The Dreamlike Visions of Marc Chagall

Living through two centuries, two wars, revolution, and genocide, Chagall made memorable, dreamlike art

By Google Arts & Culture

Artist Marc Chagall with other teachers and children at a JDC-funded school and camp for war orphans (1921/1922) by Photographer unknownAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives

Marc Chagall - born Moishe Shagal in 1887 to a Lithuanian Hassidic Jewish family near the city of Vitebsk, then part of the Russian Empire - was a distinguished Belarusian-French artist whose idiosyncratic style drew on modernist principles and native Jewish folklore.

Jew with Torah (1925) by Marc ChagallTel Aviv Museum of Art

Chagall was introduced to art as a teenager, when he eagerly copied images from library books. He soon joined a local private art school, and before long moved to St Petersburg, followed by Paris - then the most prestigious and important artistic city in Europe.

In the countryside (1925) by Marc ChagallThe Ema Klabin House Museum

War and revolution drove him across Europe: On the brink of the First World War he returned to Russia, and then in 1922 moved back to France. The Second World War pushed him further, this time to America, and in 1948 he returned once again to France.

Rabbi No. 2 (1914 - 1922) by Marc ChagallCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

His art reflects the people and politics he came into contact with. Chagall's earliest surviving paintings show a keen interesting in depicting and celebrating the traditional lifestyle of Eastern European Jews, yet in a distinctly modern way.

Solitude (1933) by Marc ChagallTel Aviv Museum of Art

He soon developed a signature style; flat compositions lacking perspective, blended colors, and symbolic subjects that verged between biblical, everyday, and surreal - such as this image of a rabbi grasping a Torah scroll, accompanied by a goat with a violin.

The Lovers (1929) by Marc ChagallTel Aviv Museum of Art

Religion, love, eroticism, and tradition come together in Chagall's paintings, which present a colorful, poetic vision that seems to pour from the heart. In many of his works, such as The Lovers (1928), he included references to his beloved wife Bella, whom he married in 1915.

Dans mon pays (1943) by Marc ChagallGalleria Civica di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino

This is one of his best-known works. It was painted in 1943, while Chagall was a refugee in exile from the fascist Vichy Regime. In this work, titled In My Country, he imagines life as it once was in rural Lithuania; soft snow and dark, velvet night blanketing a quiet village.

The moon illuminates the unusual scene, which sees Chagall embracing Bella, surrounded by farmyard animals: a floating goat carrying a bucket, a human-headed chicken, and the ghostly negative image of a horse. Is this a dream or a nightmare?

Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945) by Marc ChagallBen Uri Gallery and Museum

By 1944, news of the Nazi death camps and the Holocaust had reached Chagall, that same year his wife died of an infection - untreated due to wartime lack of medicine. His art took a distinctly melancholic turn…

In this monochrome drawing, inspired by Francisco Goya's 19th-century images of war, a Nazi soldier stands at the foot of a crucifix. A couple, one clasping a Torah, seem to be dragged upwards, away from the crowds and towards a ticking clock - perhaps death, perhaps heaven?

Champs de mars (Field of Mars) (1954/55) by Marc ChagallMuseum Folkwang

Chagall's sense of mysticism, fantasy, and lyricism seemed at odds with the prevailing, cynical post-war mood, and set him apart from many other artists. However, Chagall was respected. Despite their aesthetic differences, Picasso regarded him as the greatest living artist.

Bride and Groom with Sleigh and Red Rooster (1957) by Marc ChagallThe Ema Klabin House Museum

By this point in time, Chagall was downplaying his Jewish roots in favour of a 'universal message'. At the opening of the Chagall Museum in Nice, he said "My painting represents not the dream of one people but of all humanity."

Arbre et maisons (1970/1970) by Marc ChagallBiennale Internazionale dell'Antiquariato di Firenze

Marc Chagall worked right up until his death in 1985. Ever since, his enigmatic imagery has entertained and intrigued. His life spanned centuries, wars, revolutions, and genocide and people have tried to read something of this in his art.

His biographer Jackie Wullschlager, wrote: "In an age when many major artists fled reality for abstraction, he distilled his experiences of suffering and tragedy into images at once immediate, simple, and symbolic to which everyone could respond."

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