Today marks the birthday of one of the art world's most beloved Marcs, Marc Chagall. The painter reached the hearts and imaginations of people worldwide with his expressive paintings that simultaneously harnessed the spirit of the avant-garde and the warmth of tradition. As Michael Kimmelman put it in The New York Times in 1996: "the young Chagall had one foot in the modern world, his other in the shtetl." The talented soul would turn 125 if he were still with us today.
Chagall was born in the traditional neighborhood of Liozna, now part of the Russian Empire. As the oldest of nine children, Chagall grew up in a tight-knit Hasidic Jewish family where tradition played a heavy role. The mystical nature of Hasidic Judaism is evident in Chagall's imagery all throughout his life. Starry night skies, dancing ghosts and skywalking fiddlers populate Chagall's mythology, somewhere between religion and surrealism. Thus he was beloved by both, seemingly disparate, populations. He was a storyteller, dreamer and colorist that many different audiences could believe in.
In 1908 Chagall moved to St. Petersburg to begin his artistic career. There he was inspired by the work of Paul Gauguin and the thrill of contemporary theater. He completed an apprenticeship and began to cultivate a naturalist style until he met his wife, Bella Rosenfeld. In his autobiography "My Life," Chagall described his first encounter with Bella: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me." His passion for not only her beauty but her strength is visible in his portraits of her.
Next Chagall moved to Paris where his days were spent studying the masters at the Louvre and exchanging ideas with budding artists like Guillaume Apollinaire and Fernand Léger. Chagall's familiar subject matter of his childhood neighborhood and childlike imagination was translated into the current modes of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism.
When the Nazi party rose to power, Chagall escaped to America where he lived in New York's Lower East Side. His traditional tongue was foreign to the current American scene, until Henri Matisse's son became his manager. It wasn't long before Chagall's poetry was understandable to the American audience, even before his native tongue was.
Chagall's dynamic career included theater sets, stained glass, Biblical interpretations and so much more. Yet he remained devoted to his Jewish roots, folkloric style and divine talent for color. His images from his long and full life (1887-1985) depict the world's transition from ancient to modern like the most beautiful epic poem.
We are thinking of you today, Mr. Chagall. Thank you for your poetry!