Mark Zakharovich Shagal, known today all over the world as Marc Chagall, was born on July 7, 1887, in Vitebsk, Belorussia. He was the oldest of nine brothers. His father worked in a salt herring factory, his mother took care of the household, and the grandfather taught the boy, instilling in him love for religion and the knowledge of the Torah. In 1906, Chagall left the Jewish elementary school he attended and began studying at Yehuda Pen’s school of painting in Vitebsk. In the winter of the same year, Chagall decided to move to St Petersburg, hoping that his art would find approval there. However, he failed his first art examination. Putting his pride aside, in 1907 Chagall applied to and was accepted to the school of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts in St. Petersburg, directed by Nikolai Roerich. Dissatisfied with the school, he transferred to Zeidenberg’s private art school and later to Zvantseva’s School, where he studied with Mstislav Dobuzhinskii and Lev Bakst. In 1910 he moved to Paris and found a place in the famous “La Ruche” (Beehive) in the Vaugirard district, where he met the poets Blaise Cendrars and Guillame Appolinaire, and the painters Chaim Soutine, Fernand Leger, and Robert Delaunay. Chagall always stressed the importance of Paris for his development: “In Paris, it seems to me, I have found everything, but above all, the art of craftsmanship. I owe all that I have achieved to Paris, to France, whose nature, men, the very air, were the true school of my life and art.” Chagall’s exposure to Cubism resulted in his attempts to incorporate the Cubist multiple points of view and geometric shapes into his compositions, as can be seen in two of his best known early paintings, Me and My Village (1911) and Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912-13).
Chagall: Me and My Village
Two years later, Chagall contributed to the Salon des Independants and Salon d’ automne as well as to Larionov’s Donkey’s Tail exhibition in Moscow. In 1913 participated in the Target exhibition and in 1914 had his first one-man show at the Galerie der Sturm in Berlin. The same year Chagall returned to Russia and went to Vitebsk, where he married Bella Rosenberg who would become an inspiration for many of his works. From Vitebsk, the married couple moved to St. Petersburg (at that time Petrograd). Chagall contributed to the Exhibition of Painting, 1915, and a year later sent over forty paintings to the Jack of Diamonds show in Moscow. After the Revolution Chagall was active as an art educator. He moved back to Vitebsk and in 1919 became a founder, director, and the most popular teacher at the Vitebsk Academy. However, because he wanted the school to express all points of view on art, he was ousted by the Malevich fraction (Suprematists) and left Vitebsk for Moscow. In Moscow, Chagall collaborated with the Kamernyi State Jewish Theater and with the Habimah Theatre. He left Russia in 1922 and, after a year in Berlin, settled in Paris in 1923. In 1924, he had the first major retrospective at the Galerie Barbazanges-Hoderbart. In the mid twenties Chagall produced illustrations to La Fontaine’s Fables. The artist visited Palestine (1931), Holland (1932), Spain (1934-5), Poland (1935), and Italy (1937); in 1941 he had to leave Germany and seek shelter in the United States. The death of Bella stopped Chagall’s creativity for many months. After his return to France in 1948, the artist decided to move to the south of France and in 1950 he settled in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Two years later, he married Valentine (“Vava”) Brodskii. His new wife was an important factor in Chagall’s recovery as a painter. She encouraged him to undertake large artistic projects, for instance the cycle Biblical Message. Finished in 1966 and installed seven years later in the National Museum of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message in Nice, the paintings (see a selection below) astonish with their vivid colors and their poetic interpretations of the Biblical texts. Among the largest projects was the decoration of the ceiling of the Paris Opera (1964), and the murals for the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1965). He also explored the technique of stained-glass, designing windows for the Cathedral in Metz (1959-62), for the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem (1960-1), for the Cathedral at Reims (1974), and for Saint Etienne Church at Mayence (1978-81). In the West, Chagall had countless exhibitions and retrospectives. In Russia, after many years of silence and disregard for the artist, an exhibition of Chagall’s works from private collections was organized in Novgorod in 1968, and five years later Chagall was invited to visit Moscow in connection with a small retrospective of his work. Finally, on the centenary of the artist’s birth, a large exhibition opened at Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and a Chagall Museum was opened in Vitebsk.
Chagall occupied a unique place in world art. Even though at times he was slighly influenced by the contemporary developments in arts (as when he discovered Cubism, for example), throughout his long life he was an independent artist, often criticized for his lack of “realism” or for his lack of desire to explore non-objective art. The sources of his inspiration are found in his childhood, in the life of a provincial city of Vitebsk and its Jewish community, the Scriptures, and, more surprisingly, Russian folk art and icon painting. He was a poet, and his artistic visions can be considered “poetry in colors and shapes.” He populated his pictures with angels, lovers, flying cows, fiddlers, circus performers, and roosters, creating lyrical poems which proclaimed the beauty of all creation, as well as his unwavering belief in the existence of miracles and in the infinite wisdom of the Creator. Despite some dark moments in his personal life, he remained an optimist, and with every brushstroke, every green, blue, or purple face of his violinists, every kiss and every embrace of his lovers, every little house or church of Vitebsk, every image of the Eiffel Tower, his paintings seem to sing the “Ode to Joy.” [S.H. and A.B.]
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