Friday, December 21, 2012

Printmaking's Day-Dreamer - Marc Chagall

Marc Zaharovich Chagall , 1887-1985, (whose given name was  Moishe Shagal), was born in Liozna, near the largely Jewish city of Vitebsk  in Belarus, (then part of the Russian Empire) . He lived a good portion of his life in France and has been considered one of the most successful artists of the 20th century. He worked in painting, stained glass, tapestries and fine art prints. 

Marc Chagall spent an enormous amount of time making prints and they are highly sought in the markets. Their wistfulness and sweetness is like candy to a child, but they do describe a magical existence where people can often daydream.  He was not concerned about people’s perceptions of his work. He made images that were personally up-lifting, and the pure saturation of his colors crank up the volume on emotion. I, for one, do not care for his continued use of unmodified colors, or a lot of his child-like rendering of figures, but I can appreciate his effort to bring a sense of wonder about the world to each of his works. In doing this article I selected images that I felt had something ‘fresh’ about them. Honestly, his more starkly black and white prints are quite appealing. A lot of Chagall’s work reflects his contacts and exposure to the Parisian artistic hub working before and during the world wars. There are clear references to Picasso and Leger, while some works relate more clearly with his work in stained glass. In any case, I hope you will enjoy this assortment for your holiday viewing pleasure.

Chagall was the eldest of nine children. His family’s name, Shagal is a variation of the name Segal, which is a Levitic group within a Jewish community. His was a deeply religious Hasidic family and he credited the Hasidic culture with having a major impact upon his work. He developed a style that dealt with Jewish folk culture and his childhood memories of life in Vitebsk. Throughout his career "he remained true to his Jewish roots.”

As a child, Chagall studied Hebrew and the Bible at the local Jewish religious school. When he saw a fellow student drawing one day, he claimed it was a revelation and he told his mother that he would become an artist. 

Chagall moved to St. Petersburg in 1906  to study art.  He studied under  Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting and he stayed in St. Petersburg until 1910.  Then he moved to Paris to develop his artistic style,  enrolling at the  La Palette art academy.  His sensibility for color was pure,  unabashed and he was soon recognized by poets, writers and artists like Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger. In Paris, he became aware of the latest art movements Cubism, Fauvism and eventually Surrealism, but the subject of his work in Paris remained his homeland. He painted Jewish subjects from his memories of Vitebsk, and "… they were  his dreams". Although some of his imagery influenced other surrealist artists,  Chagall did not want his work to be associated with any movement.  He considered his work unique and the symbols associated with it deeply personal.

His goal during this period was to become a successful artist to provide for his family, and as opportunity would have it, he became the Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk, establishing a distinguished art school in the Soviet Union. In 1915, Chagall began exhibiting his work in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Famine had spread after the war ended in 1918 and Chagall found work as an art teacher to war orphans. After struggling for two years, he moved back to France to develop his art. 

In 1923, Chagall left Moscow to return to France. He formed a business partnership with French art dealer Ambroise Vollard. It was then he began to make etchings and other prints for a series of illustrated books, including Gogol's Dead Souls, the Bible, and the Fables of La Fontaine. During this period he also traveled throughout France,  Holland, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Palestine. Chagall felt at home in Palestine amongst the Yiddish and Russian population. He later told a friend that Palestine gave him "the most vivid impression he had ever received", and as a result, he immersed himself in "the history of the Jews”.

When Hitler gained power in Germany, anti-Semitism laws were being introduced and Dachau had been established. The Nazis had begun their campaign against anything abstract, expressionist or surreal, intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or difficult to understand.  The new German authorities made a mockery of Chagall's art, and he and his work was pronounced degenerate.  It had a profound effect upon the artist.

After Germany invaded and occupied France, Chagall had been so involved with his art, that it was not until 1940 that he began to understand the Vichy government began approving anti-Semitic laws and that Jews were being systematically removed from public and academic positions. Many Russian and Jewish artists sought escape to the United States,  including Chaim SoutineMax ErnstMax Beckmann,  author Victor Serge and prize-winning author Vladimir Nabokov. It was  Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art and Chagall’s daughter Ida, who helped Chagall and his wife come to the United States in 1941. Chagall was one of over 2,000 who were rescued by Varian Fry, the American journalist, and Hiram Bingham IV, the American Vice-Consul in Marseilles, who ran a rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas. 

Once in the US, Chagall befriended other European artists like Piet Mondrian and André Breton, but he found himself out of favor with American tastes regarding contemporary art. Americans“had little in common with a folkloristic storyteller of Russo-Jewish extraction with a propensity for mysticism." Those attitudes changed in 1941 when  Henri Matisse’s son Pierre became his representative and manager. He caught the attention of critics and collectors throughout Europe, and for the rest of his life enjoyed enormous, prolific success. 

Chagall's colors attracted and captured the viewer's attention. During his earlier period his work was limited by an emphasis on form but his colors were a living part of the picture and suggested movement and rhythm.  Lovers, musicians and acrobats were often a part of his subject matter.  They represented, "a sort of grace, delicacy, precariousness, and a fragility of love and life.

Chagall once said of his work 'I don't understand them at all. They are not literature. They are only pictorial arrangements of images that obsess me...”I painted pictures upside down, decapitated people and dissected them, scattering the pieces in the air, all in the name of another perspective, another kind of picture composition and another formalism”.

In 1960, Chagall began creating stained glass windows,  which I will admit feel the most truly spontaneous creations of his long career. They are pure joy and he enjoyed seeing natural light pass through their many-colored panes. The ephemeral experience of seeing people stop in jaw-gaping awe at the windows at the Art Institute of Chicago was always an amazing sight. They transcended the everyman’s artistic experience and brought beauty to their existence.
On a personal note, Chagall married his first love Bella. A year later, they had a daughter, Ida. In 1944, Bella died and Chagall didn’t make any art for many months. He later was associated with Virginia Haggard, great-niece of the author Henry Rider Haggard. They had a son, David McNeil.  In the 1950s, he was introduced to Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background and they remained companions for many years. The gravestone of Marc Chagall and his wife can be found in Saint Paul de Vence, France.

The famed 20thc. art critic Robert Hughes said Chagall w as "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century".  Pablo Picasso even once rdeclared that "Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is". Although he was personally caught up in the horrors of European history between 1914 and 1945: world wars, revolution, ethnic persecution, the murder and exile of millions, he chose to put his experiences into images to which everyone could immediately respond. He was also referred to as a "poet, dreamer, and exotic apparition."

From his vivid imagination and memories Chagall was able to use scenes of peasant life, and intimate views of a Jewish village. There was much to support a child-like view of innocence and love of the world which Chagall never really lost, but the realities of his long life saw tragedy and loss like everyone else’s. What is amazing about his work is that it retains an outward ‘joie de vivre’ into the 21st century, and that it will most likely endure throughout the ages. 

1939, Carnegie Prize, Pittsburgh, PA
1960, Brandeis University, honorary degree in Laws, at its 9th Commencement
1967, "Message Biblique", the Louvre,  Paris, France
1969, Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall. 
1969 to 1970, "Hommage a Marc Chagall",  the Grand Palais,  Paris, France
1973, The Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia
1977, the city of JerusalemYakir Yerushalayim (Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem) award.
1982,  Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden
1985, the Royal Academy in London , England
2003, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris,  a major retrospective in conjunction with the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Public collections:
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Biblical Message Museum,  Nice, France
Fraumünster abbey,Zurich, Switzerland
Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem , Jerusalem, Israel
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
Marc Chagall Museum,Vitebsk, Belarus. It was the family home on Pokrovskaya Street.
The Marc Chagall Yufuin Kinrin-ko Museum , Yufuin, Kyushu, Japan
Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, Texas
'Palais Garnier' (the Opera de Paris), France
The only church in the world with a complete set of Chagall window-glass is in Tudeley,  Kent, England
Union Church of Pocantico Hills. Commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
United Nations Headquarters, NY

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