Marc Chagall exhibition at Museo Ralli in Marbella

Marc Chagall was born in Belarus in 1877. In 1907, he moved to Paris and lived in an artist colony on the outskirts of the city. As a child, Chagall attended the Jewish elementary school and then the Russian public school.

He learnt the fundamentals of drawing during this time, absorbing the world around him and storing away imagery and themes that would feature in his later work.

He began his formal education in painting with portrait artist Yehuda Pen and moved to St. Petersburg to study at the Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts. The following year, he enrolled at the Svanseva School, studying with set designer Léon Bakst. Despite this formal instruction, and the widespread popularity of realism in Russia at the time, Chagall was already establishing his own style and featuring a more dreamlike unreality.

After settling briefly in the Montparnasse neighborhood in Paris, Chagall moved further afield, to an artist colony known as La Ruche (“the Beehive”) where he began to work with abstract painters such as Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Léger and avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Under their influence and the influence of the wildly popular fauvism and cubism, Chagall lightened his palette and pushed his style ever further from reality.

His work stood stylistically apart from his cubist contemporaries and from 1912 to 1914 Chagall exhibited several paintings at the annual Salon des Indépendants exhibition. As Chagall’s popularity began to spread, he traveled to Berlin in 1914 to help organize his first solo exhibition at Der Sturm Gallery. He remained in Berlin until the highly acclaimed show opened that June before traveling back to Vitebsk unaware of the fateful events to come.

In August 1914, the outbreak of World War I stopped Chagall from returning to Paris. But, the conflict did little to stem the flow of his creative output and he started some of the childhood scenes so essential to his work – as seen in paintings such as “Jew in Green” (1914) and “Over Vítebsk” (1914). Despite the hardships of life in wartime, this would also prove to be a joyful period for Chagall. In July 1915, he married and his daughter Ida was born the following year.

To avoid military service and remain with his new family, Chagall took a position as a clerk in the Ministry of War Economy in St. Petersburg. Whilst there, he began work on his autobiography and also immersed himself in the local art scene. He exhibited his work in the city and soon gained considerable recognition. His notoriety would prove important in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution when he was appointed as the Commissar of Fine Arts in Vitebsk.

In this new post, Chagall undertook various projects in the region, including the founding of the Academy of the Arts in 1919. Despite these endeavors, he became disillusioned by differences among his colleagues.

In 1920, he moved his family to Moscow and became involved with the theater community. He was soon commissioned to create sets and costumes for a number of productions. In 1921, Chagall found work as a teacher at a school for war orphans, but in 1922 he found that his art had fallen out of favour, and he left Russia for good. In 1923, following a brief stay in Berlin, he returned to Paris.

With his new success, he travelled around Europe throughout the 1930s and published an autobiography. But, as he became more successful, Fascism and Nazism were on the rise in Europe. Singled out during the cultural cleansing undertaken by the Nazis in Germany, Chagall’s work was ordered removed from the country’s museums. Several were subsequently burned, whilst others were featured in a 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art” held in Munich. Chagall’s angst regarding these troubling events and the persecution of Jews in general can be seen in his 1938 painting “White Crucifixión”.

When Worlld War II started, Chagall and his family moved to the Loire region in France before moving even further south to Marseille. They found a more certain refuge when, in 1941, Chagall’s name was added by the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to a list of artists and intellectuals deemed most at risk from the Nazis’ anti-Jewish campaign. Chagall and his family would be among more than 2,000 who received visas and escaped from Europe this way. 

Arriving in New York City in June 1941, Chagall discovered that he was already a well-known artist there. Despite a language barrier, he soon became a part of the exiled European artist community. The following year he was commissioned by choreographer Léonide Massine to design sets and costumes for the ballet Aleko, based on Alexander Pushkin’s “The Gypsies” and set to the music of Tchaikovsky.

But, even as he settled into the safety of his temporary home, Chagall’s thoughts were frequently consumed by the fate befalling the Jews in Europe and the destruction of Russia. In September 1944, when his beloved Bella died of a viral infection, Chagall was incapacitated with grief. His sadness at the loss of his wife would haunt Chagall for years to come – as represented most poignantly in his 1945 paintings.

Working through his pain, Chagall began the set design and costumes for a production of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird” which premiered in 1949 and ran until 1965. He also became involved with a young English artist named Virginia McNeil. Amid retrospective exhibitions of Chagall’s work at the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, she gave birth to their son, David the following year.

After seven years in exile, Chagall returned to France in 1948 with Virginia and David. His arrival coincided with the publication of his illustrated edition of “Dead Souls”, which had been interrupted by the onset of the war. The edition of fables featuring his work was published in 1952 and, after Chagall completed the etchings he had begun in 1930, his illustrated bible was published in 1956.

In 1950, Chagall, Virginia and David moved south to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, on the French Riviera. Virginia left him the next year, but in 1952 Chagall met Valentina “Vava” Brodsky and married her shortly thereafter. Valentina is featured in several of his later portraits.

Settling in to life as an established painter, Chagall began to branch out, working in sculpture and ceramics as well as mastering the art of stained glass Windows. Much of his important later work exists in the form of large-scale commissions around the world. Among the highlights from this period are his stained glass windows for the synagogue in Jerusalem, the Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz, the UN building in New York City  and the All Saint’s Church in Mainz, Germany, the ceiling of the Paris Opéra and murals for the New York Metropolitan Opera.

In 1977, Chagall received the Grand Medal of the Legion of Honour – France’s highest honour. That same year, he became one of only a handful of artists in history to receive a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre. He died on March 28, 1985, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence aged 97, leaving behind a vast collection of work in several branches of the arts, as well as a rich legacy as a major Jewish artist and a pioneer of modernism.

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