it in Hebrew.
Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Chagall (Cologne, 1998); Benjamin Harshav, “Mark Shagal: Tsiyur, teatron, ‘olam,” Alpayim 8 (1993): 9–97; Benjamin Harshav, “The Role of Language in Modern Art: On Texts and Subtexts in Chagall’s Paintings,” Modernism/ Modernity 1.2 (1994): 51–87; Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative (Stanford, 2003); Benjamin Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall on Art and Culture (Stanford, 2003); Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall / The Lost Jewish World: The Nature of his Art and Iconography (New York: Rizzoli, 2006); Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater (New York, 1992), exhibit catalog, Guggenheim Museum; Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall (New York, 1961).