HARMONY IN SYMBOLISM
"My hands were too soft… I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of life."
Marc Chagall's poetic, figurative style made him one of most popular modern artists, while his long life and varied output made him one of the most internationally recognized. While many of his peers pursued ambitious experiments that led often to abstraction, Chagall's distinction lies in his steady faith in the power of figurative art, one that he maintained despite absorbing ideas from Fauvism and Cubism. Born in Russia, Chagall moved to France in 1910 and became a prominent figure within the so-called Ecole de Paris.
Marc Chagall's influence is as vast as the number of styles he assimilated to create his work. Although never completely aligning himself with any single movement, he interwove many of the visual elements of Cubism, Fauvism, Symbolism and Surrealism into his lyrically emotional aesthetic of Jewish folklore, dream-like pastorals, and Russian life. In this sense, Chagall's legacy reveals an artistic style that is both entirely his own and a rich amalgam of prevailing Modern art disciplines. Chagall is also, much like Picasso, a prime example of a modern artist who mastered multiple media, including painting in both oil and gouache, watercolor, murals, ceramics, etching, drawing, theater and costume design, and stained-glass work.
From 1900 until about 1940, Paris was a thriving center of artistic activity that provided unparalleled conditions for the exchange of creative ideas. A wave of artists of all nationalities gravitated to the French capital and fostered an inspiring climate of imaginative cross-fertilization. Because of the enormous influx of non-French artists living and working in Paris, a loosely defined affiliation developed referred to as the School of Paris. The international activity associated with this group in Paris was initially concentrated in Montmartre, but subsequently moved to Montparnasse in the early 1910s. Focusing on conventional subjects such as portraiture, figure studies, landscapes, cityscapes, and still lifes, artists of the School of Paris employed a diversity of styles and techniques including the bold, dynamic colors of Fauvism, the revolutionary methods of Cubism, the animated qualities of Expressionism, and the private worlds of Symbolism.
A prominent figure in the School of Paris, the Russian artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985) initially lived in Paris from 1910 to 1914. Moving into a studio in Montparnasse adjacent to Modigliani and near the Frenchman Fernand Léger (1881–1955) and Soutine, Chagall quickly absorbed the stylistic influences of the avant-garde working in Paris. Chagall's The Betrothed (2002.456.8) of 1911 elicits charm and luminescence characteristic of his work at this time. In The Marketplace, Vitebsk (1984.433.6), painted in 1917 after his return to Russia, Chagall's use of unrealistic perspective, sharply defined contours, and figures in various scale show the influence of the French artist Robert Delaunay (1885–1941). Chagall became a leading artist of the School of Paris during the 1920s and '30s after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1923.
The unprecedented migration to Paris of foreign artists who worked in tandem with French luminaries such as Henri Matisse (1869–1954), André Derain (1880–1954), Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), and Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) came to an end with the outbreak of World War II (1939–45). Many artists fled to New York or returned to their homeland and the frenzied activity experienced by members of the School of Paris concluded.
La Ruche (literally the beehive) is an artist's residence at the Paris South-Western outskirts.
Located in the "Passage Dantzig," in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, La Ruche was an old three-storey circular structure that got its name because it looked more like a large beehive than any dwelling for humans. Originally a temporary building designed by Gustave Eiffel for use as a wine rotunda at the Great Exposition of 1900, the structure was dismantled and re-erected as low-cost studios for artists by Alfred Boucher (1850–1934), a fireman and sculptor, who wanted to help young artists by providing them with shared models and with an exhibition space open to all residents. As well as to artists, La Ruche became a home to the usual array of drunks, misfits, and almost every penniless soul needing a roof over their head.
At La Ruche the rent was dirt cheap; and no one was evicted for non-payment. When hungry, many would wander over to artist Marie Vassilieff's soup kitchen (more genteely called her "Cantine") for a meal and conversation with fellow starving artists. The Russian painter Pinchus Kremegne got off the train at the Gare de l'Est with three rubles in his pocket. The only words in French he knew was the phrase "Passage Dantzig"; but that was all he needed to get him there.
In the history of mankind, like Montparnasse or Montmartre, few places have ever housed such talent as could be found at La Ruche. At one time or another in those early years of the 20th century, Guillaume Apollinaire, Alexander Archipenko, Alexandre Altmann, Ossip Zadkine, Moise Kisling, Marc Chagall, Max Pechstein, Nina Hamnett, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Pinchus Kremegne, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Chaim Soutine, Robert Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brâncuşi, Amshey Nurenberg, Diego Rivera, Marevna, Luigi Guardigli and others, called the place home or frequented it. Today, works by some of these desperately poor residents and their close friends sell well, even in the millions of dollars.
La Ruche went into decline during World War II; and by the time of the 1968 real estate boom, it was threatened with demolition by developers. However, with the support of luminaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Alexander Calder, Jean Renoir, and René Char, new management with a preservation mission took over in 1971, turning it into a collection of working studios.
Goodman, a scholar of Chagall's work, noted that during Chagall's lifetime in Russia, Jews had two basic alternatives for joining the art world: One was to "hide or deny one's Jewish roots". The other alternative—the one that Chagall chose—was "to cherish and publicly express one's Jewish roots" by integrating them into his art. For Chagall, this was also his means of "self-assertion and an expression of principle."
Chagall biographer Franz Meyer, explains that with the connections between his art and early life "the hassidic spirit is still the basis and source of nourishment for his art." Lewis adds, "As cosmopolitan an artist as he would later become, his storehouse of visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and ubiquitous fiddlers... [with] scenes of childhood so indelibly in one's mind and to invest them with an emotional charge so intense that it could only be discharged obliquely through an obsessive repetition of the same cryptic symbols and ideograms... "
Years later, at the age of 57 while living in America, Chagall confirmed this when he published an open letter entitled, "To My City Vitebsk":
Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? ... You thought, the boy seeks something, seeks such a special subtlety, that color descending like stars from the sky and landing, bright and transparent, like snow on our roofs. Where did he get it? How would it come to a boy like him? I don't know why he couldn't find it with us, in the city—in his homeland. Maybe the boy is "crazy", but "crazy" for the sake of art. ...You thought: "I can see, I am etched in the boy's heart, but he is still 'flying,' he is still striving to take off, he has 'wind' in his head." ... I did not live with you, but I didn't have one single painting that didn't breathe with your spirit and reflection.
For him, clowns and acrobats always resembled figures in religious paintings... The evolution of the circus works... reflects a gradual clouding of his worldview, and the circus performers now gave way to the prophet or sage in his work—a figure into whom Chagall poured his anxiety as Europe darkened, and he could no longer rely on the lumiére-liberté of France for inspiration.
"Why am I so touched by their makeup and grimaces? With them I can move toward new horizons... Chaplin seeks to do in film what I am trying to do in my paintings. He is perhaps the only artist today I could get along with without having to say a single word" - Chagall
Key Symbols in Chagall's Art:
- Cow: Life par excellence – milk, meat, leather, horn, power.
- Tree: Another symbol of life.
- Rooster: Fertility, often painted together with lovers.
- Bosom: Fertility of life – Chagall had great respect for Women and it is shown in his art.
- Fiddler: Chagall's village Vitebsk the fiddler made music at major events such as weddings and holidays.
- Herring A flying fish: Commemorates Chagall's father who worked in a fish factory.
- Pendulum Clock: Time, and modest life.
- Candlestick: Two candles symbolize the Shabbat and the life of devout Jews.
- Windows: Chagall's Love of Freedom.
- Scenes of the Circus: Creativity and Joy.
- Horses: Freedom.
- The Eiffel Tower: Up the sky, another symbolic metaphor for freedom.
- The goat: is a Jewish symbol for the day of atonement - a feast when the sins of the people were once symbolically expiated ( Leviticus X!V) by tying a red ribbon (rep. the sins)around the neck of a goat and casting him out into the wilderness to die. (After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, a rooster or hen was used for this purpose instead).
- Angels: According to the Torah, you are not suppose to draw an image of God, so in this painting of the creation of man, God is represented by an angel.
- The Cock (Rooster): symbolizes fertility and potency as an artist; the Violin and Rooftops refer to Chagall's endearing upbringing and love for motherland (Russia).
"All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
"Great art picks up where nature ends."
"I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment."
"Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things I love."
"My name is Marc, my emotional life is sensitive and my purse is empty, but they say I have talent."
"When I am finishing a picture, I hold some God-made object up to it - a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree or my hand - as a final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there's a clash between the two, it's bad art."
"In our life there is a single color, as on an artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love."
"All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites."
"Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is."
- Pablo Picasso, ca. 1954, following the death of Henri Matisse