MARC CHAGALL: THE COLOR OF LOVE
This exhibition provides a first glimpse into the rich world of Chagall mainly through his works on paper. They are illustrative of the vast influences Chagall could channel and each is an intensely personal work infused with his identity, his life, and his love.
What is the color of love? Perhaps no other artist has come close to depicting a life of joy, of color, and of love as Marc Chagall. This exhibition covers five decades of Chagall’s career, each work depicting a different decade.
Marc Chagall’s work is defined by his use of colors and the dream-like quality of his figures and scenes. While many different styles influenced the artist, such as Fauvism, Surrealism, and Cubism, Chagall maintained a unique style that stayed fairly consistent over a long and prolific career.
JUDAISM AND MODERNITY
Central to Chagall’s work is his Jewish identity. Whether explicitly in the depiction of Jewish traditions or in incorporating the visual language of Jewish culture, much of what makes Chagall’s voice unique derived from synthesizing the emerging Modernist trends of the early 20th century and his Jewish identity.
Chagall was born near Vitebsk in what is today Belarus, an area steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. He attended local religious schools, eventually studying under Jewish artists such as Yehunda Pen and designer Leon Bakst.
We can see in Chagall’s art a surreal mix of flying animals, particularly goats and people, but this concept is not unique to Chagall. It was born from the storytelling of Eastern European Jewish culture. Chagall grew up within the flowering of Jewish culture as writers began employing Yiddish and creating literature reflecting people’s everyday life, struggles, and joys, the meeting point of the mundane and the magical. Perhaps one of the best known of these writers is Sholom Aleichem whose words are the literary equivalent of Chagall’s bold paintings. Author Johnathan Wilson even suggests the flying figures of Chagall’s world are a literal translation of the Yiddish word luftmensch – ‘man of the air’. Chagall himself once wrote that “were I not a Jew, I would not be an artist at all. I would be a different artist altogether.”
Chagall is hardly the only Jewish modern artist. Some of his contemporaries include Arthur Kolnik and Sigmund (Zygmunt) Menkes, who explored Modernism through a Jewish lens. These expressions were sometimes overt in the depiction of everyday life and sometimes they incorporated the visual and literary conventions to create a Modernism with distinct roots from those of Picasso or Matisse. Chagall and his contemporaries are examples of a flourishing Jewish culture in the beginning of the 20th century and the developments made by that diaspora to art history.Inquire
SURREALISM AND MEMORY
It is that diaspora that we turn to the next aspect of Chagall’s oeuvre. Although he left Vitebsk to study in St. Petersburg and Paris, the outbreak of World War I and then the Russian Revolution transformed his travel into exile. This is reflective of the lives of many marginalized people, the looming threat of displacement.
Although Chagall and his wife were able to move to Paris in 1923, the growing threat of Nazism would push Chagall to the edge once again. Over fifty of his works were confiscated by the Nazis and four of them were even exhibited in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. Chagall and his wife would even see first-hand the destruction being wrought to Jewish life during their visit to Vilna. But despite this, Chagall would remain obstinately obtuse to the danger at his doorstep. Only at the intervention of the Museum of Modern Art and after Jews had their French citizenship stripped and his arrest in Marseilles, was Chagall fully convinced to depart his adopted homeland for a new one.
It is a wonder, then, that Chagall’s paintings are not filled with more trauma. Instead, it is filled with beautiful memories, traces of joy in a life that was and could be. Colors and forms swirl as if being literally conjured up from the artist’s mind, the artist telling a story like Sholom Aleichem calling up characters, where the fantastical and the ordinary sit side-by-side, where allegory and metaphor are made real. Chagall bridges the gap of a Modernism that deconstructs by removing meaning through abstraction and his own identity founded on meaning and symbolism. He appropriates Modernism’s illogic nature to create paintings with multiple disconnected scenes, each vignette filled with its own symbols and meanings. His works are like an incoherent dream, memories and iconography colliding – not unlike the Surrealists who often referred to Chagall as the godfather of the movement.
Distinct from Modernists like Picasso or Surrealists like Dalí, Chagall did not need to look at “the exotic” art of non-Western cultures or dredge up the strange landscape of the unconscious. Instead, he turned to his own life, his own culture and background infusing each scene with warmth while still being capital M Modern. Each iteration of a cow or a chicken or a goat, of violins and flying people is a recollection of Chagall’s early life, memory made modern.
COLOR AND LOVE
Central to Chagall’s work is of course his color. Without color his jumbled mix of scenes would come across as chaos. Instead, color enlivens his painting, adding to the surreal quality. It was with Leon Bakst that Chagall learned to investigate chromatic relationships by putting contrasting hues together. And it was through the Fauvists and Cubists he met in Paris that Chagall let loose a torrent of vibrant colors.
Amongst all Chagall’s vibrant colors are also scenes of love and lovers, adding to the intensity of each composition. He once spoke on “… that clamorous love that I have, in general, for mankind” and that “[he] had to gradually come to understand that color is all… Color is two things. It is chemistry and it is love.” Each piece is evidence of the melding of these two thoughts.
The medium of much of the works in the exhibition helps emphasize Chagall’s love of color. Watercolor, made of a pigment mixed with water soluble glue, can be built up a layer at a time to create translucent shades. Watercolor’s opaque cousin, gouache, contains chalk which makes the color denser and more vibrant. Chagall exploits each to their fullest extent as seen in the works in the exhibition. The ease and flexibility of the medium, as well as its spontaneity, speaks to Chagall’s desire for artistic freedom and expression. But this spontaneity is no less indicative of a full-fledged work of art. These works on paper place Chagall in the same conversation as other celebrated watercolorists including William Blake and Winslow Homer. For a different look into watercolor and gouache paintings, visit our exhibition Alexander Calder: A Universe of Painting or for a new view of works on paper, visit Paper Cut: Unique Works on Paper.
LEARN MORE ABOUT MARC CHAGALL