Marc Chagall and Kokoschka: Flying Lovers

23 May
“But I believe in Love
And I know that you do, too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candles burning
Make her journey bright and pure
That she’ll keep returning
Always and evermore”
(Nick Cave, Into My Arms)

Marc Chagall, Over the Town, 1913

These two paintings by Marc Chagall and Oskar Kokoschka, painted in 1913 and 1914, both show the same motif; a couple in love, and yet they are so different. Let us see why is that. Chagall’s painting “Over the Town” shows an embracing couple flying in the air, flying above the little houses of the little town which is too small now to contain the love that they feel. The houses and the landscape under them both seem faded, as if seen in a dream or in a memory, painted in shades of grey. Only that one house is red, like a pulsating red heart ready to burst. “Over the Town” is a painting which thematically and aesthetically goes hand in hand with Chagall’s painting “Birthday” painted in 1915; both paintings show lovers magically lifted from the ground by the power of life, the power against which all the mundane things in life suddently seem gray and irrelevant.

Marc Chagall, Birthday, 1915

Chagall’s beloved Bella Rosenfeld, whom he married in July 1915, wrote about this feeling which Chagall so beautifulyl portrays in his paintings: “I suddenly felt as if we were taking off. You too were poised on one leg, as if the little room could no longer contain you. You soar up to the ceiling. Your head turned down to me, and turned mine up to you… We flew over fields of flowers, shuttered houses, roofs, yards, churches.” Bella is painted in the same clothes she would have been wearing everyday and on the photos which exists of her, and the town we see is their hometown of Vitebsk in Belorus. Both of these elements bring a domestic kind of familiarity which becomes magical and sweet when Chagall portrays it. Lines “but I believe in love and I know darling that you do too” from Nick Cave’s song come to my mind as I gaze at this painting and as I think of Chagall and his beloved.

Kokoschka’s lovers are also seen flying in an undefined space, but they are not flying in the clouds of love, rather they are carried by the wind of frenzy and uncertainly and they cling to each other in despair. They are not drawn together by love like Chagall’s lovers but by fear. Lovers found in the whirlwind of political, social and personal changes, nothing to be hold onto because nothing is certain anymore. The painting allegorically represents the painter and his beloved Alma Mahler who was at the time his lover and the wife of the composer Gustav Mahler. They are carried by strong gusts of wind, but it isn’t the wind of passion that carried Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s hell, but the wind of anxiety, uncertainty and the futility of everything. Oskar Kokoschka was a representative of the Viennese Expressionism and this catastrophic vision of the world and the future is typically Expressionistic. The same dreary mood fills his portraits which all have a psychological aspect to them and look as if they were made out of mud and tears, and is similar to painting of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings with urban mood of alienation and premonitions of catastrophe that the World War One was about to bring. Expressionistic art was a whirlwind of colours and screams created from the nervous energy of the antebellum period, and although many artists shared the sentiment, none experienced it so deeply and profoundly as the artists who were the closest to the fire, that is those who lived in the Austria-Hungarian Empire; Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, poets Georg Trakl and August Stramm, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and many other across the vast decaying empire.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (The Tempest), 1914

Let us take a moment to compare how the composition, brushstrokes and colours contribute to the mood that is conveyed; in Chagall’s painting the composition brings a feeling of stability, a steadiness of love shall I say, while in Kokoschka’s painting the composition is more dynamic thus conveying uncertainty. Chagall’s brushstrokes are soft and gentle, his colour palette filled with soft shades and dreamy gues which makes it seem so peaceful and serene, while in Kokoschka’s painting we see how the wild, rough brushstrokes and stronger colours add to the mood opposite of peacefulness. While the vision of love in Chagall’s paintings is pure, idealistic and romantic, in Kokoschka’s painting it is sour as vinegar and cynical. Still, both paintings were painted around the same time which goes to show that the painter naturally expresses what is inside him; Chagall and Kokoschka’s perspectives on things were very different and it shows in their art. I find both paintings immensely interesting, but Chagall’s view of love and his dreaminess is still dearer to me and closer to my heart.

4 Responses to “Marc Chagall and Kokoschka: Flying Lovers”

  1. haoyando 23rd May 2021 at 6:06 pm #

    Wow, love that birthday picture. It is so … enlightening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Upside-down Land 23rd May 2021 at 7:46 pm #

    Thanks for reminding me of Kokoschka. I hadn’t looked at him in awhile. You can keep Chagall and Cave; no one wants a home filled with Kokoschka’s works, but for lovely love give me Klimt, Matisse or Degas. It is not a matter of sentiment, but aesthetics that separates Chagall from my favorite painters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 23rd May 2021 at 8:15 pm #

      Thank you for letting me keep Chagall and Cave, and I’m happy to give you Kokoschka! hehe

      Like

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