A few years ago, on a sizzling summer day, I walked into the MOMA, mainly to cool down, as New Yorkers are known to do&hellipmuseums, department stores and such are often a way to escape the weather. I say that because the Museum of Modern Art, as are most museums in the city are my go-to places when I need inspiration, thus, I have been there very many times before this particular day. Yet for some reason ‘I and the Village’ of Marc Chagall (1911) struck me like a bolt of lightening and I stood there, transfixed, looking at the image with goose bumps all over my body. I passed by the picture many times before, admiring it’s wonderful use of color and the magical imaginative essence it conveys, but I think I might have matured some as a visual artist and was able to see the groundbreaking originality of the piece, it was with awe,that I examined every minute detail of the dream like soft images, overlapping or meeting, connected by a central radial note,the sheep with a smaller sheep being milked on it’s cheek and the greed hued man with the cap, both staring with a semi smile on their faces. to a greater appreciation of the work, it’s complex story telling, seamlessly told, like poetry in motion.
On the bottom there is a dark hand holding forth the tree of life, glowing toward the central figures in the foreground. My eyes were drawn to the cross adorned necklace on the green man’s neck. Must be a Christian, I thought as my eyes wandered to the background, which depicted an Orthodox church, surrounded by house, a floating woman playing the violin, upside down , with her skirt untouched by gravity. next to her is a man holding a sickle, dressed like a Russian farmer.
The perfection of the execution came second to the sudden comprehension I was graced with. Yes, it IS the artist and the Village, his memories of Vitebsk Russia, where he was born and raised, influenced by both the Chassidic Yiddish culture and the eastern European Russian folktales, meshed together into a vibrant, daringly whimsical depiction of Chagall’s childhood memories of his place of birth and his relationship with it.
I was mesmerized by the artist’s groundbreaking whimsical style, no self conscious demarcation between human kind, the one flowing into the other, as memories will, integrated into a &ldquocubist fairy tale&rdquo in the words of scholar H.W.Janson, reshaped by his imagination, disregarding size shape even gravity. Yes, mainly the lack of gravity, a motif which keeps popping into his work, like the Fiddler On the Room or Bela and Marc deeply in love, floating in space.
I’ve known about the artist most of my life, knew he was the pride and joy of Jewish visual art. Back in Israel so much of the art was an attempt to follow in his footsteps, and I wasn’t schooled enough then to see the difference.
The glass windows in Jerusalem were shown to me as a child, and saw a plethora of Chagall prints in galleries and homes all over Israel. Seeing in person many a famous Masterpieces often gives me chills of excitement, yet I passed by this miraculous work of art many times, without stopping long enough to pay it tribute. I felt a sudden awakening, as if I betrayed a unique genius, not acknowledging his immense integrity, his wondrous talent.
Often we take our own for granted, I thought, and promptly vowed to be always aware of the spoils in our own backyard. Looking at the work with fresh eyes I noticed things I never saw before . The shapes interconnecting, the underlying innocent joy of an observer whose heart was open and curious. I think it was then I really saw Chagall’s art for the first time, and I was blown away by it. It was then I understood the connection of the Fiddler to life in the Shtetl.
The artist was born the eldest of nine children, in Vitebsk, Bellarusse,to poor Hassidic parents. He studied in a Cheder before moving to a secular Russian school. The boy was a brilliant observer, with the soul of a poet and soon began displaying his artistic talents . Despite his papa’s disapproval he had his mother’s support, and went away to study art with the master, Leon Bakst in St Petersburg. He was clearly influenced by contemporary Russian painting , with it’s bright colors, which he then infused with his magical, childlike imagery, so distinctive to Chagall.
Between 1910-1914 the young artist lived in Paris, at the time a hotbed of artistic innovation. He hungrily absorbed the latest movements of the era, and started using those influences in his own work. Surrealist, fauvist and cubist styles soon became incorporated in his unique expression . Some of his most famous masterpieces, including the magnificent ‘I and the Village’ were a product of this period.
Images of the Jewish Shtetl, all possessing a dreamlike, ethereal, joy filled quality, infused by memories, nostalgia and fantasy, became the features most distinctive to his art. Musicians, lovers, animals, peasant workmen were present in most scenes, some hovering in the background, flying over roofs of village buildings. The feeling of his Jewish roots were evident everywhere, and despite the appearance of Christians symbols at times, it was evident they were coming from the viewpoint of a Jewish boy.
The most outstanding thing about all this is though influenced by many different streams of art, he never became part of either.His style, remained independently unique and though the Salon des Independants exhibited only artists who were critically accepted, (Van Gough for example was rejected until a year past his demise), the young Marc Chagall was a regular on their walls.
He returned to Russia after a celebrated one man show in Berlin, dominated by Jewish themes and then, in 1917, during the war, and as a proponent of the revolution, was appointed Director of the Free Academy of Art and Commissar of Fine Arts in Vitebsk. In 1922 he left Russia, after the Bolsheviks declared his work ‘too modern’ and moved to Paris permanently until WWWII, when he fled to the US.
Many of his works from this period (considered the Dark Period of Chagal), depict a reflection of his horror of Nazi atrocities, with Jewish martyrs and refugees as the central theme. His imagery as a whole came from his early exposure to Hassidism, and a great fascination with the Torah, which he illustrated with over 100 etchings, many of which drew on religious life in the shtetl.
By the time he was commissioned to do the stained glass windows of the Knesset and the new Hadassa hospital, he was working in many different media, including murals on the ceilings of the Metropolitan Opera and the Paris opera house, and a glass windows at New York’s UN building.
I believe him to be one of the greatest artist of all time, forever his own person, refusing to conform but rather coloring within his own inner lines.