In Paris, Chagall was overjoyed to be in the heady atmosphere of the cubists and fauve painters. He found a studio in a complex with Modigliani, Soutine and Leger as neighbors. The poet Blaise Cendrars became a close friend. Cendrars felt an immediate affinity for the outlook of the young Russian, who used deliberately startling juxtaposition of objects and dream logic, as Centrars did in The Trans-Sierian Railway and other avant-garde works.
Along with de Chirico, Chagall was a forerunner of the psychic experiments of the Surrealists, though Chagall (like Dali) was unable to accept the doctrinaire line they developed under Breton's influence, and did not align his work with theirs.
Chagall's wildly colorful, representational but increasingly sophisticated and often mystical paintings were championed by several notable writers and critics. Guillaume Apollinaire, leading poet and theorist of cubism, was instrumental in getting Chagall his first one-man shows, in Berlin, in 1914.
Never truly a part of my larger art movement, Chagall was sometimes accepted by his peers, sometimes rejected for his persistent individualism and unique poetic style. In the Rizzoli monograph on Chagall by Francois Le Targat, the following sincere statement by Chagall is quoted:
"The art of today, as also that of tomorrow, refuses any sort of content. True proletarian art will be that which, in a wisdom full of simplicity, will succeed in breaking with everything that may be defined as purely literary . . . Proletarian art is not an art for the proletarians, nor an art of proletarians, but the art of the proletarian painter. In him the creative gifts are combined with the proletarian consciousness and he knows perfectly well that he and his talent belong to the community."
- Marc Chagall, "The Revolution in Art," 1919
"When I paint the wings of an angel, these wings are also flames, just as they are also thoughts or desires . . . We must do away with the idolatry of the image . . . Judge me on my form and color, on my vision of the world, and not on isolated symbols. One should never paint a picture on the basis of symbols. Rather than starting out from a symbol, one should end with one, for symbolism is inevitable. Any absolutely authentic work of art automatically possesses its symbolism."
Chagall's life resembles a roller-coaster ride through the 20th century. Commentators and critics remark that the motif of flying, floating, drifting above the landscape or the event portrayed is a typical motif of Chagall's work.
It may well be that taking this observer's view, "recollecting in tranquility", and filling his canvases with controlled sentiment were all supreme survival strategies - for a man who lived through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the '20s in Paris, the brooding decay of Europe in the '30s, the rise of Nazism, World War II, an escape from occupied France to New York, the death of his wife Bella in 1944 . . .
When Chagall traveled to Berlin in 1914, little did he know that in a short time Europe would be soaked in blood and Apollinaire and many more shining lights would die in the trenches, and he would be unable to return to Paris when the borders closed.
Few 20th century artists lived a life as long and as filled with human experience as Marc Chagall. Born in Vitebsk, Russia, July 7, 1889, he lived and created his art unabated - until his death at the age of 95, in 1985.
Chagall grew up in a Jewish family with 8 sisters and a brother. His father worked in a herring-packing plant, his grandfather was a kosher butcher and all his relatives partook of the Chasidic strain of Judaism: devout in observance, strict in ritual, but also filled with music and dance, folklore and jokes, love of mystery and miracles in everyday life.
Chagall knew he was to be a painter by the time he was 21 - and the rich palette of Vitebsk, its Russian landscape and exuberant, bursting fullness of family and clan life, saturated his work for a lifetime.
Chagall returned to Paris already a celebrity, since the famous art dealer Ambrose Vollard had acquired by roundabout means some of Chagall's paintings abandoned in his studio in 1914, and had asked to meet the painter.
Vollard immediately engaged Chagall to produce illustrations for special art-edition books, which launched Chagall's fruitful career in lithography. He first produced etchings for Gogol's Dead Souls, an obvious choice since the satirical novel is set in rural Russia, and The Fables of La Fontaine, a little less obvious as a French classic, but appropriate with its animal tales and folkloric background.
Finally, the illustrations for The Bible became Chagall's crowning achievement in lithography, a profound and powerful series now highly prized by print collectors. Ironically, none of these graphic suites were published until after Vollard's death.
During the "roaring 20s", Chagall and Bella traveled extensively in France and Europe, moved to the south of France, and eventually fled the Nazis in 1941 by leaving France altogether. During the happy years, Chagall painted more and more French landscapes, Parisian scenes, and flowers, always flowers filling his canvases with a riot of color and kaleidoscopic tonality. Only in painting images of war and for a time after Bella's tragic death did Chagall employ dark and brooding imagery.
"Almost completely unknown to the print world, Chagall nevertheless must be regarded as one of the great etchers of our day. From the beginning he has shown a love and understanding of black and white which is unique among his contemporaries. He has never fallen into the fatal routine performance of the professional print-maker."
- Carl O. Schniewind, in Marc Chagall, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946
In 1924, at a retrospective exhibition of Chagall's work in Paris, Chagall met the writer Andre Malraux. Their close friendship lasted until Malraux's death in 1976, and Malraux, who became the French Minister for Cultural Affairs under de Gaulle, brought great notoriety and large public commissions to the artist.
At 77 years old, Malraux commissioned Chagall for the French government to produce a ceiling mural for the Paris Opera building, a revered monument of French architecture. The work required extraordinarily large studio spaces, which included an empty museum and later a spacious warehouse. Chagall designed the mural as a tribute to the great Russian, German and French composers, with specific reference to Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Bizet's Carmen and others.
This immense work, which absorbed almost two years of Chagall's efforts, from drawing stage to finishing touches, is one of his greatest masterpieces. It represents the apotheosis of an iconoclastic and poetic painter, the greatest possible public celebration any French - or Russian - artist could wish.
Equally remarkable in Chagall's career are the series of stained glass windows he undertook late in his life, including commissions for large-scale churches, cathedrals, synagogues and universities around the world - and a window for the United Nations building in New York.
"Marc Chagall was the last of the renowned 'old' masters of the 20th century. He lived so long that it seemed as if he himself would open the exhibition commemorating his centenary. We can only turn to Picasso for comparison when considering the powerful artistic impulse that for eighty years poured out such a variety of works: paintings, engravings, stage sets and finally, during Chagall's last years, stained glass and mosaics. He established himself as a painter at a time of bold Cubist experiments, at the very birth of the 20th century's new pictorial culture. When he died there was no one like him, a master and a wizard still conjuring with paint in our own days, which are far less conducive to profound meditations before the easel."
- Marina Bessonova, in Chagall Discovered