I loved the huge stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall in the Cathedral of Reims. Something about his whimsical flying figures appeals to me, feels to me like a metaphor for how my soul and spirit long to be.
I love the brilliance of the colour Chagall uses.
When Matisse dies”, Picasso remarked, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”
Portrait of Chagall by his first teacher.
Mark Chagall, Born in 1887 in a Russian Jewish shtetl of Vitebsk in a poor working class family. He later wrote, “Day after day, winter and summer, at six o’clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father’s lot. . . There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands.”
A turning point in Chagall’s artistic life came when he noticed a fellow student drawing. It “was like a vision, a revelation in black and white.”
Chagall would later say how there was no art of any kind in his family’s home. When Chagall asked the schoolmate how he learned to draw, his friend replied, “Go and find a book in the library, idiot, choose any picture you like, and just copy it.” He soon began copying images from books and found the experience so rewarding he then decided he wanted to become an artist.
He left Vitebsk at 19 and later published an open letter entitled, “To My City Vitebsk”:
Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? . . . You thought, the boy seeks something, seeks such a special subtlety, that color descending like stars from the sky and landing, bright and transparent, like snow on our roofs. Where did he get it? How would it come to a boy like him? I don’t know why he couldn’t find it with us, in the city—in his homeland. Maybe the boy is “crazy”, but “crazy” for the sake of art. . . You thought: “I can see, I am etched in the boy’s heart, but he is still ‘flying,’ he is still striving to take off, he has ‘wind’ in his head.” . . . I did not live with you, but I didn’t have one single painting that didn’t breathe with your spirit and reflection.
His biographer Lewis writes,”As cosmopolitan an artist as he would later become, his storehouse of visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and ubiquitous fiddlers, scenes of childhood so indelibly in his mind and invested with an emotional charge so intense that it could only be discharged obliquely through an obsessive repetition of the same cryptic symbols and ideograms .
Moves to Paris, but continues painting Vitebsk there. “My homeland exists only in my soul!” he wrote.
He marries Bella Rosenfeld, from a richer family. Her parents worry how he would support her. As has happened to artists before him (Scott Fitzgerald, Millais) becoming a successful artist now became a goal and inspiration.
Travel, for a visual artist in particular, provides an invaluable source of growth and inspiration.
Chagall, “I should like to recall how advantageous my travels outside of France have been for me in an artistic sense—in Holland or in Spain, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, or simply in the south of France.
There, in the south, for the first time in my life, I saw that rich greenness — the like of which I had never seen in my own country.
In Holland I thought I discovered that familiar and throbbing light, like the light between the late afternoon and dusk.
In Italy I found that peace of the museums which the sunlight brought to life.
In Spain I was happy to find the inspiration of a mystical, if sometimes cruel, past, to find the song of its sky and of its people.
And in the East [Palestine] I found unexpectedly the Bible and a part of my very being.”
In Palestine, he felt he received an inner authorisation from the land of his ancestors, to plunge into his work on the Bible illustrations.” He explains, “In the East I found the Bible and part of my own being.” as he immersed himself in “the history of the Jews, immersed himself in “the history of the Jews, their trials, prophecies, and disasters.”
Chagall told Franz Meyer: “I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”
A dry period after the death of his beloved wife, was followed by a period of extraordinary productivity. Chagall produced “paintings, graphic art, sculptures, ceramics, wall tiles, painted vases, plates, jugs large murals, stained glass windows, mosaics and tapestries.”
“The fading of traditional Jewish society left artists like Chagall with powerful memories that could no longer be fed by a tangible reality. Instead, that culture became an emotional and intellectual source that existed solely in memory and the imagination…. So rich had the experience been, it sustained him for the rest of his life.” Goodman notes,
Chagall designed his first stained glass windows when he was nearly 70. Isn’t that encouraging–to be able to take up a new art form when one is three score and ten?
“Chagall reads the Bible and suddenly the passages become light.” Gaston Bachelard.
Chagall on the windows he created for the Hebrew University, “For me a stained glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light. To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace…. The thoughts have nested in me for many years, since the time when my feet walked on the Holy Land, when I prepared myself to create engravings of the Bible. They strengthened me and encouraged me to bring my modest gift to the Jewish people—that people that lived here thousands of years ago, among the other Semitic peoples.”