Vivid memories

Different Strokes

Writing in The Humanistic Tradition (6th volume /The Global Village of the Twentieth Century), Gloria K Fiero recalls how Russian-born Marc Chagall (1887-1985) arrived in Paris in 1910 and “like his countryman and fellow expatriate Igor Stravinsky, infused his compositions with the folktales and customs of his native land.”

Paris mesmerised Chagall. Even though he lived frugally, the work he did in the city during the four-year stay (1910-13) is considered to be among his best. ‘I and the Village’ (1911) — now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York — was among the many important images he painted in Paris during that period.

‘I and the Village’ is an intriguing image filled with varied symbols and motifs of peasants, animals and plants. A sparkling composition of vibrant colours and multiple viewpoints, it presents a fantastic picture, portraying man and nature in a dramatic sequence.

Apart from the nostalgic and magical feel, the oil on canvas measuring 75×59 inch grabs the viewer’s attention by its daringly whimsical form and brilliantly coloured field where a green-faced man holds a sapling (The Tree of Life?) in his dark hands; a colourful face of a goat (or is it a sheep or a cow?) contains a smaller goat in its cheek being milked by a woman; a series of houses and an orthodox church skirt the horizon; a man walks with a scythe in hand; and a woman violinist floats upside down.

While the enmeshing of geometries in the form of fragmented and randomly assembled broken planes and jumbled up objects is striking, the overlapping soft, dreamlike components add intrigue to the narrative within the little rural fairytale.

“In Chagall’s nostalgic recollection of rural Russia (‘I and the Village’), the disjunctive sizes and positions of the figures and the fantastic colours obey the logic of the subconscious world rather than the laws of physical reality,” observes Fiero.

“Autobiographical motifs such as the fiddle player and the levitating lovers became Chagall’s hallmarks in the richly coloured canvases and murals of his long and productive career.”

A clear hint of Cubist inspiration is seen in the picture in terms of the structuring of the work and superimposing of components. Chagall would, however, later clarify that while for the Cubists a painting was a surface covered with forms in a certain order, “for me, a picture is a surface covered with representations of objects — beasts, birds, or humans — in a certain order in which anecdotal, illustrational logic has no importance.”

Commentators have also pointed out that the scene in ‘I and the Village’ is by no stretch an actual depiction of a Jewish village in Russia. “These villages were of course very, very poor and they had been wrecked by violent pogroms,” writes Leah Dickman, curator of MoMA. “So, it isn’t necessarily a wonderful place to be, as it is depicted in the painting, but it’s very much about (Chagall) being in Paris and thinking about home from a distance.”

Art of the soil

In his lifetime, Chagall created thousands of paintings, lithographs, etchings, book illustrations, stained glass pictures, stage sets, ceramic and tapestries. A common theme in all his work was his native Russian village, its landscapes and people. It is often said that Chagall left Russia but Russia never left him. “I did not live with you,” wrote the artist himself in his later years (an open letter titled ‘To My City Vitebsk’). “But I didn’t have one single painting that didn’t breathe with your spirit and reflection.”

Art historian Lionello Venturi avers that Chagall wanted an art of the soil, and not of the intellect. “That is, he refused to follow the intellectual process he did not understand, and remained faithful to the soil — to his own feelings, his own imagination, his memories of his village, of his beloved people and cows. He wanted to revolutionise not the physical but the psychic form of reality.” For Chagall, the visual effectiveness of the painted composition always came first and every extra-structural consideration was secondary.

“All our interior world is reality — and that perhaps more so than our apparent world. To call everything that appears illogical, fantasy, fairy tale, or chimera would be practically to admit not understanding nature.”

Chagall described himself to be a dreamer who never woke up. “I have chosen to paint: to me it has been as indispensable as food.  Painting appeared to me like a window through which I would fly away to another world.” Art for him was, above all, a state of the soul. “My paintings are arrangements of inner images that possess me.” Art was also an act of faith.

“But sacred is the art created above interests such as glory, fame or any other material consideration. We do not exactly know what kind of men Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Rembrandt were. But very fortunate is the hour of our life when, facing them, we are moved to tears.”

Art historians and critics have marvelled at the way Chagall synthesised the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism, without losing his own originality. His sense of colour won him widespread admiration. Joan Miró saw Chagall to be an authentic colourist, a painter, who sought to express his soul through the polychromy of his palette.

Even Picasso with whom Chagall did not nurture a particularly endearing friendship is said to have exclaimed: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is. I’m not crazy about his roosters and asses and flying violinists, and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together. Some of the last things he’s done in Vence convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir, who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”

On another occasion, Picasso grudgingly acknowledged: “I don’t know where he gets those images...He must have an angel in his head.”

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