The extensive work of the versatile Jewish, Belarusian artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) never stops intriguing. This was shown clearly by the huge turnout at two expositions recently dedicated to his work in Doesburg and in Uden, both in the Netherlands. This trilogy of articles provides an impression of the interrelationship of his work with his deeply rooted spirituality.
To me art seems more a condition of the soul, than of something else. Theory and technique have not brought me one step further, I owe everything to life.
Mosje Segal, the later Marc Chagall, was born on July 7th, 1887, in the Belarusian village of Vitebsk. The orthodox-Jewish environment in which he grew up intensely colored his early years. Vitebsk was a provincial town of about 64,000 inhabitants, 40,000 of whom, more or less, were Jewish. The city was part of the so-called tsardom ‘ghetto’. This is the area within which the Jewish people were forced to live, stretching out from the East Sea in the north up to the Black Sea in the south. Around 1900 this area was inhabited by some 6 million Jews, with Kiev as the largest city.
The family was very lively and quite numerous; the various uncles and aunts of strong temperament deeply impressed young Marc. The Jewish holidays and the weekly returning Sabbath were always exuberantly celebrated within the strong bond of the family. Besides, the Eastern-European Judaism was in general characterized by a certain joyfulness and a strong musical nature.
All this was related to the influence of Hasidism, widely spread among the Eastern-European Jewish people, a mystical movement of renewal dating from about 1750. The spiritual initiator, Baal Shem Tov (the Master of the Divine name) strongly emphasized the necessity of joy in religious experience. His followers, the Hasidiem (meaning: the devotional ones) mainly expressed their religious experience in songs and dance.
Next to that, there was an extensive tradition of storytelling within Hasidism, which clearly shows that the divine can be found in the common everyday life.
God is a loving dynamic, active in all that is
is one of the core sentences of the ‘devotional ones’.
The conclusion thereof, according to Hasidism, is that there cannot be any absolute evil in this world. However, there are more or less degrees of perfection.
The inner experience of God is the central point. Knowledge of God is the most important task of man, which cannot be carried out without self-knowledge. The latent divine spark, present within every human being, needs to become a guiding influence again. Only then can a human being measure up to his task to cooperate in the divine plan of creation.
Completely in line therewith is the ‘active character’ of this Jewish renewal movement: divine consciousness and perfection of the human being can only become reality through the active deed. Hasidism, therefore, is mainly a practical religion with high ethical norms.
Hasidism and Gnosticism have similar characteristics in this respect. Also for the Gnostics, man is in essence a divine being, captured in earthly matter. Salvation is only possible thanks to true knowledge (Gnosis) of God and of oneself. In the ‘captured’ human being, a tiny particle of God has remained. According to Chagall, it is the artist’s job to trace that divine nucleus and reconnect it with its origin. Therefore, Chagall sees himself as an apostle, as a messenger of heaven.
By the way, Baal Shem Tov was not the only, exclusive ‘source’ of Hasidism. There are indications that there were connecting lines with Hesychasm – the mystic branch of the Bogomils – and with Sufism. Chagall was strongly fed by Jewish mystical thinking.
If I was not a Jew, I would never have become an artist.
Characteristic of this mysticism is the recognition that the concrete, perceivable reality is carried by a non-perceivable reality, the ‘essence’. Through his consciousness, a human being knows about those two worlds and, therefore, also has the opportunity to express that world of the essence in the visible reality.
This happened also in the surroundings where Chagall was raised. The extensive family life, structured by the Jewish life rules, the festivities and the hundreds of legends, stories and anecdotes were etched into his being and surfaced in many of his works.
A random example hereof is the painting ‘The Violinist’ of 1911 (in the possession of the City Museum in Amsterdam) in which Chagall portrayed his violin-playing uncle, the brother of his mother.
Also, the comical atmosphere of his work from 1910 ‘The Jewish Wedding’ testifies of his intense loving experiences from his youth in Vitebsk.
It was Chagall’s most important incentive to bring into the open the
positive power that hides within his art,
as is stated by Ruud Bartlema, Chagall-knower.
For Chagall, love is the only factor that gives meaning to life and art.
As for Chagall, he obtains a scholarship, goes to Paris and joins modern arts. He notices how Cézanne ‘cuts up’ reality in geometric planes and how Henri Matisse presents it in enchanting colors.
He becomes friends with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Already, one year later in 1914, he has his first individual exhibition in Berlin.
From there he returns to Vitebsk to marry his beloved Bella Rosenfeld. Together they want to return to Paris. However, because of the outbreak of the First World War it is not possible. He is forced to stay in Vitebsk and must leave his work behind in Berlin and in Paris. Nine stormy years follow until, in the summer of 1915, he marries Bella. In 1916 their daughter Ida is born. He is appointed director of the Folk Art School and asks for the cooperation of colleague-painters Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky.
In 1920 Chagall leaves the academy because of conflicts with Malevich. Malevich’s abstract art collides with the figurative world of Chagall.
He moves to Moscow, works for the theatre and thereafter accepts a job in Malachkova, an orphanage for Jewish children who lost their parents in the chaos of the Russian Civil War and the continuing pogroms. With great love and dedication, Chagall teaches these children, however, in an artistic aspect, he has the feeling that the ground under his feet in Russia has been swept away.
(To be continued in part 2)