Marc Cha­gall: The Colour of Love, a review of the exhi­bi­tion Cha­gall: Between War and Peace, at the Musée du Lux­em­bourg, Paris.

Reviewed by Shan­na Lee Mumm

The ethe­re­al image gen­tly absorbed my atten­tion. My gaze soft­en­ing as my eyes relaxed deep­er into my skull. I was no longer focus­ing on any one aspect of the paint­ing; rather, I viewed the work as a whole. It became an increas­ing­ly resound­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some­thing seem­ing­ly super­nat­ur­al. Per­haps the paint­ing revealed a lay­er of real­i­ty that lies beyond or beneath ordi­nary per­cep­tion? For some rea­son my thoughts turned instant­ly to my dear sweet son. He would like this paint­ing. So I took a pho­to­graph of Marc Chagall's "The Bride and Groom of the Eif­fel Tow­er" that is on dis­play at the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou in Paris. The chick­en, the cel­lo-goat, the upside down angel hold­ing a can­de­labrum, the Eif­fel Tow­er all loose­ly sur­round the blithe, obliv­i­ous lovers that seem com­plete­ly non­plussed by the fact that they are float­ing on a chick­en, a gigan­tic chick­en that has some­how encap­su­lat­ed a small musi­cal winged being. My beau­ti­ful friend Jen­nifer sings, "We float like two lovers in a paint­ing by Cha­gall" then says, "Do you know the Weepies? I will have to play you their song called "Paint­ing by Cha­gall." And thus began my jour­ney towards explor­ing Cha­gall, his works, his world, his words and towards sens­ing his ulti­mate mes­sage: love.

Marc Cha­gall died in 1985 at the age of 98. One of the most impor­tant artists of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, he is gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered both as a pio­neer of mod­ernism and as a promi­nent Jew­ish artist. His works some­times reflect avant-garde move­ments, such as Cubism, Supre­ma­tism and Sur­re­al­ism, yet his style remained inde­pen­dent through­out his long and pro­lif­ic career. He was heav­i­ly influ­enced by Parisian mod­ernists but he always main­tained aspects of his Russ­ian-Jew­ish roots, as is evi­dent in his works. Jacob Baal-Teshu­va explains that Cha­gall mis­trust­ed the­o­ries of paint­ing and dog­mat­ic schools, refus­ing to pub­licly align him­self with the Sur­re­al­ists; ulti­mate­ly, "he remained the great one-off, whose work still defies all attempts at clas­si­fi­ca­tion" (7).

By chance, I dis­cov­ered that Musée du Lux­em­bourg was host­ing a Cha­gall exhib­it from Feb­ru­ary 21st-July 21st, 2013. And so, on an over­cast Mon­day in April, I decid­ed to go and check it out. I knew it was going to be a great day when I strolled down the nar­row cob­ble­stone street from St. Sulpice towards Musée du Lux­em­bourg and saw excerpts from Arthur Rimbaud's Le Bateau Ivre sten­ciled on the stone wall. As Rimbaud's oeu­vre will fea­ture heav­i­ly in my upcom­ing dis­ser­ta­tion, I could not help but feel I was in for some high­ly cos­mic con­scious­ness rais­ing connections.

The secu­ri­ty check line was extra long because it was a Mon­day and Musée D'orsay is closed on Mon­days. Mobs of muse­um­go­ers all had Cha­gall in mind, but I was able to skip the line by sim­ply chat­ting with the guard in French. He said some­thing like, "Nor­mal­ly you would wait in that line over there but since you are so nice you can go right in." Vive la France! Tick­ets are 11€ unless you are an art stu­dent, then you get in for 7,50 €. After pay­ing a charm­ing young man for my entrance tick­et, I walked a few steps and took my place in the most­ly sub­dued, pen­sive, all but motion­less, high­ly con­tem­pla­tive crowd. Of course there are always a few peo­ple chat­ting and bustling about hur­ried­ly, tak­ing pic­tures with­out turn­ing off the flash and then rush­ing off to their next tourist highlight.

The first rooms were somber: cool and dark. Paint­ings and etch­ings dis­played on fresh­ly paint­ed, black or dark coloured walls. His lat­er works, gen­er­al­ly larg­er, more vibrant­ly coloured and more dream­like, were hung on walls that were paint­ed white. The ster­ile mod­ern inte­ri­or utter­ly betrayed the fact that the build­ing hous­ing the exhib­it was con­struct­ed between 1615 and 1630. Around 80 of Chagall's works were skill­ful­ly placed and care­ful­ly lit so that they were free to cap­ture one's full atten­tion, with­out the dis­trac­tion of impres­sive archi­tec­ture. And cap­ture is indeed what his works do; they draw you in and pull you out of the inces­sant banal­i­ty of the ana­lyt­ic mind, elic­it­ing a kind of poet­ic pon­der­ing, a type of con­scious rever­ie. One sec­tion of the exhib­it was enti­tled "Vers le rève" ("Towards the dream").

The cura­tors of the Cha­gall exhib­it arranged his works in a his­tor­i­cal­ly lin­ear fash­ion, group­ing them into the epochs that made up Chagall's life. "Cha­gall: Between War and Peace" turned out to be an impres­sive col­lec­tion of works grouped into four key stages of Chagall's life and works: Rus­sia dur­ing the war, between two wars in France, exile in the Unit­ed States, and post­war and the return to France. After spend­ing three years in Paris (from 1911-1914) Cha­gall went to the open­ing of his first exhi­bi­tion in Berlin and then on to Rus­sia to see his fam­i­ly and his fiancée Bel­la Rosen­feld. The dec­la­ra­tion of war forced him to be away from Paris for eight years: this peri­od, "Rus­sia dur­ing the war," was spent in his home­town of Viteb­sk where he was mar­ried in 1915 and became a father to Ida. Of this time, Cha­gall claims it to be: "The most pro­duc­tive years of my whole career" (75). The works on dis­play for this epoch are char­ac­ter­ized by a mas­tery of line and show accen­tu­at­ed con­trast, pre­sent­ing a much sharp­er image than is found in the soft con­tours of his lat­er works.

The sec­ond peri­od, "Between two wars in France," spans from 1922-1937 and con­sists of Chagall's dream­like, even mag­i­cal paint­ings where the law of grav­i­ty seems to hold very lit­tle sway. Dur­ing this peri­od he paint­ed land­scapes, cir­cus scenes, hybrid crea­tures and metaphor­i­cal lovers float­ing amidst sur­re­al back­drops awash with colour. View­ing these works gave me the impres­sion that maybe I too am mere­ly float­ing along in this dream called life. But some­times life, like our dreams, turns dark and nightmarish.

The third group­ing was called "Exile in the Unit­ed States," as Cha­gall was forced to flee Paris with Bel­la and Ida in 1937. They moved to New York and there remained until 1949. His beloved wife Bel­la died sud­den­ly in 1944. Though Cha­gall was safe in New York dur­ing this hor­rif­ic time in his­to­ry, he was well aware of the atroc­i­ties that were being com­mit­ted in Europe and his home­land. As the infor­ma­tion pam­phlet I picked up notes: "War, per­se­cu­tions, exo­dus, and burn­ing vil­lages haunt­ed his pic­tures: from then on a dark tonal­i­ty invad­ed his paint­ing." I was par­tic­u­lar­ly moved by Chagall's rep­re­sen­ta­tions involv­ing the cru­ci­fix­ion, which for him sig­ni­fied human suf­fer­ing. These paint­ings evoke a dark despair, a sense of help­less­ness, of chaot­ic suf­fer­ing made more ago­niz­ing by the futil­i­ty of the usu­al angel­ic har­bin­gers of sal­va­tion. In "The Yel­low Cru­ci­fix­ion" Cha­gall presents the cru­ci­fied Jesus amidst var­i­ous Jew­ish sym­bols (a large Torah scroll occu­py­ing a cen­tral space in the image). A winged angel fig­ure car­ry­ing a can­dle and blow­ing a horn flies over the scene of burn­ing and of agony. She appears unscathed, unmoved and the cru­ci­fied Jesus appears serene and at peace. These images of seren­i­ty are jux­ta­posed with the extreme suf­fer­ing of those burn­ing and help­less below. Chagall's cru­ci­fix­ion pieces are pow­er­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tions of an inde­scrib­ably hor­rif­ic peri­od in our his­to­ry. View­ing them gave me a kind of pro­found sen­so­ry insight into the Holo­caust that I had thus far nev­er expe­ri­enced when read­ing books or watch­ing movies depict­ing the peri­od. It is as though the dark chaos and despair of that time can be felt when look­ing at these paint­ings; the gris­ly ener­gy of the world at that time vibrates through­out the paint­ing and per­me­ates the sen­si­tive viewer.

The final group of paint­ings fell under the title: "The post-war years and the return to France." As I walked from the third sec­tion, the paint­ings done in exile, to the final one, it felt like walk­ing out of a dark, pow­er­ful, all but enclosed tomb into a vast world of light and of colour. A weight lift­ed off of my body as the colour­ful paint­ings, now set against white walls, rever­ber­at­ed light through­out the exhib­it space. Picas­so said of Cha­gall: "Now that Matisse is dead, Cha­gall is the only painter who real­ly under­stands what colour is…There's nev­er been any­one since Renoir who has the feel­ing for light that Cha­gall has" (qtd. in Baal-Teshu­va, 10). The paint­ings are of lovers, of hybrid ani­mals, of the moon and of the sun. While gaz­ing at "Monde rouge et noir," I was remind­ed of a paint­ing that I did when I was a teenag­er. Much like Chagall's cou­ples, in my own small acrylic love paint­ing, two float­ing lovers embrace in the night sky, the male emerg­ing from the moon and the female from a star. The paint­ing was accom­pa­nied by a poem that con­tained, if I remem­ber cor­rect­ly, the line, "where moon­beams and starshines unite." Blue moons and red stars.

Cha­gall, I would argue, in his var­i­ous depic­tions of human love, is not sim­ply rep­re­sent­ing lovers because of the strength and depth of his love for Bel­la or because of human love per se, but because he under­stands what love is. Love is the exis­tence of the ephemer­al bal­ance of sun and moon ener­gy, of rea­son and intu­ition, of the head and of the heart. It is the point just there, in the in-between, where dual­ism and dichoto­my can no longer exist, and where cre­ation and destruc­tion appear as simul­ta­ne­ous­ly inevitable aspects of being. Love between two peo­ple, yes, but love ulti­mate­ly as that which pro­pels cre­ation, where two seem­ing­ly dichoto­mous enti­ties merge and become one, where it is no longer evi­dent where one thing ends and the oth­er begins; it is in this space of con­tact that cre­ativ­i­ty is sparked. This pro­found under­stand­ing of love is what view­ing the Cha­gall exhib­it ulti­mate­ly revealed to me. This mes­sage of the omnipo­tence of love was solid­i­fied by words sten­ciled on a curved wall:

"Plus claire­ment, plus net­te­ment, avec l'âge, je sens la justesse rel­a­tive de nos chemins et le ridicule de tout ce qui n'est pas obtenu avec son pro­pre sens, sa pro­pre âme, qui n'est pas imprégné par l'amour." - Marc Chagall
"More clear­ly, more pre­cise­ly, with age, I sense the rel­a­tive inac­cu­ra­cy of our paths and the ridicu­lous­ness of all that is not obtained through it's own sig­nif­i­cance, it's own soul, of all that is not impreg­nat­ed by love." - Marc Chagall

Baal-Teshu­va also notes that the cen­tral theme of Chagall's work is that of love. To sum up the intro­duc­tion to his book, he quotes Cha­gall: "Despite all the trou­bles of our world, in my heart I have nev­er giv­en up on the love in which I was brought up or on man's hope in love. In life, just as on the artist's palette, there is but one sin­gle colour that gives mean­ing to life and art–the colour of love" (10).

Works Cit­ed
Cha­gall, Marc, and Jacob Baal-Teshu­va. Marc Cha­gall: 1887-1985. Paris: Taschen, 2008. Print.