Art washes from the soul the dust of ordinary life. –Picasso
This simple sentence makes exploring the world of art and artists accessible, removing the fear that I’m not deep enough or educated enough to find enjoyment in its kaledescopic worlds. Art washes the dust of ordinary life from the soul.
One artist who does this for me is Marc Chagall. Chagall evokes a magical, mystical view of the world; his work raises the spirit by the artist’s refusal to be crushed by ugliness and inhumanity. Instead, with color and comedy, spirituality and suffering, Chagall reminds us that humankind is rich and complicated and that each of us can choose our response to all that is broken in the world. We can choose beauty. We can choose life.
I discovered Picasso’s quote in the little book, Merrythoughts: An Excellent Collection of Curious stories, Uplifting Exhortation, and Joyful Reflections on Life by artist Kay Foley–lent me by Kristin, my dear friend whose profound aptitude for delight has given me incalculable joys over a decade and a half. Merrythoughts itself is chock-full of the kind of sustenance I like to call “SparrowFare.” To further delight in her varied creativity, click here.
It was sweet to discover that the creator of this lovely little book shares my delight in the work of Marc Chagall. “Chagall makes love visible right there on the canvas,” she writes:
A boy rides a giant rooster with his arms around its neck, a bride and groom float above a little town, a woman in a white dress is held tenderly by a goat dressed in a man’s suit. He takes two steps away from ordinary life. Yes, he says, anything is possible.
Ever since I discovered Chagall’s paintings when I was a college student, I’ve been captivated by the charming diversity of this modernist-Cubist-Fauvist-surrealist painter-sculptor-illustrator-stained-glass-creator visionary.
Born in 1887 near the “sad and joyful town” of Vitebsk (in what is now Belarus; it was then part of the Russian empire), Marc Chagall was raised in a Hasidic Jewish family. He studied at local Jewish schools. Although he would leave his homeland and the practice of Hasidism, the motifs and spirit of his childhood continued to inspire and enliven his work.
Biographer Jackie Wullschlager describes Chagall’s themes as “triple fixations, with Judaism, Russia, and love–or put universally, on mankind’s timeless concerns of religion, sense of emotional and social belonging, and sex.”
Chagall said he inherited a dreamy nature from his mother, and Wullschlager finds that her robust optimism helped make her son a survivor in life. “His work is filled with animals: his mother’s world, made visionary in the homesick canvases–I and the Village, To Russia, and Asses and Others–which he painted after he first left Russia in 1911.”
Marc Chagall’s I and the Village … enchants us by its gaiety. In this ‘Cubist fairy tale,’ dreamlike memories of Russian folk stories and of the Russian countryside have been woven together into a glowing vision. Chagall here relives the experiences of his childhood, experiences that are so important to him that his imagination shaped and reshaped them for years without ever getting rid of the memories. (H.W. Janson & Dora Jane Janson, The Story of Painting)
The spirituality of Chagall’s childhood also infuses his work. “The drama and ritual of the Jewish religious calendar, its feasts and fast days, its stories and prayers, its faith in miracles and the supernatural, and the conviction of divine election that went with it” colors all these works,” Wullshlager writes. “A palpable second reality at the heart of daily life, it gave at once consolation for hardship and an encouragement to submit to fate, the characteristic Jewish resilience and the capacity for suffering.”
Chagall would need that preparation. In a long and conflicted life, he suffered poverty, the vicissitudes of the critics, and the death of his first wife after they emigrated to the US to escape the Nazis. Goebbels ordered the destruction of Chagall’s work (among other modernist works) in 1933. The horror of the Holocaust for such a beautiful soul cannot be contemplated deeply enough by those of us who do not share Jewish roots. But we can learn through reading. We can experience through art.
Chagall responded to the Holocaust by stressing the Jewish identity of the crucified Christ in his work. White Crucifixion (1938) is the first and most famous of these. It evokes the terror of the pogroms, the incalculable sorrows of his people. Christ’s nakedness is here covered with a Jewish prayer cloth; he seems to call out to every Christian viewer, asking us to join with him in sharing the sorrow his people experience in the here and now.
This heart-wrenching work repays repeated prayerful viewings and negates the view that Chagall, like other optimists, is merely whimsical and incapable of confronting reality.
Chagall lifts the veil between things visible and invisible; he invites us to wonder with the eyes and heart of a child. He does not turn his eye from suffering, but with strokes of synthesizing synergy, turns suffering on its head.
Reads and Other Seeds
For a delightful tour of Chagall’s multi-faceted work with the perfect musical accompaniment, enjoy this video:
Biography has produced an enchanting introduction to Chagall’s I and the Village, just over a minute long. Click here to view.
Amazon has a collection of affordable Chagall prints. Scrolling through them is a bird’s eye view of his work.
Love this Chagall quote, which opens Sylvie Forstier’s book on the artist:
The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.
Five years ago when my son Ben offered to take me to the Art Institute of Chicago to see Chagall’s America Windows on the weekend I would also meet his brother Matthew’s son (my first grandchild). Ben took this picture that happy day.
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