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The Jesus of a Jew and Love

Me and the Village

Marc Chagall (1887-1950). Musée d’Art Moderne – Brussels. 1912.

The Walk

Marc Chagall (1887-1950). The Russian Museum – Saint Petersburg. 1917.

Double Portrait

Nagoya City Art Museum – Nagoya.1924.

To my Wife

Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou – Paris. 1933-1944.

The Triptych: Resistance, Resurrection, and Liberation

Musée National du Message Biblique Marc Chagall – Nice. 1937-1948.

White Crucifixion

The Art Institute of Chicago – Chicago. 1938.

The Village Madonna

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection – Madrid. 1938-1942.

The Fall of Icarus

Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou – Paris. 1974-1977.

Marc Chagall was born as Moishe Segall in 1907 in the Russian town of Vitebsk. Vitebsk was a small town in a province of the ancient Pale, the twenty-five Tsarist provinces where Russian Jews were granted permanent residence. Vitebsk had then about 48.000 inhabitants of which about half were Jews B7 . Chagall’s family was poor. His father worked in a fish shop; his mother sold colonial goods. He was the oldest of nine children B7 . He spoke Yiddish at home, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews who had wandered over Germany to White Russia. Yiddish is a dialect of German, interspersed with Hebrew words. Segall followed the Jewish primary school, then the Russian secondary school where courses were given in Russian. In 1906 he learned to sketch and paint for a couple of months in the school of Jehuda Pen, a simple realist painter of genre pieces and portraits. But Chagall soon left for Saint Petersburg. He needed a permit for that, but a trader known by his father helped him to a certificate. Chagall worked for a while in a photographer’s shop where he touched up and coloured photographs. The lawyer and maecenas Goldberg hired him as a servant, but let Chagall free to attend the school founded by the Imperial Society for Fine Arts, lead by Nicolas Roerich. Thanks to Roerich, Chagall obtained his exemption from military service B7.

Chagall had to leave this school in 1908 and continued to study for some months in the private school of the painter Saidenberg B7. In Saint Petersburg he met a deputy of the Russian Douma, Vinaver. Through connections and recommendations of this friend he was presented to Leon Bakst, professor at the Sanseva School of Saint Petersburg.

Bakst had been a tailor, grown to some wealth by this trade during a previous war, before becoming a painter. He got expelled from the Academy of Art of Saint Petersburg for his new, revolutionary ideas in art, which seemed irreverent both to Russian Orthodox Christianity and Jewish religion. Bakst designed costumes for dancers like Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky. The three met the producer Diaghilev and formed a dance company called the ‘Ballets Russes’ with which they toured in Europe at the time that Chagall was in Bakst’s school. Bakst created the ballets, the sets and the costumes of the company. He was a powerful man, who dared to create a flamboyant new style of dancing by very sensuous young ladies, among which the Jewish Ida Rubinstein E10 . The ‘Ballets Russes’ were a furore in Europe. They scandalised by their free sensuality; they attracted the crowds to their performances. Bakst’s paintings and costumes were as dashing as his ballets, decorative, very colourful, designed to astonish and to surprise. Chagall may have learned for the first time with Bakst to be entirely free in colours and imagination, a way of painting he would continue all his life.

When in 1910, Bakst left Saint Petersburg to go to Paris and dedicate himself completely to Diaghilev’s ballets, Chagall wanted to follow Bakst. But Bakst did not want him as a decorator. Chagall received a small amount of money from Vinaver however, and left anyway for Paris, although he spoke only Yiddish and Russian. So, here was a very poor young Jew from a shtetl, a suburb of Vitebsk, feeling naively as if he could conquer the world, full of Bakst’s stories of Paris, leaving his home, province and country filled with hope and fear, for a place thousands of miles away. Chagall already was a man without links, completely free in spirit.

Chagall stayed in Paris for four years. He met many painters in Paris’ Montparnasse quarter around the Rue de la Grande Chaumière: Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, Robert Delaunay, Laurens, Archipenko, and Chaim Soutine. He worked a lot, was somewhat influenced by the cubist and fauvist French painters like Georges Braque.

From the Parisian period dates the painting ‘Me and my village’. Some influence of the cubists can be seen in this picture: it contains sharply delineated areas of simple forms. Yet, already, this was a painting as Chagall would make all his life. The themes were not Parisian, but the themes of his Jewish Shtetl. The word shtetl is derived from the German Städtl or small town, village. Chagall painted the village houses on the top of the picture. The images of his town appear: a farmer with a scythe, a woman in traditional village dress, a fiddler or a rabbi, a cow is being milked, a sheep’s head is drawn on the left, a bunch of flowers is shown in full colours. Chagall figured himself in on the right, wearing the Russian peasant’s cap.

After one has discovered these memories of Chagall, maybe images of the apparent homesickness of the painter, one starts to astound. Because the images and the colours are weird. Let us begin again at the top of the picture. The fiddler or rabbi or clown is laughing all white in a village house that should be one of the most important buildings since it has a cupola, but that is far too small compared to the figure. And the houses are some standing right, some on their tops. The houses are painted in a dark but real blue. The farmer’s woman also stands on her head. The cow is being milked in the sheep’s head. The sheep has a blue ear, eats at the bright flowers. And the man’s face on the left is all green – really the last colour in which one would paint a face.

But these are mind images, where realistic colours have no meaning. The colours of objects are interchanged. The fields are normally green, but they are red here. The face of the man on the right is green though, as were the fields of Vitebsk. The fields are in the man. The village of Vitebsk is in the blue of memories, as volatile as the sky. And memories are so weightless, that a woman can easily be painted standing on her head. Besides, women are the opposite of men in all things.

In mind images as in dreams also, all kinds of symbols can mix. So a man can have a Russian cap on his head, be Jewish and wear a crucifix at his neck. The bouquet of flowers offered to the village shows the tenderness of Chagall for his village. But the sheep eats the bouquet. Is this a sign of the ever present Jewish irony? Chagall told over and over again that not too much profound meaning had be discovered in his paintings: he only had images and memories dancing in his mind and put these on canvas without any order. Thus watch the total freedom of colour, structure and image in Chagall’s painting such as in this ‘Me and the village’.

Marc Chagall painted objects, animals and human figures that he encountered in real life. But he painted them in no logical relation. The figure of a woman floats in the air; a goat may hold a bouquet of flowers, and so on. For Chagall the images he painted did not so much represent the objects or living things themselves, as their idea. It is true however that because Chagall used representations – if only illusions of the real objects – he eased the spectator’s imagination to recognise the ideas. In a strange way, spectators of Chagall’s pictures appreciate the fact that Chagall thus appealed to their imagination and this makes his work – and the work of other painters – more attractive. Spectators seem to like it that their imagination is stimulated and appealed to and not strictly represented as in ‘trompe l’oeil’ pictures that merely imitate slavishly real objects.

Chagall also became a friend of the poets Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire recommended Chagall to the Berlin art dealer Herwarth Walden who was the proprietor of the art gallery ‘Der Sturm’, in which most expressionist painters of the time, such as Oskar Kokoschka, exhibited their works. In 1914 Chagall left for Berlin with many of his paintings to have them exhibited also in ‘Der Sturm’. A couple of months, after the opening of the exhibition, Chagall took the train for what he thought would be a short visit to Vitebsk. But while he was in Vitebsk, the First World War broke out and Chagall had to remain in his hometown B7 .

Chagall had met the daughter of a Vitebsk jeweller in 1909, Bella Rosenfeld. They married in 1915. During his stay in Vitebsk, Chagall continued to work and to exhibit in Saint Petersburg, and in Moscow. In 1917, the Russian October Revolution broke out. Chagall had met in Paris another Russian émigré, Lounacharsky. This Lounacharsky was an important Bolshevik politician. Lounacharsky became the Russian Minister for Culture and Arts and a protector of Chagall. He could found a school of pictorial arts in Vitebsk. Lounacharsky appointed Chagall People’s Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk. Chagall wanted to make of his academy a centre for Russian fine arts. So, he called in many artists, painters like his old master Jehuda Pen, but also young revolutionary painters like Casimir Malevich and El Lissitzki.

Malevich was an adherent of abstract Suprematist art, the art in which forms are reduced to their most simple forms. Malevich disagreed more and more with the ideas of Chagall and succeeded in ejecting Chagall from his own academy B7 . The world of extreme non-figurative art was irreconcilable with the lyrical dreamworlds of Chagall.

In 1920, Chagall weary of the fights and knowing that he had lost his academy, left Vitebsk for good. He went first to Moscow; he decorated especially the walls of the Jewish theatre. But in 1922, Chagall helped by Lounacharsky, left also Moscow and Russia for Berlin where he tried to recuperate his paintings left in custody from before the war with Herwarth Walden. He would only get back some of his paintings many years later. Chagall obviously did not like Berlin too much, so accompanied by his wife and their child Ida, he returned to Paris in 1923. He was invited there by his friend the poet Blaise Cendrars, and by the art merchant Ambroise Vollard who commissioned him a series of book illustrations. Blaise Cendrars was a well-known figure in the artistic society of Paris. He was for instance also a friend of the abstract painter Frantisek Kupka, a Czech, who was experimenting in non-figurative images.

The years in Vitebsk were happy years, despite the revolution and the problems with Malevich. Chagall was happily married. He adored his wife, aided by the fact that she was a sophisticated person from a wealthy jeweller’s family. The painting ‘The Walk’ of 1917 shows some of the elation of Chagall with his young wife Bella. Again, the painting contains the themes dear to the painter: his shtetl, the village of Vitebsk with the cupola synagogue. Cubist memories have remained in the drawing of the houses and the fields are still well-delineated areas. Chagall himself is a smiling slim young man in black. Bella is simply floating in the air, all curly and red colours. A bouquet of flowers is once more at Chagall’s feet, transformed into crystals. This is a rare, beautiful painting of love and tenderness. Bella is shown as a lady who is so far from reality, who needs her Jewish joker of a man to keep her connected with the earth and reality. And Chagall, the poor fisher’s boy is there to keep the high-flying Bella linked to earth. But their hands do not loosen.

In Paris, Chagall continued to paint. He had more and more success; his art was exhibited in Paris, Brussels, London, Prague, in Poland, in New York B7 . He became a French citizen in 1937, even though at the beginning the French authorities were reluctant to make French a former Russian communist People’s Commissar. Chagall made travels in Europe, remained sometimes in the south of France where he met Pablo Picasso.

The painting ‘Double Portrait’ shows Chagall and Bella together. Chagall never left Bella. He took her with him on all his travels. They were inseparable. Bella is immaculate white, beautiful and intense. She always wore black gloves and these are painted on the white of her body. The flowers of hope and happiness are close by. Chagall is painting with his left hand; the palette is in his right hand. Chagall was indeed a left-handed painter. Both figures are floating together.

‘To my wife’ contains all the memories and most of the images of the Jew Chagall together in one painting. There are the wooden houses of the town of Vitebsk. When Chagall was born these houses burnt down; Chagall’s parents had to flee with the baby in their arms. In some paintings Chagall recalls this event. There is the wedding of the dark Chagall and the white Bella under a linen roof, here painted red, as was Jewish custom. There is a fiddler on the roof; a violin comes out of a cloud. The fiddler is also a recurring theme of Chagall. There is a blue goat at the top of the picture, holding a candelabrum with three arms as used in some Jewish religious ceremonies. Candles burn in the chandelier. There are the bouquets of flowers, one large bunch in a vase painted soft in violet colours. The other flowers are at the bottom in the very bright red and green colours as we found them already in various Chagall pictures. There is a sheep and a blood-red angel, a fish of hope with an umbrella. There is a goat playing the drum and a flying Jew blowing on the zofar, the traditional Jewish ram’s horn. A pigeon is picking at fruit near a chair. Bella lies naked on a red bed. Of course the red of eroticism, but Bella is painted delicately. She is a symbol instead of an alluring woman. The fruit of sin is nearby. So is the fan Bella used frequently and so are the books valued by all Jews. But all is painted against a dark background because Bella by that time had died.

Where do all these images come from? Chagall was a learned Jew. Contrary to most poor Russian children, Jewish children were well educated at the Jewish heder or primary school in which they learned the religious books of the Jews. Those books were the Torah being the Pentateuch, the five books of Jewish history that contained the old alliance between God and the Jews, and the Talmud or law books. They learned the history of the Jewish people and received lessons in logic by reading and interpreting the Torah, the Jewish bible and the Jewish religious laws. But as all poor people, Chagall also must have heard tales told by his grandparents or old neighbours, coming in the evening to tell each other their finest stories. The stories were of magic and mystic events, of angels and evil spirits that haunted Jewish folklore.

The Kabbalah are a set of books of mystic Jewish authors of several centuries. The authors built on folklore and on traditions of esoterism of the Greek Gnostics who searched secret knowledge-systems E10 . The texts dealt in secret knowledge, miracles, angels and devils, in Satan and Belial, and in golems, dybbuks or spirits of all kinds. The Kabbalah contained especially also interpretation of holy numbers that could be found in all things and events, an obsession that can also be remarked in the ‘Golden Legend’. Kabbalists saw God in everything, in events, animals and man, and in numbers. Pantheism of course was Judaic heresy, but the Kabbalah continued to thrive and had a special attraction to superstitious, simple-minded people who needed irrational reasons for all the bad things that happened to them. Their life was filled by dybbuks that drove them to crime and sin, that brought evil and suffering. The people could imagine themselves as to be no sinners, but inherently good souls. Their sins were driven by devils, as evil spirits threw people hence and forth.

The Kabbalah was put together in a coherent system by Isaac the Blind in the twelfth century, improved by Nahmanides in the thirteenth E10 . At the end of the thirteenth century then, the Spanish kabbalist Moses Ben Shem Tov wrote the final compilation called the Sefer-ha-Zohar, usually simple called the Zohar, which became the bible of the Kabbalists. The kabbalist beliefs left Spain with the Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century. Just as the Torah had its learned geniuses over the centuries, so had Kabbalism. In the fifteenth century Isaac Ben Solomon Luria was its greatest proponent. Luria thought that numbering letters and words of the Torah would directly lead to God. In the seventeenth century there was Gershom Solem, and so on. Chablis was also strongly messianic: the beliefs that God’s reign would be realised on earth by a Messiah or Saviour.

The paintings of Chagall are reminiscent of his youth in which he must have been impregnated with kabbalist folklore. The symbols, devils, angels, dybbuks, goats, of Jewish primitive and mystic imagery are all found in Chagall’s paintings. The zofar or ram’s horn is drawn in many paintings, maybe a reference to the Kabbalistic Zohar texts. But let us not look so far. Just as these images turned into the heads of the poor Jews of Vitebsk, so did they float in the dreams of Chagall. He simply continued the images of his first years. They never left him; he used them again and again in his paintings in various settings, forms and colours. We sense that Chagall must have been so happy with his wife Bella, that he was happy with all things and saw radiance in all things around him. This also is a pantheist feeling, prominent in the Kabbalah. Chagall assembled the images to poetry, to a lyrical expression that is very rare for the twentieth century and that particularly appealed to a certain European audience that was wary of the cruelty of Expressionist art.

The painting ‘The Village Madonna’ dates from 1938 to 1942. Chagall had now lived in Christian France for a long time. He had absorbed the Christian elements. The Madonna of the village carries a child as in the so many Madonna paintings of history. But the Jews also have their Madonna; at least Chagall had his. So this is again the white Bella with her child – a girl – Ida. Chagall is also there: he kisses from above the Madonna. The colour areas of this painting go from black beneath to blue and a joyful golden hue on top. The town, Vitebsk again, is completely in black. It is night and a single candle brings the light of the Madonna. The Madonna appears at night, the female saviour and hope of a tortured dark shtetl. Maybe Chagall saw in love of pure women like Bella the only hope for Jewish towns, which were now more and more persecuted by Germans, Poles and Russians. The heavens of the picture are full of angels announcing help and redemption. The themes of Chagall are present again: the cow or ox, here arriving to see what happens, the violin, the books, the bunch of flowers, the angel with the zofar. The result is very lyrical. This painting is a poem in colour.

In 1941, with Nazi Germans already occupying half of France and Chagall residing in the Provence region, he obtained an invitation of the Museum of Modern Art of New York to come to the United States. Chagall, who had hitherto refused to leave France although the Jews were starting to be picked up and sent to concentration camps, finally looked reality in the face. He escaped over Marseille, where he was briefly detained in prison after a search for Jews, to Madrid and the United States. Chagall stayed in New York, sometimes in town, sometimes in the countryside close by. His American days were sad. He abhorred the horrors of the World War. His paintings became grey and sad. Then, in 1944, Bella suddenly fell ill and died in a few days’ time. Chagall stopped painting for almost a year.

Bella Chagall-Rosenfeld died in New York a day of 1944 at ten minutes past ten, as is indicated by the clock in the middle of the painting ‘To my wife’. The clock is in the middle because everything floats around this hour: all the memories of a happy wedding, the village in Vitebsk and the love nights when ghosts and angels come to life.

Chagall remained a time in New York. His daughter Ida engaged a young English girl, Virginia Mc Neil, with whom over the years Chagall entered into a sentimental relationship B7 . He never married her though; few paintings have the figure of Virginia. In 1948 Chagall returned to France, a year later he bought a villa in Saint-Paul de Vence called ‘La Colline’, the hill. Virginia left him in 1951 with her children. Chagall returned to painting long biblical series. The painting ‘King David’ is one of the firsts of these.

After the departure of Virginia Mc Neil, Chagall remained alone. Soon however, he met the Russian Valentine Brodsky, Vava, and married her shortly after.

The triptych ‘Resistance, Resurrection, Liberation’ was painted in the period from just before the Second World War till just after it: from 1937 till 1953.

The painting to start with is ‘Resistance’. On the bottom of the painting, the Jewish town is all in dark tones as if a giant fog has taken away all the colours. A dying man lies on the ground, helplessly, with a memory of a white lady fading in the distance. Is this Chagall, as he would imagine himself in a Russian town tortured by troops? Any troops would do, the Jews of Russia were constantly harassed by the pogroms of first the Tsarist Ministers, then of Stalin and finally by the German invasion. Vitebsk would not survive the holocaust. Almost all Jews of Vitebsk were killed, a community of more than twenty thousand souls disappeared. Chagall always refused to return to his hometown after the war. Even when a more tolerant Russian regime invited him back to Russia, to an exhibition of his art, he refused. He knew he would find nothing of the Vitebsk he loved, changed as it would have been by the German destruction and the soul-less rebuilding by the Stalinists.

The top of the painting ‘Resistance’ is all red. Like the red revolution that swept over Russia. Chagall had learned of the horrors of the civil war between White and Red Russians, then of the massacres of Stalin. Red is of course the colour of blood, so really the colour to use for a war scene. Death and destruction is red in Chagall’s mind. War is also confusion, so the images whirl and are superposed. Fighting men are advancing with torches and guns. Peasants are fleeing with only a sack of meagre possessions on their shoulder. Mothers keep their babies warm in heavy cloth. But witches in blue hoods take away helpless babies. The picking bird shows its snout, looking to tear at corpses. There are no violins anymore, soldiers still think they have a violin bow, but their bows have turned into rifles. There is pain and outcrying. The eroticism of killed and violated naked women lying on the ground is also part of the horrors. Christ is crucified again; his body is contorted on the cross. And above all flies Satan as a billy-goat, bringing fire and destruction. In this painting the red colour is preponderant.

In ‘Resurrection’, red is diminished. When ‘Resistance’ hangs next to ‘Resurrection’, the borderlines between blue and red flows from one painting to the other. There is not only more blue in ‘Resurrection’, but the blue is brighter and completely at the bottom is the fish of hope. The fish is also the ancient icon of Christ, since fish in Greek was written Ixos or pronounced Xos for Christos. The fish icon can be found in the old Rome catacombs. The fish is at the feet of Jesus and the Christ is still a sufferer for humanity, but he has grown to fill the picture. It is the Jesus of a Jew, dressed in Jewish loincloth, as he should be. For Chagall real religious Judaism had made place for something much more fundamental. Since the Kabbalah was pantheist, God also had to be in Jesus even though the Jews did not recognise him as the final Messiah. For Chagall Jesus Christ was the sufferer, a symbol that was universal. Chagall, the multi-cultural traveller was saying with his images that Jesus was a Galilean Jew, a symbol that could be used both by Christians and by Jews.

Chagall’s view is right. Judaism gave birth to the two most important religions in Europe and Near-East Asia: Christianism and Islam. Judaism is the source, the ancient traditional and conservative source, but the immutable basis of the monotheist religions of the Mediterranean regions. Chagall saw these beliefs as one. Maybe a time will come when indeed the priests and rabbis and mullahs will recognise and testify to one faith. They will maybe recognise that their differences of religion are merely differences of form and not of essence. On the bottom right of Chagall’s picture a woman with red hair carrying a child looks at Jesus and the rabbi equally as possible saviours.

Certainly in ‘Resurrection’ there is still red, but not anymore of war. War has subsided, war is just finished. The last soldier wields a torch but the flame is white now. The soldier on horse has a ladder, he goes up somewhere: to the skies, to joy, redemption, at least he ascends to more hope. The red flags are triumphantly born by the masses. Chagall did have sympathies for the red communist revolution, as had the Jews Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and so many other Jewish intellectuals who were at the basis of Communism. Jews were learned men. They had a tradition of ages of learning the Torah and the Talmud in their rabbinical schools. Jews discussed their holy books freely and by interpretation they could go to left and right ideals and ideology. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza went so far in rationalisation as to deny religion. The Jews excluded him out of their community. Jewish rationalism brought them also to Communism. So, ‘Resurrection’ to some extent is the victory of the poor people. The poor people’s peace is finally a reality in view. Suffering however is not finished, but at least it has become apparent so that it can be helped. In the blue part, a rabbi could come out, still clutching the Torah scrolls. A cult lamp gives yellow light to the village. A figure is even reading and learning again: the Jews return to their tradition and again find time to spend on their books. The evil goat is still there however and the shtetl is on fire. This is a memory of the story that must have been told to Chagall in family circles. At the time of his birth Vitebsk, built of wood, especially the Jewish part of the town, burned down. Chagall’s mother fled with her child in her arms, as is painted on top of the flaming houses. But dreams can come back and can become alive: a painter in blue is shown on the right of Jesus’s legs, upside down flying in the airs.

‘Liberation’ is the last painting of the Triptych. The central element is a radiating sun that warms everybody. Warm also are the yellow, golden colours. The radiations are all pervasive. Joy is there as a fiddler who brings music and happy feelings. The red banners are still there at the top, but they are not important anymore, they have given way to the absolutely more universal emotions of people who simply want to be happy. There are violins and drums, clowns and jugglers and flutists. Women can show their babies to the feasting. Suffering in the symbol of Christ has almost completely faded to a shadow, only to be found a little in the top left corner, disappearing in the fog. The painter can paint in the open again and of course, next to him stands the ubiquitous Bella, in a beautiful blue dress. Blue is the colour of hope.

In ‘Liberation’, in the bottom part, we find the themes dear to Chagall: his wedding to a Bella in white wedding dress under the linen red roof. There is the bouquet of flowers in various colours, the house and a ladder pointing to the roof. There is a fiddler up there; is he the ‘fiddler on the roof’? There are real people in the houses, one peers through the window and there can be again religious meetings in homes and synagogues. The chandelier with the bright burning candles is held high. Humanity remains, with spiritual ideas and memories; religion has faded.

Chagall made other paintings on this theme, such as the ‘White Crucifixion’ of the Art Institute of Chicago. This painting is set in a snowy landscape. It contains again the image of the crucified Jesus, wearing the Jewish prayer shawl as a loincloth. The imagery is as explicit as in the Triptych. Jesus’s halo is answered in the halo glow of the Jewish candelabra, the menorah. A synagogue goes up in flames, accentuating the persecution of the Jews. Boats of refugees are fleeing. Jews have to wear inscriptions on their breast. Chagall painted over some of the explicit symbols like swastika’s on the flag and the inscriptions ‘I am a Jew’, probably fearing that the work would be destroyed during his flight from Germany and Europe S2 . All the horrors of German and European anti-Semitism are thus also expressed in this painting.

The Triptych was a rare show of faith in humanity and a declaration of joy at the end of the wars. Chagall had found peace and happiness back in the 1950s, so ended his vision of Europe with ‘Liberation’. Some understanding of the universalism of Chagall’s ideas emerged in Europe as a catharsis long after the wars. Chagall was invited in 1969 to design the stained glass for the Catholic cathedral of the French town of Metz, in 1974 he made the stained glass windows of the Notre-Dame cathedral of Reims. In 1969 the new Knesset parliament of Israel used Chagall mosaics. A year later he designed the stained glass panes of the Fraumünster church of Zurich, Switzerland. Later still he would decorate with stained glass catholic churches in Mainz, Germany and Chichester, England. The colours of Chagall lent themselves very easily to the art of stained glass in large volumes of churches and halls. Just as light breaks through the bright colours of the glass, so do the dream images come to the minds of men. It is not by chance that the stained glass images captured the attention of both the Chagall of dreamworlds and the painter Frantisek Kupka who was in search for pure emotions expressed in abstract art.

From his marriage with Vava Brodsky on, in a more peaceful though stressed Europe, till his death, Chagall went from triumph to triumph in a very filled life. He worked till close to his death in 1985, almost ninety-eight years old. He travelled to all countries of Europe, saw major exhibitions of his works in the United States and in Russia, all over Europe. In the last years his hands trembled, so he turned to a style of bringing patches of paint one next to the other on his canvases. But Chagall never was much of a drawer anyway: he never learned nor could draw finely as the masters Dürer, Botticelli or Van De Velde. His paintings were all colours and could remain so till his last days.

‘The Fall of Icarus’ is such a late painting, dating from 1974-1977. Chagall always painted at one picture over many years, adding visions as they came to a basic theme. This painting is all colours; form is reduced to the minimum. All strokes are bolder now. Icarus is in flames and falls down. He falls into the blood-red earth also, so he falls from one terror into another. He is the only one in trouble; all the bystanders are out of the red colour. In the blue, the entire Jewish village is present: masses of people and animals have come to look at the torture of one. Is Icarus the painter, who has travelled far to try to reach the sun, but who has went too far and has suffered? At least the people of the shtetl are not absent-minded or simply going on their daily business as in the Pieter Bruegel picture. Here, all the Jews have come to cry at the misery, but also to open their arms compassionately to the falling artist.

The meaning of Chagall was as Icarus: someone who has went other paths to find impossible ideals, directions and worlds which most people think stupid and useless. Icarus was Jesus Christ who had elevated humanity, had dreams of love, then was nailed to a cross. Icarus was the symbol of the idealist and dreamer. Icarus was the simple man who loved so much that he had reached the skies and burned himself, then fell down. Chagall lived in dreams through all the horrors of the Russian pogroms and the holocaust that killed six million of the nine million Jews of Europe. The Russian Jews liked to live in Russia and no Germans were as patriotic as the German Jews of before the Second World War. The German Jews had liked their country: Germany was dedicated to learning, just as the Jews admired as a people. The Germany of before the Second World War had brought Von Bode and the Berlin Museum Island with the Kaiser Friedrich Museum and the Pergamom, Von Humboldt and Max Friedländer. It had brought Jewish scientists like Einstein and given them opportunities to work in the most intellectual environments.

All that Germany, together with Polish and Russian Jews, was destroyed in the wars. Chagall lived through it all.

Marc Chagall lived in the memories of his childhood, not unlike Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer was a Polish writer who immigrated to the United States. His novels are like Chagall’s paintings. Laughter is always there, as is the past. Singer told that he wrote in Yiddish because the more the language died, the livelier became the ghosts. Ghosts, spirits, dybbuks, billy-goats certainly were alive in the mind of Singer and in the mind and the eyes of Moishe Segall, the poor Jew of a shtetl near Vitebsk. For Chagall, these spirits drove people, just as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in his novels. Chagall kept his dream alive.

The strange thing that happened was that at first other poor people and then more and more the same poor people that had become richer, started to understand the dreams and the guarded message. Life can be beautiful in all colours and lyrical images, there can be fiddlers and cows and roosters and mothers with babies, and people can feel united with animals and small villages. In there only is the hope for a more humane future. Is it an illusion to believe that Chagall ever more attracted the masses to his paintings, that he received commissions such as to decorate the Parisian Opera because that message was finally recognised as the sole message of value? Chagall was the fiddler on the roof who continued to fiddle through the pain. He kept the laughter alive, the love, and the memories. His success in our years is the success of the true values of tolerance and unison of people’s feelings and religions. And of course, these feelings are universal but also very Christian.

Marc Chagall lived over ninety years. So did Tiziano Vecellio, Oskar Kokoschka, Pablo Picasso and Michelangelo Buonarroti. These geniuses were such bundles of energy that they simply did not think of death. Maybe that is the secret of long life. They worked intensely till late in life, and then died suddenly like an oak tree that will not bend to the wind but is felled by an axe. Of all of these, the one that is the less dead, is Marc Chagall.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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