Afire broke out on the outskirts of the Belarusian city of Vitebsk on July 6, 1887. It started at noon and raged on and on, gaining strength. It spread rapidly and approached a locality called Peskovatik, and a house in which the wife of a man who worked at the Feiga-Ita herring storehouse was in labor. A strong wind was blowing the flames towards neighboring houses, so the woman was moved to a safe place at the other edge of the city.
Most of Vitebsk was enveloped in fire, and only a downpour saved the young mother and her baby. Despite the terrible disaster, that day was a lucky one for the Jewish family of Feiga-Ita and for Khatskel Shagalov: the couple had their first child. On the seventh day of his life, the boy was given the name Movsha (Moses). Much later, Movsha recalled his mother’s stories of the unusual circumstances of his birth and wrote the following: «Maybe that is why I am constantly anxious.” Several decades later, Moses started to use the name Marc Chagall as his signature, and the world got to know him as one of the most prominent representatives of the artistic avant-garde of the 20th century – a magnificent glass painter, decorator, sculptor, graphic designer, and the author of more than 10,000 works of art.
Fate rewarded Chagall with a long life, and his nearly 100-year-long biography itself resembles a big fantasy painting, in which dreams are interlaced with reality, and light is interlaced with darkness… Everything in Chagall’s life and work was outsized and grandiose, including his glory, successes, awards, titles, honors, exhibitions, as well as the complete failure to understand his art …
There is a legend that says that when Chagall was young, a gypsy woman told him that he would live an incredibly full life, fall in love with one extraordinary woman and two ordinary ones, and die in flight, far away from his homeland.
But all of that was yet to come… In his early childhood, little Movsha very much liked sitting in the attic of «a small house by the road, behind the prison on the outskirts of Vitebsk» (from the memoirs of Marc Chagall), which offered a wonderful view of the city. The future artist could spend hours watching the young ladies promenading, and Hasidic Jews hurrying to the synagogue. He could admire the rows of houses with carved wooden windows and gates. He liked to watch grazing cows, the old church, and the abandoned cemetery. The thirty-five-year- old artist would write in his book “My life:” “Wattle fences, roofs, log-houses, walls, and everything that hid behind them fascinated me.»
Like every Jewish boy, Movsha Chagall started going to a cheder (elementary school) when he was five, followed by the Vitebsk four-year public school. Then he went to art school, where he was taught by Yudel Pen. It was here that Chagall’s long journey into the major art world began.
It was not an easy ride. Chagall made sketches of scenery for performances of the famous Moscow Jewish Chamber Theater, but his work was not appreciated. Rejection by the new communist Russian government forced the artist to leave Russia. He went to Lithuania, then to Germany, and then to Paris, where he obtained French citizenship. Back at home, people preferred to forget the artist. For many years, Chagall was an emigré. It was not until 1973, at the invitation of the Ministry of Culture of the Soviet Union, that he visited Leningrad and Moscow, and his first exhibition in Belarus did not take place until almost the end of the century – 1997.
Marc Chagall worked as a design artist for ballet in America and illustrated «The Arabian Nights.» He illustrated «Dead Souls,» by the Great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, as well as La Fontaine’s «Fables,» and created 105 etchings for a French- language Bible, which constituted his «Biblical Message» to the world. A special «temple» was opened in the city of Nice dedicated especially for these works by Chagall, and the French government made it a national museum. The Israeli government commissioned Chagall to make mosaics and trellises for the parliament building in Jerusalem. Chagall painted the plafond (ceiling) of the Palais Garnier building in Paris, and later created murals for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, decorated Chicago with the mosaic artwork «The Four Seasons» and created thousands more paintings, mosaics, and graphic works.
Marc Chagall lived a long and full life. He was married three times. On March 28, 1985, in the city of Saint-Paul-de-Vence (France), the 98-year-old artist entered the elevator in his apartment building to go up to the second floor after a whole day of work in his studio – he continued to draw paintings, make mosaics, paint glass, and make sculptures and ceramics until the very end… As the elevator went up, the great master’s heart stopped beating. He died «in flight,» as a gypsy woman had once predicted, and as he had portrayed himself in his paintings.
It is hard to believe, but only a hundred years ago, Marc Chagall’s paintings did not fit into any artistic canon and were burnt in public, along with the paintings of other avant-garde artists. Art historians note that it is a challenge to analyze Chagall’s work. His art is almost impossible to explain because the master’s paintings are full of poetic allegories, symbols, and metaphors. They do not require us to exercise our intelligence as much as our hearts and souls.
On the one hand, Chagall did not define himself by style; he did not fit into any borders. He did not join any schools or movements. Paint was his tool, his world, his earth and his kingdom of heaven. However, despite all this, the artist considered himself a realist – meaning that he tried to convey true feelings. He wanted to present every subject as an integral part of his own biography because he felt that he directly participated in what he painted.
His canvases show us the world as a fusion of the spiritual and the physical. He portrayed lofty feelings as physical action – his figures fly up into the sky and break out of the embrace of the world of objects, reminding us that dreams alone are not enough for flying. In addition to them, we also need «a soul exuberant with delight and a passion that lifts us up into the sky.» Chagall’s creative temperament showed especially vividly in his artistic devices and imagery, based on a visualization of Jewish folklore. «If I were not a Jew, as I understand it, I would not be an artist or would be a completely different artist,» he wrote in one of his essays. However, Chagall is the world’s only artist whose stained glass decorates houses of worship for several religions: synagogues, Lutheran temples, and Catholic churches – numbering 15 buildings in the US, Europe, and Israel.
His works certainly decorate Vitebsk as well. This Belarusian city was the source from which Marc Zakharovich drew inspiration and subjects for his works throughout his long life. After learning about all the terrible things that the city went through during the years of Nazi occupation, Chagall wrote a passionate “Letter to my city Vitebsk:” “My Motherland, I left on your soil the graves of my ancestors, the scattered stones. I did not live with you, but there was not a single painting of mine that did not reflect your joy and your grief. All through these years, I had one constant worry: Do you understand me, my city, do your citizens understand me?»
Marc Chagall moved spatial, ethnic and religious boundaries, gaining the right to become an artist of the world. It is true what he often said: “love is the source of true art.” For this reason, people all over the world respond to him in the same way – the Russians, the French, the Jews and the Americans all consider him one of them. Certainly, people in Belarus also have a right to consider the brilliant maestro to be one of them. It was on Belarusian land that, as a fire raged over his native Vitebsk, a divine spark ignited his great talent.
By Oksana Kurleyeva