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