Despite the luminous yellows and deep red colours dominant in Chagall’s self-portrait, it’s impossible not to notice that his left hand has seven fingers, which means there’s two fingers too many, unless you’re in a psychedelic state of mind. There are many interpretations that explain why he painted seven fingers, but truth is, only Chagall knew. I believe it is connected to his fondness of number seven, and belief it its mystic qualities. Officially, Marc Chagall was born in Liozna, near Vitebsk, on 7 July 1887.
It’s likely that Chagall’s father modified the year of Chagall’s birth, changing it from 1889 to 1887, because in that case Chagall’s older brother would receive some kind of benefits. Chagall himself wrote that he was seventeen years old when he arrived in St. Petersburg in 1906, which could serve as an argument for this thesis, but he eventually decided to keep the year of his birth which was written in his passport, 1887 that is. And I believe that he modified his date of birth just for the additional number seven. I think he was actually born on 6 July, but wilfully changed it to 7 July. His real name was Moishe Segal, but, upon changing it, he added a second ‘l’ – Chagall, which makes it seven letters long. That mystical seven!!!
Marc Chagall painted this self-portrait during his ‘Paris Years’, in times when he ‘flirted’ with Cubism and tried to incorporate its elements, such as geometrical shapes and multiple points of view, in his work. Still, the mood of the painting isn’t Cubist. Warm, vibrant colours evoke his childhood, and his home town Vitebsk, a ‘picturesque city of churches and synagogues’. We can see Eiffel Tower through the window, while the right side shows a scene from Vitebsk, small wooden houses and a synagogue. Torn between two worlds, he even inscribed ‘Paris’ and ‘Russia’ in Hebrew letters on the top of the canvas, right above his head. Belorussia and his family were in his mind always. Even if we didn’t know that this was Chagall’s ‘official’ self-portrait, we could recognise his slightly feminine features, his curly hair, large eyes and long nose.
In this orgy of colours, yellow stands out. Luminous, radiant, translucent yellow. This potent yellow could only be compared to Vincent van Gogh’s yellow. Whereas his yellow had an undertow of franticness, like an eerie laughter, Chagall’s yellow is energetic and cheerful. And it dominates, almost shining through the artist, peeking from his shirt, appearing on his trousers, invading the palette. An the most beautiful wooden floor; a bit crooked and surreal luminous yellow floor. Cover 0f Syd Barrett’s ‘The Madcap Laughs’ evokes the allure of Chagall’s floor.
And if you’re wondering which painting is Chagall pictured painting, it’s the one called ‘To Russia, Donkeys and Others’, painted in 1911.
Marc Chagall, To Russia, Donkeys and Others, 1911
…more of that luminous, radiant, translucent yellow…