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Marc Chagall The beginnings in Russia and the revelation of Paris

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk (Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire) on 7 July 1887.

The artist, whose father was a herring merchant, was the eldest son of a modest Jewish family of nine children. Despite the distance between his environment and that of art, he discovered painting after a shortened secondary education, by attending the studio of a local painter, Jehuda Pen. He soon met Bella, the daughter of a modest jeweller, who became his fiancée and his inspiration.

From 1907 to 1909, he lived in Saint Petersburg. He enrolled in several academies and then worked in the studio of Léon Bakst, decorator of the Ballets Russes. He then discovered the works of the Parisian avant-garde and dreamed of going to Paris.

In 1911, he was finally able to leave thanks to a grant offered by the lawyer Vinaver. This was the beginning of his first stay in Paris: his art was radically transformed: the colour became lighter, and he took on the discoveries of the avant-garde, from Fauvism to Cubism. In Paris, Chagall moved to La Ruche where he met the Montparnos of the Ecole de Paris, artists such as Delaunay, Léger, Soutine, Lipchitz, Kissling, Archipenko and Modigliani, and writers such as Max Jacob, André Salmon, Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire.

In 1912 and 1913, he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and produced his first masterpieces (Golgotha, 1912, MoMA, New York, Hommage à Apollinaire, 1912-1913, Eindhoven...). In 1914 his first private exhibition took place in Berlin, organised by Herwarth Walden at the Galerie Der Sturm. From Berlin, he returned to Vitebsk where the war forced him to stay.

In 1915, in Vitebsk, Chagall married Bella, who gave birth to their daughter Ida in 1916. The painter exhibited in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and frequented the intellectuals and artists of the avant-garde.

In 1917, he adhered to the ideals of the Revolution: the Jews of the Russian Empire finally gained citizenship and, when he was appointed director of a popular school of Fine Arts and commissioner of the Vitebsk Fine Arts, he believed he could change mentalities through artistic practices. But his contribution to the first anniversary of the revolution was misunderstood by the new authorities and the teachers he had brought from St Petersburg and Moscow to his school, Malevitch, Lissitzky, Pougny and others, all supremacists, opposed him and obtained his departure.

In 1920, he moved to Moscow where he worked on the set of the Jewish Theatre, now recognised as his early masterpiece. Despite the material difficulties, this was an intensely productive period for the artist: in his paintings (The Promenade, 1917-18, Russian State Museum, St Petersburg - Above the City, 1914-18, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow - The Apparition, private collection, St Petersburg) with their firm drawing and clear, strong colours, he developed a personal vision in which fantasy and the fantastic were mixed with the influences of futurism, cubism and suprematism.

In 1922, he left Russia for Berlin, where he gained recognition for his work in Walden. There he produced his first engravings for Ma vie, his poetic autobiography.

In 1923, Chagall moved to Paris with his family and began to work for the great art dealer, Vollard, who commissioned him to do engraving illustrations for Gogol's Dead Souls and then La Fontaine's Fables. Still with his family, he travelled in France, appropriating its landscapes in drawings and numerous seductive gouaches. From the 1930s onwards, his artistic development was influenced by Impressionism and the prevailing return to classicism.

In 1931, he was invited to Palestine by the mayor of Tel Aviv with a view to creating a museum of Jewish art. On his return, he created 40 gouaches to illustrate the Bible in engravings, again for Vollard. They are now kept in the Marc Chagall National Museum. He also travelled in Europe.

In 1935, after a trip to Poland where he gauged the extent of anti-Semitic sentiment, he was classified as a "degenerate artist" by the Nazis. In 1937, he finally obtained French nationality thanks to the support of Jean Paulhan. He then frequented the Maritain salon and made friends with writers: Breton, Delteil, Soupault, Cocteau, Reverdy, Arland, whose writings he illustrated. When war was declared, he took refuge in Gordes, in the free zone, but was finally forced to leave occupied France in 1941. His daughter Ida succeeded, despite the difficulties, in sending all the works from his studio to New York, where he settled.

In New York, Chagall met up with many friends, writers and artists who were also refugees: Léger, Masson, Mondrian, Bernanos, Maritain, Breton. He exhibits at the Pierre Matisse Gallery.

He renewed old ties with Russian writers sent to New York by the Soviet ally. Speaking Yiddish with them again, then discovering the vast snowy American spaces that remind him of the landscapes of his youth, revives the artist's Russian inspiration, although his painting is marked by the War and anguish for the fate of the Jews. Christ, the symbol of the martyrdom of the Jewish populations of Europe, became for a time the main character of his paintings (The White Crucifixion, 1939, Art Institute of Chicago - Obsession, 1943, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou).

In 1942, he took part in the creation of the ballet Aleko (music by Tchaikovsky) in Mexico, for which he produced the sets and costumes. In 1944, as peace was approaching, Bella died suddenly. The following year, however, he created the sets and costumes for The Firebird (music by Stravinsky) and soon met his new partner, Virginia Haggard. At the end of the war, Chagall received international recognition: he attended retrospectives of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, then in Paris and elsewhere in Europe.

In 1948, Chagall returned to Paris, then bought a house in Vence in 1950. Left by his partner, Virginia Haggard, he married Valentina Brodsky in 1952, also of Russian and Jewish origin. In the South of France, he began to diversify his techniques and worked on ceramics, which he practised with the Ramié family at the Madoura Gallery in Vallauris, in the same workshop as Picasso.

His relationship with Father Couturier led him to participate in the programme of the church Notre-Dame de toute Grâce in Assy. He created a large ceramic mural and his first stained glass windows for the baptistery. In 1955, he began the project to decorate the chapels of Calvaire, in Vence, which later became the cycle of the Biblical Message.

For 20 years, the artist responded to numerous large public and private commissions: stained glass windows (Metz, Reims, Jerusalem, UNO in New York, Zurich, Mainz...), paintings (ceiling of the Paris Opera, murals of the Metropolitan Opera in New York), mosaics (e.g. The Four Seasons, 1974, Chicago) tapestries (e.g. those woven for the Knesset-Israeli Parliament-at the Gobelins), works for the stage (sets and costumes for Daphnis et Chloé at the Paris Opera).

At the same time, he developed an important lithographic and engraved work, for illustrations, in particular for Tériade or his Parisian dealer, Aimé Maeght. In 1966, he donated the Biblical Message to the French State, first exhibited in the Louvre, which led to the creation of the museum in Nice, inaugurated in 1973, in the presence of the artist.

He continued to work until his death on 28 March 1985 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence where he is buried.

Source : musées nationaux alpesmaritimes

Photo : CBSnews

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