Marc Chagall: From Folklorist Narrative Artist To Modern Master

Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was a noted Russian-Jewish painter and one of the best known representatives of the Russian Avant-Garde in the West. He painted in a style all his own, combining elements of Expressionism, Symbolism, Cubism and, to a lesser degree, other Modernist art movements. A prolific and multi-faceted artist, Chagall left behind thousands of works using several different mediums and techniques, establishing him as one of the foremost artists of the 20th Century.
Tate Liverpool have brought together a fascinating exhibition of more than sixty paintings and a selection of works on paper from across the world. It is the first major presentation of the Russian painter’s work in the UK for more than fifteen years. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the rare display of his large-scale murals that he designed for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, 1920.
The exhibition explores ”Chagall’s development from the ‘naïve’ folklorist narratives in his early work, towards his unique style combining Fauvism, Cubist, Expressionist and Suprematist influences while reflecting his native Jewish Russian culture.” (Tate) The  paintings and drawings exhibited mostly cover one decade of the artist’s career, from 1910 to 1920. ”During these years Chagall established himself as a pioneer of modern art, creating his own unique visual language that would endure for the remainder of his life. Chagall lived through a revolution, two world wars and a period of exile before dying in France at the age of 97.
As a child, I was brought up with Chagall as an artist to revere. My father once gave me a birthday present, a small book about Chagall (published by Tudor Publishing Company, New York, 1967, Text and Notes by Alfred Werner). I remember looking at the colourful images and a photo of Chagall wearing a red and blue plaid shirt in his studio and wondering about this artist and his free, poetic, personal approach to his art. I was drawn into the paintings of beautiful blues, the reds and the ladies and flowers, the brides and the way people floated and intersected, the goats and cows, the men with their violins, the whole village dreamlike imagery fascinated me and the sense of naivety of style. Inside the front cover of this book, my father had written,
”On your ninth Birthday – Alice With warmth to you – Your Father Robert. Look carefully at the paintings: It’s a secret world like in your head.” This book remains on my bookshelf today!
Chagall is an artist that many artists have gained inspiration from.  As well as my father’s introduction, many years ago, when I travelled through Europe I came across, (on one of my city explorations) an exhibition of Chagall’s work, including some of his beautiful stained-glass windows.  This exhibition had a lasting effect upon me, just the pure intensity and power of his use of colour and light was an unforgettable experience and inspiration. Picasso once said, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is”.
The exhibition at Tate Liverpool ”focuses on the artist’s time in Paris before the First world War, his visit to Berlin and his exhibition there in 1914 and the years he spent in his native Russia around the time of the Revolution in 1917. Chagall’s experiences during this period reinforced his highly personal visual language. The universal, timeless themes of these early works – including love, suffering and death – alongside self -portraits  and depictions of the circus, music and peasants, recurred and formed the core of his art for the remainder of his long career.” (Tate).
Marc Chagall was born on July 7, 1887 in the Jewish quarter of Vitebsk, ”a picturesque city of churches and synagogues, it was called “Russian ”Toledo” after a cosmopolitan city of the former Spanish empire, as the city was built mostly of wood, little of it survived years of occupation and destruction during World War II.” (Wiki).

”From the late 18th century to the First World War, the Russian government confined Jews to living within the ‘Pale of Settlement’, which included modern Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, almost exactly corresponding to the territory of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth recently taken over by Imperial Russia. This caused the creation of Jewish market-villages (shtetls) throughout today’s Eastern Europe, with their own markets, schools, hospitals, and other community institutions. (Wiki)” The Russian Empire had strong discriminatory laws against Jews that prevented them from living in central Russia, confining them to the far Western territories of the Empire. There, they were also forbidden from living in the major cities as well as prevented from owning land and living in small villages. Effectively, this confined them to the mid-sized towns. Vitebsk was a typical example of this. Out of the city’s 50,000 residents, over half were Jewish.

Access to education was very limited. State schools accepted only a small number of Jewish students and to become a doctor or a lawyer, a Jewish person had to gain permission from the government. ”Life in the shtetls was thus characterized by poverty and a poor level of education, most of which was provided by locally organized Jewish schools.”

Vitebsk was situated next to the Divina River which was to emerge in many of Chagall’s works. He was the eldest of nine children from a poor Hasidic family. He studied first in the Cheder. After he completed the Cheder, or Jewish elementary school at the local synagogue, his mother managed to persuade the local Russian authorities to get her son into a state school, despite the restrictions. She also encouraged him to exercise his abilities and he was soon taking lessons in drawing, singing and violin.
It was at this time Chagall began to show his creative talent and to the alarm of his parents he announced that he wanted to be a painter. In 1906, with his mother’s support, Chagall entered Pen’s studio, the first school of painting and sculpture in the whole of Bielorussia, as a pupil. Pen himself had been educated in St. Petersburg and he inspired Chagall to visit the Russian capital. Yehuda Pen’s school of painting in Vitebsk focused more on academic realist painting. Yehuda Pen was ”a teacher and an outstanding figure of the Jewish Renaissance in the Russian and Belarusian art of the beginning of 20th century.” (Wiki) The most known and popular representatives of the Vitebsk School were Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich.
Both Chagall and Malevich were miles apart in their thoughts in terms of how they approached their art and practical work, so much so that they became at odds with each-other and there was an eventual conflict of ideologies.  ”Malevich introduced his non-objective, geometric Suprematist paintings. In 1919, he began to explore the three-dimensional applications of Suprematism in architectural models…” ). Their opposition of views can be understood by Chagall’s more visionary view of creativity, ”If I create from the heart, nearly everything works, if from the head, almost nothing.” (Tate) However, Chagall did take elements from different styles but never completely abandoned his own approach.
”Pen taught Chagall draughtsmanship and inspired him to emphasise the poetic Jewish themes in his work. The exhibition at Tate Liverpool shows works by Chagall that highlight certain elements from different styles of painting such as Cubism, Orphism and Supremitism. In his painting, ‘Half Past Three’ ,1911,  Chagall was inspired by Cubism. However, as much as he reflected on these different styles and approaches he preferred to ”interpret the world through iconography and allegory. He had total faith in the power of the image and from 1911 began to introduce metaphor into his work.” (Tate)
In 1907 Chagall moved to St. Petersburg where he enrolled in the school run by the Society for Promotion of Artists, where he studied under Nikolas Roerich, and his technique improved rapidly. A year later, in 1908, he transferred to the renowned Art School of Ekaterina Zvantseva, where he studied under Leon Bakst. One of his early works is a painting titled ‘Birth’ (1910), inspired by Chagall’s early life in Vitebsk. He would return to this theme often and nostalgically throughout his career. It is quite interesting to see these early paintings by Chagall as they are more expressionist and the colours are darker and closer to the colours used by Rembrandt and the old masters, an artist that Chagall very much admired.
”Equally formative for Chagall in Russia was the time he spent at the Hermitage Museum.” ( . Chagall’s tutor, Bakst was ”a progressive painter who was alert to the new influences that came in from the West.” (Werner, p.8) He was also a Russian painter costume and scene designer. Bakst was a member of the Sergei Diaghilev circle and the Ballet Russes for which he designed richly coloured exotic sets and stage costumes. This would have influenced Chagall whose works exhibited later in the exhibition are recreated by Tate Liverpool to exhibit  the interior of Russia’s State Jewish Chamber Theatre,
Made up of seven, enormous canvases, these murals by Chagall reflect not only a style that fuses Jewish folklore with modernist tendencies, but Chagall’s lifelong love of poetry and performance The State Jewish Chamber Theatre was in fact quite small, contained within a domestic apartment in Moscow, and it is the small size of this theatre that has allowed Tate Liverpool to recreate it once again as it was.
In 1909, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a Jewish jeweller.  The two fell in love and their relationship would last 35 years. Throughout this time,they remained close and loving. For the moment, however, Chagall was very poor and in Spring 1911 they left St Petersburg for Paris.
Paris was what Chagall set his sights on, with the encouragement and advice of his friends and teachers. In 1910, the Russian-Jewish lawyer Maxim Winawer (Vinaver) agreed to sponsor the young painter’s trip to the French capital.
In 1911, Chagall went to Paris to learn his trade from the first generation of European modernists. With the support of his patron, Max Vinaver, Chagall moved to Paris – the hub for artistic advancement as he saw it. In 1910. Chagall became well known in a circle of contemporary poets and painters.  
While living in Paris between 1910 and 1914 Chagall made many works based on nostalgic memories of his Russian homeland. The naïve style and curious subject of this painting reflect the artist’s preoccupation with folk traditions, particularly those of his Jewish heritage. The early influences on Chagall’s work multiplied once he was living in Paris. Paintings such as ‘Nude in the Garden’,1911 demonstrate his awareness of the adventurous use of yellow ochre, pink,grey, whites, vivid colours and pastels that inspired the Fauves and Cubists. One of my favourite paintings in the exhibition was ‘The Poet with the Birds’,1911. As I glanced at it a memory came back to me of when I lived in East Sussex many years ago. A friend of mine, ‘Mark’, who had studied at The Slade had copied this painting and showed it to me. I remembered him showing me this painting and I was quite transfixed by it, not knowing that it was based upon Chagall’s painting.

Marc Chagall: From Folklorist Narrative Artist To Modern Master

During this time, Chagall responded to emerging movements such as Orphism and Cubism. His work emphasised a sudden burst of colour as in, ‘Yellow Room’, 1911, ‘Half Past Three’, and ‘Paris through the Window’. His painting, ‘The Green Donkey’ is also a move towards ambiguous use of space, pure colour and primitive drawing techniques. Chagall’s works during this time emphasise his love of colour, memories of his life in Vitebsk but also his response to the difficulties and ”traumas of war and religious persecution”. Tate.
As I looked around the Tate exhibition I came across Chagall’s painting, ‘I and the Village’ 1911, a beautiful painting in which ”logic and illustration have no importance, he abandons natural colour, scale, laws of perspective,gravity in favour of multifaceted arrangement of dreamlike visions.” (Tate)
Chagall’s style began to change and moved into something that can best be described as a blend of Expressionism and Symbolism. Cubism and Impressionism, with their analytical and almost scientific approach were not enough for Chagall.  Guillaume Apollinaire, who became Chagall’s close friend, described Chagall’s paintings as “supernatural” and, later, as “surreal”. The later Surrealism Movement would name itself after these words of Apollinaire. Chagall was a major influence on the Surrealists, though never a surrealist himself.
During his three years in Paris, Chagall developed a long term friendship with the Frenchman, Robert Delaunay, who had exhibited as part of the Cubist Room 41 in the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, and his wife Sonia Delaunay, a painter of Russian-Jewish origin. During 1912 and 1913 Chagall executed a number of paintings using vividly opposing colours that are visually similar to Delaunay’s theory of ‘pure painting’ – a development towards abstraction based on colour investigations, christened ‘orphism’ by Apollinaire in 1912. Chagall’s interest in Delaunay stemmed from his acceptance of certain cubist principles; the French artist’s use of transparent, bright, complementary colours presented an intriguing shift away from the dark earth tones of many cubist palettes. There was also a similar use of imagery between the two painters – Parisian icons that were prevalent in Delaunay’s work, including the Eiffel Tower, began to appear in paintings by Chagall.  ”Delaunay used the term ‘simultanism’ to describe Chagall’s exaggerated use of colour to create virtual painterly space. Simultanism was an effort to respond to the complexity of modern life, arguing for the ability to perceive multiple states of being simultaneously and attempting to transfer this sensation to the canvas. As with cubism, Chagall did not attempt to absorb the theoretical basis of orphism; rather, the lively use of colour in his hands was meant to highlight the emotional resonances and symbolism of the depicted scenes.”(

Chagall’s paintings of this period frequently feature scenes from the daily life of the shtetl, which the artist often used to convey a moral and philosophical message. To the French public, these works were a shock, and Chagall was often criticized for the vulgarity of his paintings. Works of this vein include ‘The Soldier drinks’, 1911-12 and ‘Red Nude’,1911.
The studio Chagall initially rented in Montmartre was crowded and furthermore the painter had to share it with another artist. In the beginning of 1912, he moved into the famous, La Ruche,(“The Beehive”), an artists’ colony on the outskirts of Paris and home to painters who would one day be considered some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. Though dirty and run-down, the studios of La Ruche were cheap and roomier than Chagall’s previous residence.

Between the years 1910 and 1914, Chagall’s works were exhibited several times in the Spring and Autumn Salon and in the Salon des Independents, but the painter had no solo exhibitions and only few of his works were sold. In 1914, Apollinaire recommended Chagall to Herwarth Walden, a German Expressionist painter, and founder and editor of the magazine Der Sturm (The Storm), the famous Expressionist periodical.

Walden became greatly interested in Chagall’s unique artistic vision and offered to organize a grand solo exhibition for the painter in his art gallery. Chagall gladly accepted, hoping that this breakthrough would finally enable him to make his name and to, importantly, ease his monetary difficulties. The painter’s work was well-received by the German public and the exhibition was, indeed, a financial success. Chagall, however, would never reap the gains of this because, on June 13, 1914, he had crossed the border back into Russia to visit his family and his sweetheart Bella in Vitebsk. On August 1, Germany declared war against France and Russia, and Chagall, who had intended to stay in his homeland for only a few weeks, was forced to remain there.



Chagall would always speak of the compulsory 8-year stay in Russia as setting him back in terms of his artistic career. However, one thing that I admire about Chagall was the way he ignored many of these political developments and just continued with painting and developing his beautiful images. On the outbreak of war on 3rd August 1914, Tsar Nicholas II declared war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which forced him to stay in Russia eight long years. In 1914, few people supposed that the First World War would last very long. Chagall’s main concern was to avoid service in the Russian army at any cost. Unlike his close friend Apollinaire, who signed up voluntarily for front-line service in the first days of the conflict, Chagall was not overcome with patriotism for his country. He had always been excluded for his Jewish faith. This had only become worse in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. For Chagall to take up arms in support this regime would have not made sense. During this time, Chagall created drawings such as  ‘Departure for War’ 1914, ‘Peasant Eating’ 1913 and ‘Soldiers’, 1914.


It as this point that Chagall starts his Vitbsk series of Jewish themes. In 1915, he finally married Bella  despite the opposition of her parents, who wanted a better match for their daughter. The painter would be reconciled with his in-laws after the birth of his and Bella’s child, Ida Chagall, in 1916. This was a time of ferocious artistic production for Chagall. ‘Lovers in Blue’ 1914, ‘The Strawberries’ 1916, The Grey House, 1917. Chagall executed a number of works with a high degree of realism, such as The Praying Jew (Rabbi of Vitebsk) 1914 and his ‘Self -Portrait (1914).

Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that the war would last for much longer than had originally been expected, and have a much higher cost in lives. In 1915, though his brother-in-law Yakov (Jacob) Rosenfeld, Chagall secured a clerical post at the War Ministry in St. Petersburg, which freed him from active service. The Russian capital did not agree with him and, between this lack of inspiration and the tedious but busy job, the artist painted less.

In St. Petersburg, he did finally catch up with the artistic developments that had been going on in Russia while he stayed in Paris. He became familiar with the Primitivism movement of Mikhail (Michael) Larionov and Natalia Goncharova and experimented with this style in such works as ‘The Feast of the Tabernacles’,1916). However, Chagall refused to adopt either of these styles, which conflicted with his aesthetic ideals. Between 1914 -24 Chagall began to write his autobiography, ‘My Life’.


In 1917 came the Bolshevik Revolution. Chagall, like many Russian-Jewish intellectuals was enthused for the changes brought by this new political system. Among other things, Jews were guaranteed equal status under the law, for the first time in the history of Russia. Furthermore, the future that was promised by the Communists was bright, prosperous and carefree.

Under the new government, Anatoliy Lunacharsky, an art critic and journalist with whom Chagall had been acquainted in Paris, was appointed People’s Commissar in charge of Enlightenment, making him responsible for everything that had to do with art, education and culture in the Soviet Union. Lunacharsky offered Chagall the post of Commissar of Art for the Vitebsk region. Chagall accepted.
As Commissar, Chagall founded the Vitebsk People’s Art College where he emphasised the importance of a broad syllabus. He recruited a range of teaching staff from Moscow and Petrograd, including his former teacher Yehuda Pen and El Lissitzky, a proponent of the Soviet-approved constructivism. El Lissitzky, in turn, recruited Kazimir Malevich, the founder, four years earlier, of suprematism, a new concept of art that rejected all reference to the physical world in favour of geometric forms. These new artistic movements ”both relied on a formal vocabulary of geometric shapes.” Chagall’s attachment to the ‘real world’ meant that he did not espouse this degree of abstraction. However, his works of the period do allude – perhaps mockingly – to geometric abstraction…” (Tate)  as in his Constructivist Portrait 1918.
This was a rather odd appointmentfor Chagall who was not known to have strong political beliefs; he was not and never became a member of the Communist party; the themes featured in his paintings are concerned firmly with everyday life, never politics. We can only speculate about what guided the long-time Bolshevik Lunacharsky to select Chagall for the post. Despite his initial activism, Chagall was not really suited to the role of leadership. He was introverted and more interested in pursuing art for its own sake then organizing education and expounding on art theory. The Suprematists, Malevich and Lissitzky, took advantage of this in order to promote their own agenda at the academy, in spite of Chagall.
Chagall’s ideas of a school that would  support a variety of tendencies did not fit in with that of Malevich’s exclusive belief in abstraction. In time Malevich and his student followers took over  the college in the name of suprematism and militant modernism. ”The situation deteriorated so quickly that by June 1920, Chagall had resigned his post and left Vitebsk for Moscow, never to return.” (Tate)

Disillusioned by Soviet rule after moving to Moscow in 1920, Chagall left Russia in 1922. Before he left, he produced one of the high points of his career: the murals for the interior of the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, now exhibited at Tate Liverpool.  In addition to this, Chagall decided to decorate the entire room in which the tiny theatre was located by painting a set of wall and ceiling murals on canvas, as well as a stage curtain. ”The wall panels Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, Music, Dance, Drama, Literature, Love on the Stage andThe Wedding Feast frieze survive, while the curtain and ceiling mural are lost. Chagall’s frenetic month-long endeavour transformed the space into a totally immersive allegorical environment that was quickly nicknamed ‘Chagall’s Box’.” Tate.

”Chagall’s long career can be characterised as a ceaseless exploration of the founding themes of his artistic language.” (Tate) In his later years, the discovery of the light in the south of France which became his home would give new life to his inspirational subjects. His paintings became larger and more lively. He combined vivid  hues with rich blacks that sometimes dominate the canvases, imposing a more sombre overall tone and recalling dramatic events that had left their stamp on his life. ‘Clock with Blue Wing’,1949, reflects the mystery and poetry that were important to Chagall’s personal history and vision, while ‘Red Rooftops’ 1953 sees the artist return to his roots as he watches over the mythical and dream-like village of his childhood.

This is a fascinating exhibition that covers the poignant early years of Chagall’s career. Not to be missed.

Words: Alice Lenkiewicz Photo: Courtesy Tate Liverpool, Top Marc Chagall, Paris Through the Window (1913) Marc Chagall Green Donkey 1911 © ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2013.

Chagall Modern Master: Tate Liverpool: 8 June–6 October 2013