Chagall: Colours, Contrasts, Contradictions (Part One)

It remains a mystery why Belorussian artist Marc Chagall continues to captivate and fascinate art enthusiasts and collectors despite the ambivalence of many critics, who argue his works to be too sentimental, repetitive and even too simple.

Chagall’s works continue to sell at prices well above asking. A sensational find was made when some of Chagall’s unknown paintings were discovered in an illegal private collection of looted Nazi art.

Pope Francis himself recently stated he had a special interest towards Chagall, naming him one of his favourite artists. The Pontiff expressed his affection towards one of Chagall’s works — White Crucifixion, a mystical painting depicting Christ on the cross surrounded by historical scenes of Jewish suffering.

White Crucifixion (1938)

White Crucifixion (1938)

His ongoing popularity and success, juxtaposed with critical and peer disrespect, is despite Chagall’s recognizable and evident mastery of a variety of mediums including stage and set design, painting and printmaking, lithography, mixed media collage, illustration, large-format ceiling and mural work (including the ceiling of the Paris Opéra), and of course his famous stained glass windows.

I  was lucky enough to have recently visited a National Gallery of Canada exhibition featuring Chagall’s work, Daphnis & Chloé. His unique work moved me to think about Chagall’s work in a historical context.

Wedding Feast in the Nymphs' Grotto - from Daphnis & Chloé

Wedding Feast in the Nymphs’ Grotto – from Daphnis & Chloé

Chagall’s unique personal history of change, exile, displacement, and tragedy — which coloured and informed his creativity and style — had much to do with the enduring interest in his work. In addition, his work is highlighted by contrasts and contradictions in his style and his refusal to be pigeonholed or categorized.

Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal, in 1887 into a Yiddish-speaking family of nine children. It is said that he was “born dead,” and miraculously awoke from this stillborn state when he was dipped in cold water outside after pricking him with needles failed to revive him. An auspicious beginning!

Chagall’s family lived in Vitebsk (in present-day Belarus) in the so-called “Pale of Settlement”. This was the name given to the designated area in which Jews were forced to live in pre-revolutionary Russia. Personally, I find this of great relevance because this is my background: my great-grandparents, too, came from this region and would have had a similar life to Chagall’s. Moreover, like many others in this situation – and of course my ancestors – Chagall left these difficult and dangerous circumstances.

He was born into a devout Hasidic orthodox Jewish family, in which the traditions of singing and dancing was a way of expressing love for God and His world, which later would form a basis for many of his images, typical of the time. The house in which he was raised was devoid of any kinds of artworks and even photographs, which could not but influence his particular style and vision in art, depriving him of a more serious and studios layout for his future works.

The images that surrounded him from the moment of his birth were scenes of rural life in a village. Chagall was brought up in a world of cows and chickens wandering in people’s yards, black-suited rabbis walking to or from one of the town’s 60 synagogues and yeshivas (religious schools) and peddlers or shmatte (rag) dealers, and other townsfolk, going about their business. The town would not have been picturesque in the traditional sense, what with muddy, unpaved roads, but would have been typical for towns and villages across this region (the play and movie “Fiddler on the Roof” comes to mind). In the background, too, of Chagall’s early life would have been the ever present threat of pogroms: periodic massacres of Jews unofficially sanctioned by the Tsarist government, events that reinforced the uncertain and tenuous nature of Jewish existence there.

Chagall would later draw on these images and events a great deal in crafting the fanciful settings, characters and figures in his work. These early parts of Chagall’s life, these images and events, are key to understanding Chagall’s work.

After showing interest in art through drawings, and convincing his practical  parents (who could hardly be expected to add an art school to their multiple expenses) that he was talented enough to do something with these nascent skills,  Marc was sent to an art school.

Chagall travelled to St. Petersburg, where he studied at the Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts. Classical art wasn’t to young Chagall’s liking, and he signed up for classes taught by a “sophisticated” artist Leon Bakst. It was with Bakst that Chagall caught a taste of modern and progressive approaches to painting – which at that time was expressed by some of the world’s most famous impressionists Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne, and Manet.

Sponsored by a supportive member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, Chagall followed Bakst to Paris in 1911, where he stayed for four years. Though his contemporaries were painters like Modigliani, Delaunay and Léger, it was said that as a storyteller he had more in common with writers like French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The ability to tell a story with an image is a characteristic feature of all Chagall’s works.

Influenced by the modern French trends of Cubism and Fauvism, he incorporated their traces into his works, creating his own unique style. For example, his piece Temptation (Adam and Eve), a Cubist and happy depiction of a biblical scene, and I and the Village, a self-portrait with the artist looking at a beast along with memories of early hometown life in Vitebsk. The latter painting includes Chagall’s own take on Cubism, including Cubism’s geometric structure, but features rural fairy tale-like scenes influenced by Chagall’s personal history instead of Cubism’s usual avant-garde, urban subject matter.


I and the Village (1911)

A few years later, after returning to Russia, the growing popularity of Kazimir Malevich made abstraction the new dominant form of art in Russia, parts of which were assimilated by Marc Chagall into a new philosophy for his work.

Chagall was appointed People’s Commissar for the Arts after the Revolution in 1917 and as part of that job taught at a school of the arts in Vitebsk. However, he soon became disillusioned with the new Bolshevik government’s emphasis on uniformity of thought and style when it came to art. It is also believed that Malevich petitioned to have him removed, suggesting that Chagall’s art was not “revolutionary” enough given that it contained human figures rather than a more appropriate abstraction.

Chagall’s art was truly unique and differed greatly from the vision of art imposed by the Marxist-Leninists. The government, at Malevich’s urging, evicted Chagall and his young family from the art school where he taught and lived. Chagall moved to Moscow where the State Jewish Chamber Theatre warmly accepted him as a decorator of panels for the theatre’s productions. In 1922, he left Moscow for Berlin, and later in 1923 settled in Paris with his wife and a young daughter.

Over the Town (1918)

Over the Town (1918)

In Paris, he met well-known art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned him to illustrate La Fontaine’s classic poems Fables. Thus began Chagall’s second act and his rise to fame.

(Part Two to follow)



  1. Neil, I can’t wait to read part 2 – you’ve left us in suspense. I’m particularly interested in this next phase when Chagall is ripped from Paris and immigrates to the U.S. I’m now reading a book on the man who facilitated Chagall’s safe exit from France, along with Modigliani and other Jewish artists — Varian Fry. He’s a real hero in this era. Thanks for your wonderful post – looking forward to more!

  2. Thanks for your kind words. Will get to part two soon enough I hope. Indeed, the diplomat who saved Chagall, Modigliani, etc. was quite a character!

  3. Wonderful piece. Can’t wait to read more posts.

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