About Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall photo
Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall was at odds with the century in which he lived. Despite this, Chagall's reputation is now secure as one of the most critically acclaimed and popular artists of the century. In an age of science and reason, Chagall defied these prevailing standards by seducing the viewer through the illogical inventiveness of his subject matter and his dazzling use of color. Chagall's popularity, in part, is due to his art being resistant to over-intellectualization which is the fate of so much art in the past century. Chagall himself rejected being labeled and steadfastly wished his art to be unaligned with the major art movements of the century.

Chagall thought himself as the opposite of Picasso. He said, "Picasso painted with his belly and me, I paint with my heart." In this sense, one could say of the great artists of the school of Paris that Matisse painted with his sense of propriety, Braque with his sense of order, Gris with his sense of design, Leger with his workingman's logic, Modigliani with his sensuality, Miró with his subconscious, and Giacometti with his pathos. But it is emphatically Chagall who painted with his heart on his sleeve. Charles Marq, who worked in stained glass for Chagall, wrote: "Chagall had that very sentimental streak; he was a simple man, very simple. There again, there is always the inner world and the outer world. He was so simple, I often saw him cry while he was working. He was extremely demanding and so was I. He used to say, "Let's go, no fooling around." He was a very good man too, but he couldn't accept people talking about art in a way that didn't match his ideal and his vision. Then he could be really hard-nosed."

This exasperation surfaced in a 1944 interview that was one of the clearest statements by Chagall concerning the meaning of his art. He remarked: "For me a picture is a plane surface covered with representations of objects-beasts, birds, or humans- in a certain order in which anecdotal illustrational logic has no importance. The visual effectiveness of the painted composition comes first. Every extra-structural consideration is secondary. I am against the terms fantasy and symbolism in themselves. All our interior world is reality-and that perhaps more so than our apparent world. To call everything that appears illogical, fantasy, fairy tale, or chimera would be practically to admit not understanding nature."

Chagall is paired with Joan Miró as one of the two great artists of the century whose work is personal, emotional, and, in the case of Miró, often highly abstracted; yet is still understood and appreciated by a large cross section of the public. Picasso is different. He dazzles by his virtuosity of composition and variety of styles. Ultimately, however, Picasso is cerebral. Chagall and Miró, instead appeal to our feelings through color and emotion. Lionello Venturi wrote: "Chagall wanted an art of the soil, and not of the intellect. That is, he refused to follow the intellectual process he did not understand, and remained faithful to the soil-to his own feelings, his own imagination, his memories of his village, of his beloved people and cows. He wanted to revolutionize not the physical but the psychic form of reality."

Marc Chagall could leave Russia but Russia could never leave Marc Chagall. His sense of the tragic and comic in humanity was formed in Vitebsk and was never to abandon him or his art. It resurfaces again and again as a subtle sense of laughter through tears. His art is many things but it is never harsh. Marc Chagall must have been the least judgmental of artists. This sense of empathy comes from the fatalism of his Russian roots and surely his Jewish background. Henri Deschamps who printed some of Chagall's lithographs commented on this: "I don't think it was possible for Chagall to paint like Picasso or Braque, because when you're Jewish, maybe you see things differently, because of that long and difficult past across the centuries…They have a particular art, it emanates from them. Chagall, it just wasn't possible for him to be a Dadaist. Me, for example, I understand Braque. Our origins are in Romanesque art, Gothic art; not theirs. And this wandering through the countries gave them something, something touching in fact. It's a more lyrical art, more interior."

Russia was Chagall's past but Paris was his present and future. It was in Paris in 1910–14 and again in 1923 when he finally settled there that Chagall found himself artistically. He remembered Russia as a world of whites, grays, and blacks. It was in Paris that Chagall discovered and embraced an all-encompassing sense of color. He observed it everywhere from the streets and the sky to paintings in artists' studios and the Louvre. It was a revelation that transformed his art and caused him to later say that in Paris he was born a second time.

Cubism, Futurism, and other advanced art movements of the day were both a shock and a revelation to Chagall. Their influences advanced, and then eventually receded from his art. His mature style, established by the 1920s, consisted of expressively rendered representation in imaginative, even magical compositions with people, animals, and objects often defying gravity and logic. The unifying force in his art, however, was color. Rich, complex, and layered, Chagall's color floats like chromatic mists across the surface of his work. Chagall is one of a select group of 20th-century artists, which includes Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse, Miró, Rothko, Avery, and Diebenkorn, where masterful color is the dominant force.

Marc Chagall was 33 years old and already an established artist when he was commissioned to make his first prints in Berlin in 1922. These were all black and white etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts. They were somewhat tentative due to Chagall's unfamiliarity with the graphic techniques. Nevertheless, the vigor and originality of his creativity was evident. Settled in Paris by the fall of 1923, and through an introduction by the poet Blaise Cendrars, Chagall met Ambroise Vollard, the individual whose ambitions in the graphic arts were to monopolize his creativity for the next 15 years.

A legendary dealer of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings, Vollard's greatest passion was in the publishing of Livres des artistes by the foremost artists and writers of the day. He eventually commissioned three massive publication projects from Chagall, the Dead Souls by Gogol (107 etchings), La Fontaine's Fables (100 etchings), and The Bible (105 etchings), which Chagall was to work on intermittently until World War II. Vollard, who died in 1939, did not live to see any of these projects realized. They were eventually issued by the publisher Teriade in 1948, 1952, and 1956 through 1958 respectively.

Although Chagall threw himself into these projects with enthusiasm, their reliance on line and lack of color limited his ability to truly express himself. While in exile in America, he was finally given his first opportunity to create color prints. The series of 13 color lithographs illustrating Four Tales from the Arabian Nights were begun in 1946 and published in 1948. This publication was an extraordinary achievement considering that it was Chagall's first venture into that medium and that it was printed in New York, devoid of the tradition and skills of color printing that Paris had in abundance.

In 1948 in the workshop of the Parisian lithographic printer Fernand Mourlot, Chagall finally found his home as a printmaker. Under the patient tutelage of printers like Charles Sorlier, Chagall found color lithography to be the perfect graphic medium for his art. Christopher Conrad has written: "lithography soon became his favored printing technique. This is certainly due primarily to the fact that he could integrate the one element he had previously always missed in his graphic art: color. Color is employed in Chagall's work with greatly varying intensity, from watercolor-like washes and fragile crayon lines to opaque layers whose effect closely resembles that of his luminescent gouaches."

Over the next 35 years Chagall's enthusiasm resulted in the creation of over 1,000 color and black and white lithographs.

Just as the printers taught Chagall, he in turn, with his inventiveness and constant artistic inquiry, pushed the limits of their capabilities. Commenting about working with Chagall, Henri Deschamps said: "Me, I was disoriented by those masters (Chagall and Picasso) at the beginning, because when I was a young lithographer we used to put on just a little bit of color, because the pigment was expensive. But Chagall, he didn't worry about the price, he didn't give a damn, he put on all the colors he needed. So often, after a print, he would add a few tones, which worked out just fine in fact…So if at the end he wanted to put a bit of blue in the sky, a spot, or a cloud and a pair of lovers, well, what are you going to say? That's the way it is."

The crowning achievement of Marc Chagall's career as a printmaker is the suite of 42 luminous color lithographs illustrating Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, which was published in 1961. It was through the friendship of Chagall's longtime Greek friend and publisher Teriade (1897–1983) that he was introduced to this classic text of antiquity. In order to assimilate himself with the spirit of the story, Chagall travelled to Greece in 1952 before producing the gouaches that served as the models for these prints. In 1954 he returned once more to Greece, "to see if I hadn't been mistaken and to check whether my first impressions had been the right ones."

The painstaking translation of the gouaches into lithography began in 1957 and went on for four years. In the end approximately 1,000 zinc plates were needed to produce the series of 42 lithographs. Some of the prints required up to 25 colors. The teamwork required to produce such a complex publication was truly amazing.

In his greatest color lithographs, such as Daphnis and Chloe, Marc Chagall created works that are the equal of his finest achievements in painting, drawing, stained glass, and ceramics. Henri Deschamps contributed the wonderful remark, "Chagall, they say he came into the world every morning." To see life afresh each day, to act on one's imagination and impulses in creating an art based on a poetry of feeling is Chagall's gift to the world. His work is done, his achievement secure. It is for us to appreciate his genius and take refuge from an often uncomprehending world in the beauty he left us.