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Belarus • 1887−1985

Biography and information

Marc Chagall (6 July 1887, Vitebsk, Russian Empire (present-day Belarus) - 28 March 1985, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Provence, France) was a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. He lived in Russia, France, America and still remained a Jewish artist retaining his identity. Chagall created his own unique style in painting. He also made frescoes and stained-glass windows, developed theatrical costumes and scenery, illustrated books and wrote them himself.

Features of the artist Marc Chagall: national self-awareness, endless love for the subjects depicted, the hometown of Vitebsk, peering through landscapes of Paris or any other ones, flying people, who had become one of the main subjects painted by Marc Chagall, and the greatest love of his life portrayed in an infinite number of paintings - his wife Bella. Vivid colors, games with the laws of composition, depiction of animals.

Famous paintings by Marc Chagall: “Over The Town”, “The betrothed and the Eiffel Tower”, “Walk”, “I and the Village”, “Over Vitebsk”.

In our life, as in the artist’s palette, there is only one color that can give meaning to life and art - the color of love,” wrote Marc Chagall in his book “My Life”. All his paintings were filled with that color, since his life was truly the reflection of it. It wouldn’t be a proper conversation about Marc Chagall, if we didn’t mention his love, and people whom he loved and whom he breathed. And if that could be transferred to the canvas, it would certainly be just a dry enumeration of the facts.

Waiting for love

Marc Chagall was born Moishe Segal in Vitebsk on July 6, 1887 in the family of a clerk. The world met the future genius with the fire flames – there was a huge fire burning in the city. Later, he would call red color the color of a nightmare. The sky was blazing red over his newspaper salesman, foreshadowing the war.

His father dreamed that his son would become a good accountant, in the last resort – a clerk. But Chagall still kept painting. One day a friend came to him, looked at the walls of the room, which were densely hung with drawings, and exclaimed: “Yes, you are a real artist!” An artist ... That word was like from another world. It was the world that attracted Marc Chagall more than anything else ever could. Long exhausting conflicts and persuasion led to the fact that he was sent to study at the School of painting under the leadership of the artist Yehuda Pen.

It quickly became obvious that it would not work out to be taught by Pen only - that was not enough. The modesty didn’t constrain the novice artist. At the age of 15, Marc Chagall sincerely considered himself a genius. He believed that only Rembrandt could really teach him something. But where could you find Rembrandt?

The obstinate, definitely not turned out to be an accountant as his parents wanted him to, Chagall begged his father for money and left for Petersburg - there was the Academy of Arts, there was paradise! But reality quite hurt his feelings. He failed the first and last official exam in his life.

In 1909, Chagall returned to Vitebsk. Frustrated, devastated, not finding what he was looking for, and not able to join any school. He wrote about that time: “I wandered the streets, searched for something and prayed: “Lord, you, that hiding in the clouds or behind the shoemaker’s house, make my soul arise, the poor soul of a stuttering boy. Show me my way. I do not want to be like others, I want to see the world in my own way.

At the same time, Berta Rosenfeld, who would go down in the history of art as Bella Chagall, returned to Vitebsk from St. Petersburg. She dreamed of becoming an actress and she was promised success. But a serious injury at the rehearsal put an end to her acting career.

Love for a lifetime

At the time of their meeting in Vitebsk, both Berta and Marc considered themselves losers. According to one version, they accidentally crossed paths and talked on the bridge over Vitba. According to the other one, they met at Thea Brahman’s place, who both of them were friends with.

Thea had a love affair with Chagall and she posed for him nude. She inspired the artist to paint the sensual “Red nude sitting up”.

It didn’t matter where and how they met, what was more important was that they were immediately smitten with each other.

As if we’ve known each other for a long time and she knows everything about me: my childhood, my current life and what will happen to me; as if she was always watching me, was somewhere nearby, although I saw her for the first time. And then I realized: this is my wife,” Chagall recalled.

Later, the artist would write that after meeting Bella, a feeling of confidence settled within him forever. Chagall returned to Petersburg and entered the course under the leadership of Leon Bakst. He was fascinated by Bakst. According to some reports, Bakst not only took Chagall to school, but also paid for his stay at school, appreciating the outstanding talent of the young man. It was Bakst who opened the personal “window to Europe” for Marc Chagall.

In 1910, Bakst went to Paris and Chagall fell into despair. “I would also like to go to Paris,” he dared to say. Bakst supported that idea, believing that there were no prospects for Chagall’s talent in Russia, and helped him with the move.

Paris! The shy Moishe Chagall irretrievably disappeared. His place from then on had been taken by the curly, smart Marc. He would later say that only in Paris could you truly be an artist. He used to spend every free minute in the Louvre: “It was easier for me to breathe in the Louvre. There, long-departed friends surrounded me.” Chagall himself noted that, in addition to Rembrandt, there were some other artists who made an impact on the formation of his brush and impressed him a lot, such as Gauguin, van Gogh, Renoir, and Delacroix.

In France, Chagall gained freedom. He no longer tried to live up to someone or something. The main thing “made an appearance”: a symphony of color, poetry of a brush, violation of all the laws of physics and gravity. Everyone who tried to teach Chagall noted that he was a terrible student. He did not know how to study, he wanted to stay true to himself and paint exclusively what he desired.

Chagall was completely in love with Paris. However, when he wanted to make a point how precious that city was to his heart, he said: “Paris, you are my Vitebsk!” The painting “I and the Village” showed that the profile of Chagall from Paris was turned to Vitebsk.

In 1914, he went to Vitebsk for a wedding of his sister, and soon his own wedding followed - a new meeting with Berta left no doubt: she was his destiny.

Marc Chagall painted several portraits of his wife from life. And about three thousand paintings, drawings, sketches in which her image was somehow reflected in the flying women.

In 1916, the happy spouses welcomed their daughter Ida. Meanwhile, other forces came into play. Cataclysms were shaking Russia. Chagall was among those whom the new government initially inspired. He was no longer obeyed to pompous academics from the Academy of Arts that had rejected him. And the social gulf between the daughter of the jeweler and the son of the clerk collapsed. Captured by the fresh, as it seemed then, changes, Marc Chagall even held the post of Commissioner for Arts in the Vitebsk province for some time.

By the first anniversary of the October Revolution, Chagall was entrusted with decorating the city. Vitebsk was entangled in endless fences. More than a hundred city painters, led by Marc Chagall, painted fences, walls and everything that could be painted on. The world had not seen such graffiti before.

The avant-garde came to the fore. Chagall seemed to have found his place. He organized an art school in Vitebsk and tried to teach in it. The idea crashed. He wanted his students, like him, to reveal their talent. And teaching technical aspects seemed too boring to him. Then a confrontation arose between Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. The founder of Suprematism was going to “sculpt” from his students not geniuses, but professionals. And indeed, a couple of months later, an exhibition of paintings by Malevich’s students took place in the Tretyakov Gallery. Chagall needed more space. Instead of the rejected foundations, a new set of boundaries appeared, beyond which it was not recommended to go. “We will build a new world, our world”, abstractionism and the denial of previous values ruled the show, and Chagall painted some flowers, women, Vitebsk at that time ... He was reproached for his adherence to outdated forms and was called an “old-fashioned”. Bella was increasingly insisting on emigration.

Chagall and his wife first left for Moscow, then for Berlin. And finally, they came to Paris in 1923. There he “crossed” Berta into Bella. There he was happy, successful, in demand, and painted a lot. In his paintings, as always, Bella and his hometown were the main subjects.

The artist was found by the only teacher whom Chagall recognized – Leon Bakst, and he said: “Now your colors are singing.” It was a success.

Meanwhile, Europe was going crazy. Hitler came to power. The Chagalls left Paris at the last moment, when the city was already occupied. On 22nd of June, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. Meantime, Marc Chagall and Bella were near the Statue of Liberty ... In America, he was met with excitement, but his heart wanted to go to Europe.

In 1944, Paris was liberated. Bella hurried him up with the move. A few days before the planned return, she became ill. She was rapidly developing a viral disease, and literally in the arms of Chagall, his Muse died.

Virginia. A failed attempt to distract oneself

It seemed to Marc Chagall that he would never pick up a brush and touch the canvas again. What was the use of it all if the main subject of his paintings and his life left him?

For nine long months, Marc Chagall didn’t paint nor did he sleep. He also didn’t eat and barely could breathe. He was brought to senses by his daughter Ida. First, she fascinated her father with illustrations for the Burning Lights book of memoirs painted by Bella, and then she hired him a caregiver - an amazingly beautiful woman who looked like her mother. Virginia Haggard was more than 20 years younger than Chagall. Soon, she bore him a son, David.

In 1947, Chagall and Virginia returned to Paris. But very soon she, taking her son, ran away with a photographer who came to their house to make material about a brilliant artist...

The last love of Marc Chagall

If all art critics were trembling with excitement considering Bella, then the last companion of Marc Chagall, Valentina Brodskaya, was much less fortunate. Vava, as friends and relatives called her, shone in Parisian society. Ida introduced them again, seeking to inspire her father. In 1952, Vava became the wife of Chagall and, at the same time, the enemy of many art historians.

She was reproached with the fact that she took the artist over. She was also blamed for the artist’s “clipped wings”. Some scholars contrasted Bella and Vava by the following principle: Bella was a muse and inspiration, and Vava was a manager. They said that because of her, Chagall destroyed relationships with almost all people close to him, but he became a very expensive and sought-after artist.

The widow of the poet Andrei Voznesensky, Zoya Boguslavskaya, did not agree with that version. She noted that she regularly visited Marc Chagall and Vava, but did not notice the despotism and importunity in the artist’s wife. But Vava succeeded in encircling the genius with cosiness and protecting from everything that could possibly interrupt his work.

Today there is no single answer to what his last love had become for Marc Chagall. But maybe it’s worth listening to the artist’s words: “Thank God, Vava is near me. She outshines with her beauty all the women of Vitebsk”.

And most importantly - Chagall started painting a lot again, including Vava. If the background for portraying Bella was their native Vitebsk, the artist depicted Vava in Paris. To be sure that there were no doubts, the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera were distinguishable in the portrait of Vava. “Paris, you are my second Vitebsk”, Chagall wrote. Perhaps, Vava became his second Bella? “I only see you, living for my sake,” was said about the second wife.

So easily and forever canceling the laws of gravity in his paintings, Chagall, whose people flied as easily as they breathed, died in the elevator of his house. Having torn off the ground. Only he knew how to do this.

Written by Alena Esaulova