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Marc Chagall

Life and Love: Prints, Drawings and Paintings

23 October 2009 - 24 January 2010

The works of outstanding 20th century artist Marc Chagall were exhibited in Turkey for the very first time at the Pera Museum.

The 160 works by Chagall (b. 1887, Vitebsk, Russia, d. 1985, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France) were comprised of prints, drawings and paintings selected from the rich collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The exhibition showcased a unique selection that revealed Chagall's multi-faceted personality and vivid world of imagination. Accompanying the drawings, which reflect Chagall’s life and his love for his first wife Bella, the exhibition also showcased his illustrations for the Holy Book and for literary works such as The Fables of La Fontaine, and Gogol's Dead Souls. Representing his signature style, themes such as Russian folklore, Jewish traditions and lovers stand out in Chagall's works.

A conference was held on 5th December 2009, in conjunction with the exhibition as a joint collaboration between Pera Museum and the French Cultural Center, Vice President of the Marc Chagall Committee and granddaughter of Marc Chagall, Meret Meyer spoke of the art and life of the artist.

Books of Bella Chagall

Bella Rosenfeld Chagall was born in 1895, in Vitebsk, to a well-to-do family of merchants. She was the youngest of the family's seven children. She graduated in 1914 from the Faculty of Letters at the University of Moscow. During and after her studies, she was active in the theater, while also contributing articles to the Moscow newspaper Utro Rossii.

Bella and Marc, who met in 1909 in Vitebsk, were married in 1915. The couple traveled to Paris in 1922, to Palestine in 1931 and to Vilna in 1935. The renewal of Jewish life in Palestine and the anti-Semitism she encountered in Vilna awakened Bella's longing for her hometown, and she began to write her memoirs in her mother tongue, Yiddish.

After they settled to America in 1941, Bella died an untimely death on September 2nd, 1944. During her short life she authored two books: (in which Marc Chagall executed the drawings) Burning Lights and First Encounter.

Burning Lights

In Burning Lights, Bella documented her childhood memories according to the festivals and holidays of the Jewish yearly cycle, and was published in New York, in 1945. The title is an allusion to the festive candles lit during the holidays in her childhood home.

Chagall executed the drawings while Bella was writing Burning Lights. He accompanied the book chapter by chapter with drawings that convey tenderness and love. In his introduction to the 1947 edition of the book, he compared Bella's words and phrases to “a wash of colour over a canvas.”

Illustrations of the Bible

In 1930, Vollard presented Chagall with another commission: illustrations of the Bible. The illustrations were finally completed in 1956, after Vollard's death, in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. That same year, it was published by Tériade, in a two-volume edition comprising of 105 etchings.

Although he was familiar with the works of the old masters, especially Rembrandt's portrayals of Biblical themes, Chagall’s depictions are independent of all previous iconography and traditional conventions. Rather, Chagall based his etchings on his personal memories and his impressions from his 1931 trip to Palestine.

He sums up his love for the Bible as follows: “Since my earliest childhood I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me the greatest source of poetry of all time. Ever since then I have sought its reflection in life and art. The Bible is like an echo of nature, and this is the secret I have tried to convey.”

La Fontaine's Fables:

This collection of timeless tales of simple country folk, heroes from Greek mythology, and, especially, familiar beasts of the field behaving like fallible humans, was the perfect vehicle for Chagall's quirky imagination, with his deep roots in Russian farm life and great affection for its people and animals.

The French art dealer and publisher, Ambroise Vollard, placed before Chagall a daring commission: 100 colour gouaches illustrating the masterwork of the great 17th century French poet Jean de la Fontaine's Fables.

When it soon became apparent that Chagall's colours were too complex for the printing processes available at the time, he decided instead to create black-and-white etchings based on his gouaches, to which he would add watercolours.

The Fables was published in 1930, as an edition of 200 portfolios, out of which, Chagall applied watercolors to 85 exemplars by hand.

Dead Souls

Chagall's collection of 96 etchings illustrating one of the most prominent writers of 19th century Russian literature Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, was the first of three projects the artist executed for Vollard. Chagall received the commission in 1923 and worked on it between 1923 and 1927, but it was not until 1948 that Tériade published it.

In his prints, Chagall did not illustrate particular episodes, but rather created pictorial accompaniments to the story. Thus, the prints in the book are untitled. All the characters in Chagall's series are slightly larger than life, in accordance with their exaggerated descriptions in the novel. Interestingly, Gogol and Chagall shared a common bond: both were Russians nostalgic for their homeland and depicting it in their work, for neither author nor illustrator were in Russia whilst executing their separate work on Dead Souls.

Dead Souls , which is a social critique, conveyed through the medium of absurd satire talks about serfs, in Czarist Russia, who were the landowner's property and could be brought and sold.

Chichikov, the main character of the story, offers to buy the ""dead souls"" from the landowners who were taxed according to the number of living serfs they owned, thereby relieving them of the surplus tax. Chichikov's aim is to present the dead souls as his own ""property,"" in a scheme meant to inflate his social standing through wealth and power. Once he acquires enough dead souls, he will retire to a large farm and take a loan against them, acquiring the great wealth he desires. But things are not as simple as Chichikov had hoped, and he is finally left with no choice but to flee the town in disgrace.


""My intimates have caught me more than once in front of a mirror. To tell the truth, I was looking at myself and thinking of the difficulties I should have if, one day I should want to paint my portrait. However there was also a bit of admiration in all that - why not? I admit it, I didn't hesitate to darken my eyes a little, to redden my lips lightly, though there was no need for it.""

(Kuthy & Meyer, Marc Chagall 1907-1917, Museum of Fine Arts Berne, 1995-96, p. 28.)

Chagall was not a man of disguises, although sometimes he did apply make-up when painting his own likeness. He did not attempt to conceal his weaknesses, concerns or fears. Neither did he try to glorify himself. His self-portraits reflect the way he saw himself throughout his lifetime: as a painter, as an elegant person in his favorite striped jacket; as a self-assured, intelligent young man; his demeanor serious or smiling.

Theme of the Lovers

Chagall's preoccupation with this theme, which he addressed beginning from his early paintings, undoubtedly originates in his great love for his first wife Bella. From the moment they met, Bella instantly became his favorite model and greatest inspiration.

His own intimate experience gave rise to pictures of lovers clasped tight in each other's arms, kissing, enclosed in the enchanted circle of love.

Most of the paintings within this theme are characterized by intense colour, very often the main medium for transmitting the couple's blissful state. The motif of flight emerges in full force in the compositions as an expression of their excitement.

My Life

Chagall's autobiography My Life was written in Moscow, between 1921 and 1922, when Chagall was thirty-five years old. The book is an important milestone in his career. It is an engaging exploration of his Jewish-Russian roots in his beloved native town, Vitebsk, and of his first artistic encounters with the Paris avant-garde of the early 20th century.

Although autobiographical, Chagall's entirely personal and inventive handling of composition endows these illustrations with universal meaning. These lyrical evocations of his childhood lend an idyllic aura to Chagall's early years, glossing over the turmoil that he experienced while growing up.

Paul Cassirer, the Berliner publisher, had planned to publish the autobiography together with a number of the author's etchings and dry points, but the plan was never realized. Chagall's autobiography was not published until 1932, in a French translation prepared by his wife Bella.

Marc Chagall’s Biographical Highlights

July 7, 1887 Born in Vitebsk, Russia, under the name Moische Segal, in the Peskovatik neighborhood. A son of Hasidic Jewish parents, the eldest in a family of nine children.

1906-07 Chagall enrolls first in Yehuda Pen's studio in Vitebsk and then the Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg.

1908-09 He moves to Svanseva School, directed by artist Leon Bakst. Chagall makes the acquaintance of Bella (Berta) Rosenfeld, his future wife during his lengthy visits to Vitebsk.

1910-13 Leaves Saint Petersburg for Paris. Develops close friendships with the poets Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. Through Apollinaire, meets Herwarth Walden, an important dealer and patron of the arts.

1914 First major solo exhibition at the Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin organized by Walden. Visited Vitebsk. The outbreak of World War I makes the return to Paris impossible.

1915 On July 25th Chagall marries Bella Rosenfeld in Vitebsk, and later they move to Saint Petersburg.

1916-19 Birth of his daughter Ida. Following the 1917 revolution, the family returns to Vitebsk, where Chagall is appointed Commissar of the Arts. In 1919, the Vitebsk Art Academy and a museum was established. After a quarrel with Lissitzky and Malevich, he resigns from the academy.

1920-21 He is invited to work at Moscow's State Jewish Chamber Theater to create three large-scale paintings for the walls of the auditorium. Towards the end of 1921, begins writing his autobiography, My Life.

1922 He takes up etching, under the guidance of Hermann Struck. Commissioned by Paul Cassirer to illustrate My Life in print technique.

1923-25 Moves with his family to Paris. Art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard, commissions the illustrations of Gogol's Dead Souls. Chagall is invited to join the Surrealists, but refuses.

1926-30 Family live partly in the French countryside. Vollard commissions another two series; illustrations for the Fables of La Fontaine and the Bible. The latter results in Chagall's first of eight visits to the Holy Land.

1932-37 Chagall's work at this time is highly diverse in terms of subject matter, partly as a result of his various travels and partly due to the political developments in Europe. In 1937, he's granted French citizenship. The Nazi regime orders German museums to remove all of Chagall's work from display.

1941 Upon receiving an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Chagall moves to America, bringing all of his works with him. He meets with Léger, Mondrian, Masson, Breton and Matisse.

1944 On September 2nd, 1944 Bella, his wife, dies suddenly of a viral infection. Overcome by grief, Chagall is unable to work for nearly ten months.

1945 He spends his time illustrating and working on the French translation of the first volume of Bella's memoirs, Burning Lights. Ida hires a young French-speaking Briton, Virginia McNeil, to attend to her father. Later, they become a couple and will share their lives for the next 7 years.

1946-47 On June 22nd Virginia gives birth to David. Retrospective exhibitions of his works are held in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Zurich and Bern.

1948 Definitive return to France. Tériade acquires all of Chagall's prints for Dead Souls, the Fables, and the Bible from the Vollard Foundation, and publishes Dead Souls.

1950-51 He enhances the Fables engravings with watercolour. Virginia leaves him.

1952 Chagall meets and marries the Russian-born Valentine (Vava) Brodsky. The publisher Tériade asks Chagall to illustrate Daphnis and Chloe. Tériade publishes the Fables of La Fontaine.

1956 Tériade publishes an edition of the Bible series. On his third trip to Israel, Chagall is commissioned to design twelve stained-glass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center, in Jerusalem.

1958-70 During the 1960s, he receives many commissions for stained-glass windows, murals, and tapestries from various institutions worldwide. Such as, a new ceiling for Opera Garnier in Paris, two immense murals for the Metropolitan Opera in New York and floor and wall mosaics along with three major tapestries for the Knesset, the new parliament building in Jerusalem.

1973 For the first time since his departure in 1922, travels to Moscow and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). During the trip, he refuses to go to Vitebsk.

1984 He attends the opening of the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall in Nice, France.

March 28, 1985 Marc Chagall dies in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.




Exhibition Catalogue

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Life and Love: Prints, Drawings and Paintings
Marc Chagall

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