(Return to part 2)
The second world war causes a pause, a break, in Chagall’s life as an artist. After numerous wanderings and haunted by the Holocaust, he subsequently has to stay in New York.
There, Chagall meets artists and fellow fugitives like Mondriaan, Ernst and Zadkine. His style of painting is now characterized by the war. In a series of representations of the crucifixion of Jesus, he symbolizes the suffering of the Jewish people. Just before the liberation of Paris, his wife Bella dies of an infection.
Inconsolable in his grief, Chagall locks himself in his home for nine months. The effect of her love,
as he writes later on,
has become tangible in my work in the course of years. [i]
In 1948 Chagall returns permanently to France and begins a new phase in his career. He starts to use different new techniques, among which are ceramics, sculpture in stone, lithography and stained-glass. Meanwhile he is strongly connected to the Côte d’Azur and buys a villa in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the residence of Picasso and Matisse.
Picasso reacts with surprise to Chagall’s art:
I do not know where he finds those images; he must have an angel in his head.
His work stays diverse: circus figures, love in joy and grief, flowers, Vitebsk, Paris and increasingly colorful Bible illustrations.
He looks with fresh eyes at the New Testament and gets involved in the restoration of large cathedrals that were damaged during the war. He is then seventy years old! However, with an enormous energy he throws himself into the work with stained-glass windows. They can still be seen in, amongst others, the cathedral of St. Etienne in Metz. Chagall did not draw borders between the different religions and at a certain time declared that he worked with great passion for cathedrals as well as for synagogues. He was also very ready to work for a mosque. He knows how to conquer the hearts of Jews and Christians. In 1985 Chagall passes away in St. Paul-de-Vence in Southern France.
Chagall wrote the following poem in Russian and in Yiddish:
Only in this country of mine that lays in my soul,
as an original inhabitant, without documents,
I enter that land. It sees my sorrow and loneliness.
Wherever he lives, wherever he travels, he feels displaced in the outside world, but known in his inner world, the land of his soul.
He revives that inner world of his most profound remembrance, where the light-heartedness and richness of the mystical Hasidic environment are located. Bella Chagall left a Yiddish work behind: Burning Lights, in which she describes her memories of the Hasidic-Yiddish environment and of Chagall.
She recognized that other world within him.
His eyes are grayish green, like the water. I do not know whether I swim in the river or in his eyes. (…).
Funny, each time when he speaks, I am surprised. If he says something, it is as if his words come from a different world.
Not only his words, but also his paintings provide, as a window, a view on two worlds. One well-known, recognizable world in which we see the wooden farmhouses, the Eiffel tower, pigeons and faces. And another world, his inner being, in which he does not care about natural laws, but in which everything can happen at the same time; where houses, angels and lovers float in the air, where a face colors green and where in a small corner a rabbi is sitting in calm contemplation, where a candelabrum burns and a synagogue rises up.
In his work we see the Hasidic thought return that there are two worlds, that our perceivable reality stems from and is carried by a non-perceivable world, the world of ‘the essence’, that is always silently present. His being was filled with the hundreds of legends and stories of Hasidism. In flowing brush movements, he expresses what lives in his soul. Roses, cocks, cows, candelabras and love couples are born on his paintings.
As by magic, he conjures up facets of reality in an amazing coherence. Everything is joined together in an astonishing way. People walk the streets just as easily as they fly through the air or are standing on roof tops as musicians. His love for Bella is so light and so joyfully present, that more than once he paints her and himself flying, free from the earth. When he leaves for Paris, Bella is floating along. Everywhere he goes, love shares the road with him. Bella and his beloved Russia. In his soul the one light is divided into bright and fresh colors that seem similar to the sparkling colors of a rainbow.
The way he uses colors maybe looks like the way a young child would use them. But it is free, full of love, uninhibited and not given by reason but by the heart. Yet, the scheme of colors, as for instance in the twelve great paintings that later formed the ‘Bible Message’ has a consequent, referring meaning. According to Chagall expert Ruud Bartlema, the red stands for the secret of love in all its facets; the yellow leads us to connect with the world of the essence. Blue refers to earthly spirituality. White stands for the mystery of God’s presence.
It is striking that Marc Chagall works with tiny spots of white in all of his glass windows, which give transparency to the work. His explanation is:
If I create from the heart, almost all my intentions remain; if it is with the head, almost nothing.
Picasso did not miss that Chagall had a very exclusive use of colors:
Chagall is the only artist who still knows what a color is!.
Expressionism, cubism and surrealism did have some influence on him, but he continued to create his own reality. ‘To me, art seems more a condition of the soul than anything else. Theory and technique have not brought me one step further. I owe everything to life.’
In many of his art pieces he has tried to shape his inner experience of the mystery ‘life’ by using canvas, paper, paint and brushes.
For him, life equaled love. All the time it was again a struggle for him to allow the inner principle of the concept of ‘love’ to lighten up with material means. At a later age he experienced a miraculous discovery when he was designing a stained-glass window. He works with the stained-glass but becomes aware of the fact that not until the light itself radiates through it that the work actually becomes alive; when the work enters the interaction with the light. Only by the transparency of the glass and the radiation of the light do the colors blue, red and yellow obtain an unknown depth and meaning. Only through the living light do his colors fall from the sky like ‘gems’.
Of course, Chagall knows how to put his images of creation, rose-shaped embellishments and flowery splendor in accordance with the way the light flows in.
But that light inflow, that interaction between the interior and the outside, give the work a sparkling vitality that the artist himself cannot provide. It is not he who unites the two worlds, the inner- and outside of the building, but it is the light!
He who gives life, could maybe make my painting to be a feast of light!
Being as transparent as glass to the light, meaning without ego, without a biased point of view, without judgment to whoever and whatever, open and free, it donates the wonder of life. For me, a stained-glass window is the transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world.
He captures the viewer’s heart, joining the different elements of culture and religion on one canvas, in a single glass window, in the light. In his soul he experiences the dynamic power of love, in all there is and in all that is manifested in life.
My art is the country of my soul. All our interior world is reality and that perhaps more than our apparent world.
The soul is his bridge to freedom. And the images that spring up in the soul of his heart, to which he gives color and shape, build the bridge in the world between East and West, between Jewishness and Christianity, folk arts and modern art, life below and life above.
I am your son upon the earth, who can barely walk
you have filled my hands with colors, with brushes,
I do not know how to paint you.
Must I paint the earth, heaven, my heart,
burning cities, fleeing people,
with eyes full of tears.
Whereto must I flee,
to whom fly upward
He who gives life
He who sends out death
maybe He can make
that my painting becomes a feast of light.
I am a little Jew of Vitebsk.
All that I paint, all that I do, all that I am
is just the little Jew of Vitebsk.
[i] Marc Chagall in the afterword Burning Lights by Bella Chagall, New York, Schocken Books,1946