Father, mother, the two grandmothers, my handsome grandfather, our family, other families, weddings, funerals, rich and poor, our street, the gardens – all this passes me by like the deep waters of the Düna. My parental home no longer exists. Everything has disappeared or died. […] But I don’t want my memories to go out and die with me. I want to save them. And I remember that you, my faithful friend, often so tenderly asked me to tell you about my life from the time when you didn’t know me. That’s why I write for you’.
Bella Chagall writes these words in the foreword to her childhood memories entitled ‘Burning Lights’ in 1939, entitled ‘The Heritage’. Bella and Marc have known each other for thirty years and have been married for twenty-five years, have a daughter, longing, but above all the external circumstances soon lead them restlessly through Europe, hold them and drive them away. In 1941 the couple emigrated to the USA, where Bella died only three years later.
Marc Chagall illustrated Bella’s miniatures from her childhood with delicate strokes, adding the language of fine and simple drawings to the characters, rituals, Jewish and rural life, festivals and everyday life, thus supplementing and expanding the language of writing with his narrative.
In the exhibition ‘Marc Chagall at the Kunstmuseum Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall’s pictorial world can be experienced that is rooted precisely in this longing and melancholy, between memory and dream, biography and religion.
It shows that motifs and life are inseparable, and that it is worth following in the footsteps of flying violinists and cows, man-cocks, floating couples, sleighs, angels, fish, horses and so on. If I were not a Jew (with all that this word contains for me), I would not be an artist at all or a completely different person,
Chagall writes in 1922 in a biographical essay
The confrontation with the world, in whatever form, is owed to a very decisive degree to the cultural imprint of the individual. Marc Chagall was born in 1887 as Moishe Segal in Witebsk, Russia. In a family and community of Hasidic Jews he grew up with their faith, their rituals, their motifs and pictorial worlds, in the reality of hard work full of privation and the imaginative and mystical narratives of religion.
Chagall will never let go of his biography. And in addition to the many motifs that find their origin in the Yiddish narratives of his religious homeland, it is above all his hometown that never lets him go.
In many of his paintings one encounters this Vitebsk of the 20s to 40s. Sometimes as an inverted world, sometimes schematically in the background, sometimes as a snow-covered idyll or under the magnificent back view of a female nude, similar to a sleeping odalisque that seems to float above the city like a dream and a cloud. The thought of homeland and loss of homeland in biography and image accompanies the painter throughout his life.
In this sense, he will explain his departure for Paris (1910) years later
At that time I had realized that I had to go to Paris. The earth that had nourished the roots of my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needed water. I had no other reason to leave my homeland, and I believe that I have always remained faithful to it in my painting.
In his painting ‘The Cock over Paris’ you can see these dependencies and necessities, as well as all the vivid clarity that resonates in his words. The lust for life and the art of living, lust and art, in a cycle of memory, dream and knowledge. A floating couple of lovers, the artist with palette, with two faces and a cock body, the sun a ring, the portrait of a bride.
Chagall dissolves in the picture the supposed opposites of reality and dream, and perhaps finds himself also in it completely in the tradition of his religious homeland, in which there was no separation between the worldly and the religious, in which mysticism and its elements had a meaning in life, and in which her stories were always also the stories of life.
I am a painter and, so to speak, an unconsciously conscious painter. There are so many things in the realm of art for which keywords are hard to find. But why do you have to try to open these doors? Sometimes it seems that they open by themselves, without effort, without superfluous words. And it is precisely in the confrontation with the intermediate world, in which ‘dream’ does not mean ‘sleep’, but rather ‘possibility’, that the charming focus lies on Chagall’s work.
Chagall apparently sees no contradiction between the pictorial worlds of a divisible reality and those of a deeply individual experience. How he works with recognizable motifs in his paintings and yet gives them the freedom of a new, much deeper history in imaginative and fantastic form and manner dissolves the supposed boundary between alertness and dream.
The painter takes up freedom and possibility as motifs in his narratives, and in them fantasy and reality finally mix to form a new story.
The Bird Cage
In 1925, for example, Chagall painted ‘The Bird Cage’, one of the most touching and profound paintings in my opinion. Two birds are trapped in a cage, which seems to be forced into a bush or tree instead of their nest. They have moved very close to the cage bars, very attentively they seem to observe the environment beyond, as if something was attracting their attention.
And in fact this wondrous figure appears among them, a fantasy creature with a bird’s head and human body, flying and playing the violin. The freedom of dreams and their images, the freedom of sounds, of music and the freedom and beauty of memory and liveliness unite in this small and at first so inconspicuous motif and make it a strong ambassador of hope.
My eyes wander back and forth between the birds and the being, as if I would hope with them and fear that salvation will come here. Perhaps the salvation comes from dreams, perhaps if one trusts their strength and allows them to stay awake. At least that’s a nice idea.
Using selected icons as examples, the exhibition in Münster also shows that Chagall’s fantasy creatures are not only recurring motifs in the freedom of artistic creativity, but that they also express a deep and respectful connection to icon painting and its pictorial language, from which the painter draws and which he uses as a source of inspiration.
In 1930 Chagall was commissioned by the Paris publisher Ambroise Vollard to begin his bible illustration, a project that he would not complete until 1956. Since my youth I have been fascinated by the Bible. It always appeared to me and still appears to me today as the greatest source of poetry of all time. I have always sought her reflection in life and in art. The Bible is the echo of nature, and I have tried to pass this mystery on,
he confesses through his motivation, which also reveals that he reflects in it more than the religious, above all the narrative, literary influence.
In Münster, the process of creating the ‘dreamed Bible’ – as it is called here – can be experienced through numerous etchings and the corresponding preparatory studies. Gottfried Sello writes in DIE ZEIT in 1956 about the motif ‘The Dove of the Ark’, which is also on display.
Illustrating means: illuminating a text, making the meaning pictorial. The bright window in Noah’s dark ark stands for promise. And all the longing expectation of the enclosed speaks from the face not of the people, but of the kid. Only the figure of the mother in the background remains completely untouched by the terrible things that happen outside: no cosmic catastrophe and not even the Flood is as important as the child, whose head she presses against her heart. Dream and reality are not contradictions here either. They are an expression of possibility.