Few periods of history have seen such political upheaval and revolutionary artistic innovation as the first half of the 20th century in Europe. ‘Should I paint the earth, the sky, my heart?’ the Russian-born Jewish painter, Marc Chagall, once wrote. ‘The cities burning, my brothers fleeing? My eyes in tears. Where should I run and fly, to whom?’
An émigré artist whose career was forged in Paris in the early 1910s; a Belarusian who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and worked for the Bolshevik government; a refugee Jew who fled a Europe fallen to the Nazis — from his unique standpoint Chagall fashioned an art of achingly beautiful, dreamlike strangeness that is among the greatest of the 20th century.
Born into a Hasidic family, near Vitebsk in modern-day Belarus, Chagall trained with the celebrated Lithuanian-Jewish artist, Yehuda Pen, before moving to St Petersburg in 1907 to study at the Zvantseva School under Léon Bakst. In 1910, speaking little French, he moved to Paris. By 1914, works such as Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912-13) had begun to earn him an international reputation. Chagall’s work would always remain heavily informed by the myths and stories of his shtetl origins, and, despite the early influence of Cubism and Fauvism, he would develop his own unique poetic and figurative style: a pastoral world filled with near-surrealistic motifs of fiddlers and floating couples which the poet Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed ‘surnaturel’ (supernatural).
Chagall spent the First World War in Russia and, following the Russian Revolution, worked for a time with the Bolshevik regime before returning to Paris in 1923. Over the 1920s and ’30s he continued to explore his unique figurative vision, painting lyrical masterpieces such as Green Violinist (1923-24) and Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1938). Chagall and his family fled France in 1941 for New York and, in 1946, a major retrospective of his work was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1947, still grieving the death of his first wife and the news of his home town’s destruction by the Nazis during the war, he returned to France, where he remained until his death, at the age of 97, in 1985.
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