blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The artist from Vitebsk

Early self portrait showing
Chagall's place of birth
Last week I took the train to Montreal and saw the exhibition of Chagall's art at the Musée des Beaux Arts, subtitled Couleur et Musique. I have been interested in Chagall since writing a previous blogpost about him, in 2012.

Le Rabbin de Vitebsk
Vitebsk, the Yiddish speaking community where Chagall was born in 1887, was a remote place, 500 km from both Moscow and St. Petersburg, in Belarus. About half the population of the town was Jewish, in those days. Chagall treasured the memory of it and its doomed people for the rest of his life.

As an adolescent, he wanted to be a dancer, a poet, a violinist. The sound of the violin, to Chagall, was the voice of the Jewish soul. There's a "Fiddler on the Roof" in the painting entitled La Mort (a dead man lying on the street with candles around him, apparently a scene the artist remembered literally). Chagall was obsessed with images of violinists; he painted a Violiniste vert in 1923 (see below) and a Self portrait with violin, in 1954. On a Jewish wedding day, so it is said, the quality of the music reflects the quality of the marriage. Klezmer music is "the vessel of song" at Jewish celebrations.

The Montreal exhibition includes a black-and-white video recording of a production of King Lear from the Jewish Theatre in the 1920s Soviet Union, starring its leading actor and director, Solomon Mikhoels. Chagall designed scenery and costumes for this theatre.

Throughout his life, he painted entertainers, acrobats and dancers --- le cirque comme métaphore du monde! --- some of them headless or legless, floating in the air. Birds, pigs, horses and goats float through his paintings too, as if through a series of dreams. People appear with chicken's heads.

... with 7 fingers
Self portrait with Bella
There is a cubist self portrait of Chagall at his easel with seven fingers to his hand, a reference to a Yiddish saying, signifying that he was working well and with all his heart. L'Ange à la palette, 1927-1936, shows the artist, with wings, as a messenger of peace, or of God, or of love. Love meant a great deal to him, as witnessed by the tenderly executed paintings of his first wife, Bella, who died young. The bouquet of flowers she carried on her wedding day is a recurring motif, as is her wedding dress.

He etched illustrations for an issue La Fontaine's Fables around this time. From 1937 onwards, Chagall had French citizenship.

In Mannheim, in 1933, his works were condemned and burned by the Nazis as degenerate art and to escape the war and holocaust in Europe in the following decade he moved to America, to return to France in 1948, at which point he became involved with Jewish puppet theatre in Paris, recreating figures from the Shtetl of his youth (Yiddish for "little town"), creating Hakl-Bakl (i.e. "a little bit of everything") puppets.

Violiniste Vert

Chagall's costume for
Papageno, The Magic Flute
Intensely Jewish as his loyalties were, Chagall was not narrow-minded about this; he also did several crucifixion paintings, admittedly with Jewish figures included. There is a stained glass window by Chagall in Chichester cathedral, which I saw last year; he also created stained glass windows for Reims, Nice and Chicago (which I saw in November 2015 and failed to mention in this blog).

1964 he designed the ceiling of Paris' L'Opéra and subsequently did paintings for the Met in New York (1966). While based in New York in the 1940s, he visited Mexico City, working with the production team for the ballet Aleko, New Mexico and Arizona too, where he discovered Katsina dolls that influenced his designs for the costumes. These were on display in the exhibition, as were his costumes for Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. For New York productions of Stravinksy's Firebird ballet, too, he designed the scenery and costumes.

As an old man, in 1973, he revisted Russia. He died at the great age of 97.

At the museum, I spent a good two hours concentrating on Chagall's world, then came out to clear my head and walk around the city before catching my train home.

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