‘At that time I had grasped that I had to go to Paris. The soil that had nourished my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needs water. I had no other reason for leaving my homeland, and I believe that in my paintings I have always remained true to it.’ (Marc Chagall, My Life)
It’s 1910 and Marc Chagall has just arrived in Paris. After a four day journey by railway from Saint Petersburg, he settled in the first available atelier. Paris was the Mecca for young artists; dominant art form at the time was Cubism, all sorts of avant-garde movement, both in painting and poetry, were emerging and art circles of Paris had just began migrating from Montmartre to a chic area called Montparnasse which would remain a home to many artists in the years that followed.
Chagall visited ‘Salon des Indépendants’ (Society of Independent Artists), just a day after he arrived in the ‘capital of arts’. He visited Louvre as well. He realised there, in front of the canvases by Manet, Monet, Pissaro and Millet, why for all those years Russian art seemed foreign to him, why he couldn’t connect with it. Language of his paintings was foreign and bizarre to Russian artists. Chagall soon enrolled at Academie de La Palette, an avant-garde art school. Other notable pupils of the school were: Sonia Delaunay, Roger de La Fresnaye and Lyubov Popova.
Still, not everything was as rose-tinted as it may seem. In addition to being penniless and not speaking French, Chagall was very lonely and often his thoughts wandered back to his home in Vitebsk, his Hasidic experiences, Russian folklore, and his beloved Bella. ‘All that prevented me from returning immediately was the distance between Paris and my home town’, he wrote in his autobiography My Life.
After living in a small atelier in Montmarte, Chagall moved into one of the studios in artist’s residence called ‘La Ruche’ (literary Bee Hive, named after the shape of the building), in Montparnasse. This atelier was more spacious than the previous one, which meant he was able to use larger canvases. Night after night he painted until dawn. Sometimes he used cut-out sheets and his nightshirts instead of proper canvases. His atelier was often disorderly; eggshells and tins of cheap soup could be found lying around. On the wooden table reproductions of El Greco and Cezanne’s painting laid scattered around. Sometimes, after a night spent painting furiously, he thought of buying warm croissants on the loan, but went to bed instead. In the market, he could only afford to buy a cucumber, as he once said. Other mornings, he hoped his friend Blaise Cendrars would come around and take him to breakfast. Also, Chagall painted naked because he despised being dressed, and he had poor taste when it came to clothing. One of his neighbours in La Ruche was Chaim Soutine, a ‘wilful and grouchy eccentric’ and a fellow Eastern Jew.
Various sounds could be heard coming from the ateliers: humiliated models wept in Russian studios, Italian ateliers echoed with songs, romance and sounds of guitar, in Jewish – discussions and quarrels, while Chagall painted in solitude and silence.
Chagall couldn’t have chosen a better moment to come to Paris. Russian artists were welcomed with great enthusiasm. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, formed in 1909, sparked a passion for all things Russian and exotic. Diaghilev brought together dancers, choreographers, musicians, writers and painters. Ballets such as Scheherazade, Les Orientales and Stravinsky’s The Firebird caused sensation. Exotic mood, colourful costumes, emphasis on the individual dancer and expressive dance movements changed public’s notion of ballet, and opened doors for many young artists to express themselves. Leon Bakst, Chagall’s former teacher in Saint Petersburg, came to Paris and worked as a scene-painter for Russian Ballet.
Chagall once visited Diaghilev’s ballet, hoping to encounter Bakst and Nijinsky. Behind the scenes he stumbled upon rosy-cheeked and red-haired Bakst who smiled to him. Then Nijinsky came along, but quickly returned to the stage where he performed a dance from the ballet ‘Le spectre de la rose’ with Tamara Karsavina. Italian poet Gabrielle D’Annuzio was flirting with Ida Rubinstein. Bakst considered hiring Chagall as his helper in scene-painting, but he quickly dismissed the idea when he saw how unskilled Chagall was.
Interestingly, Marc Chagall’s circle of friends in Paris was mostly comprised of poets and writers, not merely painters. His closest friends were Guillaume Apollinaire, poet, novelist and art critic whom Chagall called ‘gentle Zeus’, and Swiss-born poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars, whom many considered as Rimbaud’s direct heir in poetry style. Sonia and Robert Delaunay were one of his painter-friends. Chagall was drawn to Sonia for various reasons: they were almost the same age, both grew up in Jewish homes and both had studied art in St. Petersburg.
Unlike Sonia, who fully delved into Orphism along with her husband Robert, Chagall’s paintings from ‘The Paris Years’ burst with motifs reminiscent of his childhood in Vitebsk. Painting ‘I and the Village’, a psychedelic Cubist fairytale, with soft, velvety colour transitions, is a whimsical kaleidoscope of colourful houses painted upside-down, Ortodox church, man’s face with a green mask, upside-down female violin-player, man carrying a scythe, and a Jewish element – The Tree of Life. Chagall’s style is unlike anything else in art history, and just like Modigliani, he is a painter whose art cannot be placed in a specific art movement. Nourishment of his art was childhood memories and imagination. This painting is a visual representation of his thought ‘The soil that had nourished my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needs water.‘
I just finished reading his autobiography ‘My Life’, and I can’t express how much I’m enchanted with his art and him as a person. His humanity is what I admire the most. To me, he is an embodiment of Terence’s quote ‘I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.’ (Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.)
MARC CHAGALL (poem by Blaise Cendrars)
He is asleep
Now he is awake
And suddenly he is painting
He reaches for a church paints with a church
He reaches for a cow and paints with a cow
With a sardine
With skulls hands knives
Paint with a nerve of an ox
All the besmirched sufferings of little
Tormented by burning love from the depth
Death heart and desires
He paints with his thighs
Has his eyes in his behind
There it is your face
It is You dear reader
It is I
It is he
His own betrothed
The grocer on the corner
Newborn babies are being washed in
buckets of blood
Mouths gush forth fashions
The Eiffel Tower is like a corkscrew
Hands heaped on each other
He himself Jesus Christ
He lived a long youth on the cross
Every new day another suicide
And suddenly he is no longer painting
He was awake
Now he is asleep
Strangles himself with a tie
Born on my immortality.’