Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Marc Chagall

Though Marc Chagall was born in 1887 a poor Jewish boy in the Russian Empire, Chagall is not an 19th century artist. On the contrary -- Chagall is one of the preeminent artists of the 20th century, and one of few artists multi-talented enough to leave some sort of impression on almost every major art movement of the century. His paintings draw from many different artistic movements, with his distinctive style drawing both from classical Russian expressionism and French cubism. Atop his talents at painting, Chagall was an accomplished artist of stained glass, tapestry, ceramics, and many other forms of art -- Chagall exemplified the multi-talented artists of the mid 20th century.

Chagall was born on July 7th, 1887, in the city of Vitsyebsk (now in Belarus). Chagall recieved a formal art education in St. Petersburg, and moved to Paris in 1910. On the eve of World War I, Chagall painted and formed the backbone of his distinctive, eventually famous style in a number of important works, including "I and the Village", "The Cattle Dealer", and "The Fiddler." Chagall moved back to Russia during World War I and was originally sympathetic to the revolution, but upon being declared a persona non grata by the post-revolutionary Soviet authorities, moved to Moscow to get away from the centeral Soviet authority. In Moscow, Chagall designed sets for many theater productions and painted several important murals, most of which still stand today.

He returned to Paris in 1923, and would live there for most of the rest of his life -- he fled France during the Nazi occupation in World War II, as he was a Jewish artist and to stay in close proximity to the Vichy government was to risk death in a concentration camp. Thus did he flee to the south of France, where he was once captured but soon released under pressure from the United States. He was sent on a boat with his family to the U.S.A., where he would live for 5 years and produce some of his most important, expressive mid-period work (including "L'Obsession" and "The Wedding"). His later life was marked by art that, in general, included less social commentary with more expression, as evident in pieces such as "The Grand Parade", an almost entirely expressive, colorful piece. He died in 1985 at the age of 97, one of the most accomplished Jewish artists in history.

Though he is, as previously mentioned, an extremely multi-talented artist, this particular post is focused on one particular aspect of Chagall's art. That is, his drawings. Chagall drew constantly, and his style is extremely distinctive. It is not unlike his late-period expressive work; Chagall's sketches utilize an economy of line and speed of stroke that rivals any. There is a clear disconnect between the drawn out, virtuoso sketches of Picasso or Ingres; Chagall's sketches are messy, impulsive, and aren't always entirely scrutable. But the energy of his sketches is wonderful, and his studies are brilliant in their use of sparse line and shading to form interesting, intuitive images. Here are several of my favorite sketches from a wonderful little book I checked out from the library.

In this sketch, Chagall plays a bit of a trick on the viewer. The eyes are drawn to the woman, as we attempt to make sense of the form of the drawing. We naturally observe the object atop her head and imagine it a hat. This is wrong. It is actually a... well, actually, I have no idea what it is. Is it a horse? Is it a dog? Is it a creature he imagined in a state of happiness? It could be any of those things, but whatever it is, the creature's face is expressive enough to make it both surprise and amuse the viewer. In that sense, this scribble is just as meaningful as a large scale classical work. It succeeds in its aim -- expressing emotion -- and succeeds in an amusing, fascinating manner.

This sketch amuses me not in its technical skill, but rather in the lack of it, and in his efforts to test things out instead of creating a perfect drawing. This drawing strikes me as a very humanizing sketch -- while it's expressive, it's clear that Chagall is trying techniques he isn't sure are going to work. It looks as though he is experimenting (and, in fact, this was one of his first drawings with lithograph crayon). There's nothing wrong with experimenting, and there's nothing wrong with occasionally having a sketch that doesn't look like a finished piece, or even a very coherent one. Sometimes, experiments are their own end, and Chagall's sketch here struck me as a great example of this.

This drawing is interesting. It's a great example of a quick but accurate piece -- the sketch feels like a drawing of a woman, despite the fact that many of the proportions are wrong and it's hard to tell where the drawing is being drawn from. There is this spatial emptiness, and this lack of awareness as to where the viewer stands relative to the object of the art, that Chagall's sketches exemplify and which I personally find extremely intriguing.

Anyway, that's my piece. If anybody wants to see some of his sketches, I'll be returning the book to the library soon! It's a great book of art if you can get past the initial feelings of confusion, and I highly recommend it.


Alexander, Sidney, Marc Chagall: A Biography G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.
Lassaigne, Jacques, Chagall Unpublished Drawings Skira, 1964.

Some information & paintings were acquired from this website.

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