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The Fantastical Dreamscapes of Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Marc Chagall, Self-portrait with brushes, 1909,
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany
Photo credit: www.MarcChagall.net

Written by Madeline Brace

The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil, he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.‘ Marc Chagall

The phrase quoted above provides just a snapshot of some of the whimsical and at times disturbing, elements that the artist Marc Chagall imbued into his dreamscapes. This article explores some of the most beautiful (and devastating) of his art to introduce you (and in the process of writing, me) to a fascinating 20th-century creative.

Over Vitebsk – c.1914 
Born in 1887 in what is now Belarus, Chagall pursued art as a career from an early age. One of his earliest works, Over Vitebsk (which would come to be repainted after the original was lost), portrays an otherwise ordinary street, but with a disproportionately large figure flying above. The extraordinary within the ordinary is characteristic of Chagall’s work and would evolve through exposure to different 20th-century avant-garde techniques. Here Chagall was playing on the ‘Yiddish expression for a beggar moving from door to door, er geyt iber di hayzer, which translates as ‘he walks over the houses’. Drawn during a trip home to see his family that was indefinitely prolonged by the outbreak of the First World War, Vitebsk would forever shape the artist, and provide a ‘nostalgic retreat’ that fuelled a canon populated with motifs from his heritage and culture.

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, c.1914, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Photo credit: www.MarcChagall.net

Lovers Among Lilacs – 1930

Perhaps one of the most beautiful of Chagall’s works, Lovers Among Lilacs was painted in Paris, to which Chagall emigrated in 1923 to escape the struggles of life in post-revolutionary Russia. He had initially sympathised with the Soviet regime, which granted him full citizenship as a Jew when the Tsarist regime had not, but his hopes for prosperity soon waned. This painting can be seen as reflecting a more positive period in his life: the figures are relaxed, the setting serene and the palette soft. This was also a time when Chagall’s family life improved, after initially struggling with fatherhood. Lovers Among Lilacs has been described as a ‘safe haven from work and worry’, and in many ways is a universal vision others can share.

Marc Chagall, Lovers Among Lilacs, 1930, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Photo credit: www.MarcChagall.net

White Crucifixion – 1938 

During the 1930’s Chagall travelled widely across Europe and to Palestine, and began to grow in international reputation. But at the start of World War Two he was forced to flee for sanctuary to the United States. In the years previous his work became increasingly political in response to Nazi atrocities. Not the only time he adopted similar iconography, in White Crucifixion Chagall used the crucifix as a symbol of Jewish martyrdom, inspired by both the Nazi regime and the pogroms against Jewish communities that occurred in Russia as he was growing up. This is amongst the most disturbing of his paintings, the white of the backdrop harsh and cold, and the full brutality of events made plain to see.

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938, Chicago Institute of Art.
Photo credit: www.MarcChagall.net

The Concert – 1957

After the war, Chagall returned to, and permanently settled in Paris. His fame was such that he produced pieces of art for the Paris Opera, Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and Metz Cathedral, among others. The bright colours evident in The Concert and other works may have been inspired by the Fauves, another of the art movements that he met during his career, who were characterized by their ‘strong colours and fierce brushwork’. In this painting, two lovers are surrounded by musicians and the blue rolling forms of the moon and waters, with a ghostly Eiffel Tower in the background. It is possible that one depicts his wife Bella, who died in 1948 and appeared frequently in his works for years to come.

Marc Chagall, The Concert, 1957, Private Collection.
Photo credit: www.MarcChagall.net

La Baou de Saint-Jeannet – 1969 
By the end of his career, an exhibition of Chagall’s work was held by the Louvre in Paris, and he was highly acclaimed. In 1950 he settled in the rural hillside town of Vence in Provence, which is imagined in this painting. It was a period when the artist was at his most isolated from his wider family but has been described as being a happy one. Two, almost protective, faces form the bulk of the hill, and pockets of his previous works can be seen here, from the blooms that dot the hill to the quietly undulating blue-grey sky. A vibrant shot of light fills the left of the canvas, and thus the darkness never seems oppressive, but peaceful and serene.

Marc Chagall, La Baou de Saint-Jeannet, 1969, Private Collection.
Photo cedit: www.MarcChagall.net

Chagall died in 1985, felt by many to be the ‘last surviving master of European Modernism’. He had an at times fraught personal life, lived through a hugely turbulent period in European history and over the course of an illustrious career established as fantastical a style as the subjects of his work.

Written by Madeline Brace

For anyone interested I would highly recommend doing your own research into a fascinating artist. For more information please see:

Philadelphia Museum. ‘’Over Vitebsk’’. Accessed May 26, 2021.

Christies. ‘’Marc Chagall: Au-dessus de Vitebsk’’. Accessed May 26, 2021.

The Metropolitan Museum. ‘’Lovers among Lilacs’’. Accessed 26 May, 2021.

Chicago Institute of Art. ‘’White Crucifixion’’. Accessed 26 May, 2o21.

MarcChagall.net. ‘’La Baou de Saint-Jeannet’’. Accessed 26 May, 2021.

Christies. ‘’10 things to know about Marc Chagall’’. Accessed 26 May, 2021.

Joseph A. Harris. ‘’The Elusive Marc Chagall’’. Smithsonian Magazine. 2003. Accessed 26 May, 2021.

Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists (London: Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, 1981): pp.109-10.

Tate. ‘’Fauvism’’. Accessed 26 May, 2021.

Galya Diment. ‘’Marc Chagall’s Struggle With Fatherhood’’. 2016. Accessed 27 May, 2021.