Chagall, the oneiric language of colour


Marc Chagall, ThePromenade, 1917-1918, oil on canvas. State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg


Elvira MT 14th of March, 2015 – “I wouldn’t want something I didn’t say and didn’t think to be attributed to me”. These words of Marc Chagall’s autobiography are the leitmotiv of the exhibition Chagall Retrospective, shown at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium until the end of June.

This exhibition offers the possibility of travel through the life and the different artistic periods experienced by the famous Russian painter. Organized in 12 thematic sections and laying aside the chronological order, the visitor is invited to have a walk inside the powerful colours and the oneiric world of Chagall’s works.

To get started, the exhibition places the visitors in front of a young Chagall in his twenties. Full of energy and fascinated by the “avant-garde”, he starts in Paris to develop an original and personal language. In those years he initiated to build the repertoire of images that constitutes the basis of his poetic world: a synthesis of Russian folklore, Hebraic tradition and new artistic waves, as cubism. A whole world of fantasy inhabited by flying creatures or talking animals will be the kingdom of this painter, as we can glimpse in his work ‘I and the village’.

Vitebsk, Berlin and France

After 3 years living in La Ruche with some other artists, Chagall went back to Russia. The outbreak of the World War I dissuades him from returning to Paris and he decides to stay in Vitebsk, his hometown. There in 1915 he marries Bella, the woman who will be prevalent in his pieces of this period. Lovers are the protagonist in those years, as in ‘ThePromenade’. While light is clear and brightening in this paintings, it become more solemn when he describes the Jewish world to which he belongs. Among his paintings from this period, it is particularly remarkable ‘The red Jew’, the portrait of a vagabond who turns into a wise man thanks to his brush.

It is not until the artist travels to Berlin in 1922 when he finishes his autobiography, ‘My Life’, that he had already started in Moscow. Chagall is not even thirty years old, but in this crucial moment of his life he started questioning himself in a deep way. All these personal reflections were expressed in that autobiography, around which the exhibition is organized. Later translated by his wife, Bella, it was published in Paris, eleven years later together with 20 engravings that are also present in this exhibition.

After Berlin, he returns to France, where he tries to understand the French landscape and capture its radiant light, using his own surrealist and bucolic vocabulary. Nevertheless, this entire brilliant universe will turn into shadows and dark colours at the end of 1920s, when war is all over around. The effigies of Jesus Christ and the Madonna suddenly burst into his paintings, which turn even more metaphorical, full of intense colours that reflect tension and suffering, as in ‘The falling Angel’.

The years of exile

Chagall is forced to exile in the United States, a hard blow which become even harder three years later, when Bella died. Art remains as a lifesaver for him, involving now also music. As he already did for plays by Gogol and the Jewish Theatre 20 years before, he creates innovative decors and sets once again. The unrealistic and hyperbolic elements turn more mature when he designs sets and costumes for Aleko (Sergei Rachmaninoff) and The Firebird (Igor Stravinsky). Inspired from characters from Russian folklore and carnival, Chagall creates preparatory drawings, later converted into real costumes, to which he added himself touches of colour. The exhibition shows not only preparatory works, but also the reconstruction of some of these innovative and inspiring costumes.

Music is not the only discipline he collaborates with. He measures himself to French classical literature when in 1923 he receives the request of illustrating The Fables by La Fontaine. The result was an extraordinary ensemble of metaphorical images full of light and spontaneity, where the poetic atmosphere of these fables is completely alive, as we can appreciate in some of them, as the gouache for ‘The fox and the grapes’.

A poetic summit

Better known and as a highlight of the exhibition, we can see the creation process of the paintings of two of his more important works: the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, and the project for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Sketches, gouache paintings and preliminary pastels are exposed and allow us identify the evolution of both.

The ceiling of Opéra Garnier permitted Chagall building his own musical Pantheon, where French music, German music and Russian music coexist represented by floating figures in a colourful equilibrium. While in New York he developed The Triumph of Music as an union of circus, animals, angels or classical dancers. These two masterpieces constitute the sublimation of Chagall’s artistic language, which we can discover in this extraordinary exhibition.


Marc Chagall, Definitive Study for the Ceiling of the Opéra Garnier, Paris 1963,gouache on paper gluedon canvas, Private collection


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