Marc Chagall: Life & Legacy
MARC CHAGALL (1887—1985)
Marc Chagall is born to a modest household in a Yiddish community in Vitebsk, Russian Empire.
Chagall’s first art teacher is Yiddish speaking painter Jehuda Pen, in Vitebsk, who encourages him to capture local village scenes, which become a defining feature of his pictorial vocabulary.
1907—1909: ST. PETERSBURG
Chagall relocates to St. Petersburg and studies with Léon Bakst, a Jewish set designer for the Ballets Russes, encountering the world of theatre and European avant-garde. His dreams are set on Paris and on a brief trip to Vitebsk meets Bella Rosenfeld, his future wife and muse.
1911—1914: PARIS AND BERLIN
In 1911, Chagall moves to Paris where he embraces modern art and lives at La Ruche, an artists’ commune, where he meets many artists and writers. He exhibits in 1912 and 1913 at the Salon des Independants, a critical group show and the name ‘Marc Chagall’ first appears in print.
His first solo show takes place at Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin in 1914.
1914–1922: RUSSIAN YEARS: VITEBSK, MOSCOW & ST. PETERSBURG
In 1914, returning to Vitebsk, he becomes trapped by World War One. As a Jew, he is not conscripted and continues to paint. Chagall and Bella marry, and their daughter Ida is born. Group exhibitions in 1915 and 1916 in Moscow and St. Petersburg acquaint him with the Russian avant-gardes.
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution grants Russian Jews citizenship for the first time. He supports the early ideals of revolution as Director of the Fine Arts School and as Cultural Commissar of Vitebsk. Quickly disillusioned, he leaves politics and art administration for good. In 1920, he joins the Moscow Jewish Theatre: his stage set design is recognised as an early masterpiece and his work from this era becomes a personal blend of influences from Futurism, Cubism and Suprematism.
1922–1930: EUROPEAN YEARS: BERLIN & PARIS
Chagall moves briefly to Berlin, where success of his 1914 exhibition still resonates. He produces the first engravings for his autobiography, My Life. In 1923, he reunites with family in Paris and begins a productive collaboration with the influential art dealer, Ambroise Vollard on several illustrated books (see Book as Artistic Medium). Landscapes and flowers become major influences with echoes of Classicism and Impressionism (see Flowers and Nature).
Chagall goes to Palestine after an invite by Meir Dizengoff, founding mayor of Tel Aviv to help establish The Jewish Museum of Art, which due to disagreements between them, does not proceed. Instead, Chagall travels to Jerusalem and begins an introspective series of engravings about the Bible (Old Testament). Chagall is inspired by the Holy Land but is disillusioned with the arid climate as a suitable site for nurturing art and culture.
1935: MUNICH & VILNA
Invited by the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilna, located next to Vitebsk, he realises Jewish provincial life is deteriorating and, after an antisemitic incident in Poland, he writes the forlorn poem My Distant Home (published in Yiddish in New York, 1937).
1937—1940: LOOMING WAR
The Chagalls acquire French citizenship, while the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich marks him as a double target: a modernist and a Jew. He responds to the threat of war by visiting Italy to see artworks by Tintoretto, Michelangelo, Titian and Veronese.
With no plan to escape, the family hides in 1939 in a farmhouse in the Loire Valley and Chagall returns to painting circus scenes, landscapes and mournful fantasies of Bella. Ambroise Vollard dies in a car crash and the lithograph commissions are suspended.
By spring 1940, the Nazis invade Holland and Belgium and by summer Paris is occupied. By autumn, the Vichy government passes an anti-semitic law and withdraws all recent French citizenship allocations. Shortly after, the Chagalls are forced to leave occupied France.
1941: ESCAPE TO NEW YORK
January: Assisted by the American Consul General and the US Based Emergency Rescue Committee and patrons, Chagall and Bella receive a refugee visa to America. Ida and her husband remain stranded in France.
May: Bella and Chagall leave Marseille by train to Lisbon to board the boat SS Pinto Basto with other Jewish refugees.
June: They land in New York to a warm welcome organised by Pierre Matisse, future gallerist and son of Henri Matisse.
July/August: Feeling homesick and consumed by the circumstances of their displacement, the Chagalls yearn for the countryside and take their first trip to Connecticut.
September: Ida and her husband escape with crates of Chagall’s paintings to America.
In the US, relationships with exiled writers, artists and friends are rekindled and Yiddish re-enters the household as social gatherings become frequent.
1942—1943: THEATRE & RELIGION
Chagall starts to see Christ as a symbol of the martyrdom of European Jews, and it becomes a major theme of this period (See Public Art and Religion). He also produces stage set and costume designs for the ballet Aleko (with music by Tchaikovsky) in New York and Mexico City. Circus and war scenes dominate his canvases and sheets of paper. While refusing to learn English, Chagall re-invents himself as a critically acclaimed theatre designer in America.
1944—1946: HIGH FALLS & PARIS
Bella dies unexpectedly and the significance of Russian Jewish identity begins to dwindle in both his art and life. Burning Lights, Bella’s memoir, is published in Yiddish with 25 illustrations by Chagall and organised with Ida.
He designs stage and costumes for The American Ballet Theatre and revisits his earlier preoccupation with Christ in the Falling Angel series (see Public Art and Religion).
Ida arranges for a new housekeeper and cook named Virginia Haggard, with whom Chagall soon has a son, David.
Print collaborations with Paul Éluard and efforts to publish earlier illustrated books resume in Paris (see Book as Artistic Medium). Major solo shows at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and at Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris coincide with the end of World War Two.
1948–1985: RETURN TO FRANCE
Following the break-up with Virginia, Chagall returns to Paris settling in Vence, South of France. With Ida’s help, he hires a Russian Jewish domestic helper called Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, who in 1952 becomes his second wife.
His practice becomes monumental and branches out to new techniques and media, including stained glass (see Public Art and Religion), ceramics and textile. 1952 marks the first of many religious art commissions with a stained-glass window design and large ceramic mural for the church Nôtre-Dame de Toute Grâce in Assy.
More public art commissions follow, including the ceiling of the Paris Opera House (see Theatre and Performance), painted murals of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and significant stage set design productions.
His tapestries for the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament and the Hadassah stained-glass windows in Jerusalem (see Permanent Gallery) become milestones among his many public art commissions.
Lithographs and engravings become popular in his later years and subsidise his religious art commissions, for which he does not accept payment.
In 1973, his eponymous museum opens in the South of France.
Aged 97, Chagall passes away on 28 March 1985. He is buried at the Catholic cemetery of St Paul de Vence.
CHAGALL will run at the Jewish Museum of Australia from 09 June—10 December 2023. Tickets are available here.