Marc Chagall (1887-1985)


Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
signed and dated 'Chagall 1978' (lower right); signed again 'Marc Chagall' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
51¼ x 64 in. (131.4 x 162.5 cm.)
Painted in 1978
Galerie Maeght, Paris (acquired from the artist).
Acquired by the previous owner, circa 1983.
F. Le Targat, Marc Chagall, Paris, 1985, no. 138 (illustrated in color).
J. Baal-Teshuva, Marc Chagall 1887-1985, Cologne, 1998, p. 210 (illustrated in color).
Stockholm, Moderna Museet and Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Chagall, September 1982-March 1983, p. 83, no. 85 (illustrated in color).
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Marc Chagall: Rétrospective de l'oeuvre peint, July-October 1984, p. 145, no. 78 (illustrated in color).
London, Royal Academy and The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Marc Chagall, January-April 1985, p. 242, no. 119 (illustrated in color).


The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
The years after Chagall settled into the halcyon rhythms of life in southern France were, in his words, "a bouquet of roses" (quoted in S. Alexander, Marc Chagall: A Biography, New York, 1978, p. 492). By the later 1970s, the garlands of success made a fitting capstone to a long career scarred by more than his share of suffering, from the sudden death of his first love, Bella, to the long years of privation and exile and the painful awareness of the Holocaust. Reluctantly embracing the mantle of the "Wandering Jew," Chagall had planted roots in Russia, America and finally, and most enduringly, in France; and he returned, in the retrospection of his old age, to the compendium of images compiled over years of cosmopolitan life. In a career marked by often enormous change, the constancy of his source material never wavered, and the story told by L'événement is in many ways the autobiographical summing up of over ninety years of creative life. The syncretic re-imagining of his past, stirred by new visions of love, is writ large across this big canvas that reaches for universals of life and death, love and religion.

In the spirited enthusiasm of his return to Europe after the Second World War, Chagall imbued his imagery with the symbols of Paris, the city he anointed his "second Vitebsk." There had been a been a "loosening of his real filiation and loyalty by the destruction of his home town during the war," Benjamin Harshav has noted, for Chagall "did not feel bound to the rebuilt town by the same positive tie. Now it was only the Vitebsk of his memory that really existed for Chagall" (in B. Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, Stanford, 2004, p. 529). Yet in the passage of time, his thoughts turned increasingly to the more distant past and his origins in Russia, as he cycled back over his personal history, which he kept commemoratively alive in his painting (fig. 1).

Over eleven days in June 1973, the mythic Vitebsk of Chagall's memory was infused with an emotional dose of Soviet reality when he returned to his homeland for the first time since 1922. He traveled through Moscow and Leningrad at the official invitation of the Soviet state, on the rare occasion of the exhibition by the Tretyakov Museum of all his works in their collection. Chagall had left 51 years earlier, unappreciated and at aesthetic odds with the socialist state; at the time he wrote in his autobiography, "Neither Imperial Russia nor Soviet Russia needs me. I am a mystery, a stranger, to them" (in My Life, London, 2003 [1922], p. 170). Feted on his return, however, Chagall celebrated reunions with long-lost paintings, weeping at the sight of The Wedding, of 1918 (fig. 2); when a voice from the crowd asked whether he remembered these paintings well, he answered softly, "More than you can imagine" (quoted in "Chagall, in Soviet, weeps on seeing his early art," The New York Times, 5 June 1973, p. 41). He was reunited with his sisters, whom he had not seen since he left for Paris, but as reported by a journalist, he "did not return to Vitebsk, whose wooden houses, round-steepled churches, Hasidim, soldiers and barnyard animals still fill so important a place in Chagall's paintings, a half century after Chagall last saw it. 'Even the gravestones are no longer standing since the war,' Chagall said. 'If the graves were still there I would have gone. They tell me a corner of our house is still standing, but could I have stepped inside? Could you?'" (in H. Kamm, "Emotional Return to Russia Buoys Chagall," The New York Times, 17 June 1973, p. 1).

"One cannot cut oneself off from one's homeland," the Soviet Minister of Culture reflected at a reception for Chagall, and the returns of his trip showed themselves in the resurgence of Russian motifs in his painting (in "Chagall, in Soviet, weeps on seeing his early art," op. cit., p. 41). "The return to his sources has also heightened the mark that the Russian language has left on his French, and occasionally the mot juste will come only in Yiddish," Kamm reported. "'Maybe the effect on my work will be to make it mehr lebendiger [more alive],' he replied when asked whether his journey would influence his painting" (in ibid., p. 7).

"There will be simmering in us for some time to come," agreed his wife Vava (fig. 3), who entered Chagall's life in 1952, summoned by his daughter in the wake of Virginia's flight (in ibid., p. 1). An elegant Russian lady, reputedly the daughter of the Brodskys of Kiev, "a family fabled in Yiddish folklore for its fortune and high social position but reduced to poverty by the Revolution," Vava was the "dominating influence in Chagall's life" after their marriage (in S. Alexander, op. cit., p. 449). Uncannily like Bella, "dark and with similar glowing eyes," Vava went systematically about "effacing as much of Chagall's personal past as was possible," Alexander remarked. But "Bella was not effaceable. Bella was part of history, forever fixed in thousands of Chagall's canvases. To this day a bride in a Chagall painting always means Bella, the muse, the lover, the wife, the nishoma... No, she could not be effaced" (in ibid., pp. 449-50). It is Bella the bride who stands, still and forever, in the arms of Chagall in L'événement, brightly illuminated against the white cock, symbol of fertility and often paired with young lovers.

Vava may have resented the persistence of Bella in Chagall's memory--a reported convert to Christianity, she hid Yiddish newspapers and letters from him as well--but she couldn't eradicate the mythology of his first love or the Jewish sources of his paintings. Here, Chagall pictures himself, the young artist with a palette to the right of the cock, in the dark twilight of the shtetl, the outlines of the small village lit by a crescent moon and a menorah. Aloft in the evening sky, the figure of the artist appears ready to cross over into the incandescent red light of the left side of the canvas--not into the urbane sophistication of the Paris skyline, as in Hommage à Paris: Notre Dame, but back into the shtetl again. In the middle of the canvas stands the fiddler, floating in the scarlet sky but with head turned toward the misty greyness of an earlier past; a recurrent figure in Chagall's work, the fiddler traditionally played music to commemorate such crossroads of life as birth, marriage and death. Such dualities of life figure prominently in this pictured montage: the sun and the moon preside over the split halves of the painting, the one seemingly a shadow of the Vitebsk Chagall once knew and the other an allegory of all the memories long since associated with his Russian roots. The Madonna and child--Bella, again--and the virile goats are affirmations of life and of love; the fickle fiddler seems here a token of death, his outline combined with that of the falling cock, a symbol of impending death. But as in many of Chagall's paintings, the narrative is discontinuous and infinitely circular: the passages between the moments of life and death are fluid and their symbols interchangeable. "Paintings are like life," Chagall reflected while in Moscow. "For others it is home. It is not only those who are present who are important, but those who have gone" (in "Chagall, in Soviet, weeps on seeing his early art," op. cit., p. 41).

In a letter to his friend and frequent correspondent Abraham Sutkever, a Yiddish poet, Chagall meditated, "Now I imagine that even when I go back I go forward a wind broken into shattered thunder... Only that land is mine which is found in my soul" (quoted in S. Alexander, op. cit., p. 467). That Russia lived on in his soul is not in doubt. But with the circumspection of an octogenarian on the eve of his ninetieth birthday, on July 7, 1977, Chagall declared, "In art there is no nationalism. Russia is still in my heart. But without France I would not be Chagall" (in ibid., p. 489). His love took on a universal vision in his later years, encompassing both the "biblical message" of the Jewish Russia of his youth and the pan-Christian narratives of Europe, in which he chose to live.

The Marchese Bino Sanminiatelli fondly recounted an afternoon he spent with Chagall, "Finally he confesses that despite his proclaimed mysticism, he loves to live and to love. Why not, after all? To be loved by a tree, by a mountain (but he is not thinking about a tree and a mountain) to love the marvelousness and the terror of nature. And also to contemplate, to take joy in, to savor of one's own substance. That's enough to fill a life. It's enough that a thing not remain as it was before having contemplated it" (in ibid., p. 459).

(fig. 1) Photograph of Vitebsk, 1912. BARCODE 25004007

(fig. 2) Marc Chagall, The Wedding, 1918. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. BARCODE 25003987

(fig. 3) Photograph of Chagall and Valentina (Vava) in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, 1962. BARCODE 25003970