Marc Chagall at Zebra One Gallery

Marc Chagall

MARC CHAGALL 1887-1985


Chagall was a Russian-born painter, lithographer, etcher and designer. Born in Vitebsk of a deeply religious Jewish family. First artistic instruction was under Yehuda Pen, also known as Yuri Pen who operated an all-Jewish private school in Vitebsk for students of drawing and painting.

Marc Chagall spent the start of his journey into Art in St Petersburg, where he entered the Imperial School for the Protection of the Fine Arts, and later studied under Bakst after which he went toParis 1910-14, where he met Apollinaire, Delaunay, Leger, Modigliani and Lhote.

Somewhat influenced by Cubism, but differed from it in his love of fantasy.

Chagall's first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Der Sturm, Berlin, 1914. He returned to Russia the same year and had to remain there because of the war. After the Revolution he was appointed the Fine Arts Commissar for the province of Vitebsk and where he directed an art academy; he also executed murals for Granovsky's Jewish Theatre in Moscow. Spent 1922-3 in Berlin, then 1923-40 in Paris, except for visits to Egypt, Palestine, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Italy; in addition to paintings, made illustrations for Gogol's Dead Souls, La Fontaine's Fables and the Bible. In the USA as a refugee 1941-7, then returned to France, settling in 1950 at Vence. His later works include a new ceiling painting for the Paris Opéra and, from 1957 a number of commissions for stained glass. 

Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century" (though Chagall saw his work as "not the dream of one people but of all humanity"). According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be "the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists". For decades, he "had also been respected as the world's pre-eminent Jewish artist". Using the medium of stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, windows for the UN and the Art Institute of Chicago and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.

Before World War I, he travelled between Saint Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During this period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his idea of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. He spent the wartime years in Soviet Belarus, becoming one of the country's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, founding the Vitebsk Arts College before leaving again for Paris in 1923.

He had two basic reputations, writes Lewis: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist.

He experienced modernism's "golden age" in Paris, where "he synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, and the influence of Fauvism gave rise to Surrealism". Yet throughout these phases of his style "he remained most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk. When Matisse dies," Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s,

                                           "Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is"

The crowning achievements of the last two decades of his life were a series of large-scale commissions. The first came in 1960, for stained-glass windows. These represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and were installed at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. Similar commissions followed in both Europe and the U.S., including the memorial window Peace (1964) for the United Nations, and The America Windows (1977) for the Chicago Institute of Art, which Chagall considered tokens of gratitude for his brief asylum in the U.S. during World War II. Significant commissions for murals also helped define Chagall's late career, and included the ceiling of the Paris Opera House (1963) and the juxtaposed murals The Sources of Music and The Triumphs of Music (1966) for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In 1985 Chagall passed away at the age of 97, by now the last surviving of the original European masters of modern art. He was buried in Saint-Paul, in southeastern France.