I still have villages on my mind. Not only am I still thinking about Carsen’s off-hand remark that our neighborhood is “almost like a village“, but I’m also thinking of my little Victorian village nestled away among the Christmas decorations. It will be coming out soon to be set up and displayed as part of our traditional holiday setting.
And then, there’s Marc Chagall and his village.
“I and the Village” is a huge oil painting. It’s over 6′ in height, and is one of Chagall’s earliest works. It was completed in 1911 and now hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The painting intrigues me. It’s been called a “narrative self-portrait” of Chagall’s childhood in Russia. It’s filled with colors, shapes, and forms, some of which defy gravity. What I love is that no matter where I look I see things that make me curious.
According to the official Marc Chagall website, the painting can be broken down into five distinct sections.
“The top right includes a rendering of Chagall’s home town, with a church, a series of houses and two people. The woman and some of the houses in the village are upside down, further emphasizing the dreamlike quality of the work. Below that we see a green-faced man who some say is Chagall himself. At the bottom of the work, we see a hand holding a flowering branch. Next to that, an object which some say is a child’s bouncing ball – perhaps a plaything from Chagall’s earlier days. Finally, we see the image of a milkmaid layered atop the head of a lamb – a motif common to Chagall.”
Later in his life — age 57 — he penned a heartfelt letter to the town of Vitebsk, where he’d been raised.
Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? You thought, the boy seeks something, seeks such a special subtlety, that color descending like stars from the sky and landing, bright and transparent, like snow on our roofs. Where did he get it? How would it come to a boy like him? I don’t know why he couldn’t find it with us, in the city—in his homeland. Maybe the boy is “crazy”, but “crazy” for the sake of art. You thought: “I can see, I am etched in the boy’s heart, but he is still ‘flying,’ he is still striving to take off, he has ‘wind’ in his head.” I did not live with you, but I didn’t have one single painting that didn’t breathe with your spirit and reflection. — Chagall to Vitebsk
Modern art is not at the top of my list, but for some reason I’ve always been drawn to Chagall’s work. It has a simple feeling about it, yet a sense of complexity and wonder.
He is perhaps best known and remembered for his vibrant use of colors. Biographer Raymond Cogniat writes, “The colors are a living, integral part of the picture and are never passively flat, or banal like an afterthought. They sculpt and animate the volume of the shapes… they indulge in flights of fancy and invention which add new perspectives and graduated, blended tones… His colors do not even attempt to imitate nature but rather to suggest movements, planes and rhythms.”
Another reason why I like Chagall, I think, is because of the dream-like quality of his paintings and other works. I don’t simply mean the surreal sense, although that’s part of it. His works have symbolism that held meaning for him. He drew and painted circus performers, musicians, animals in the countryside. Exploring a Chagall painting reminds me of the early waking moments where I rub the sleep from my eyes and ask, “What was I dreaming?”
Last night I was dreaming about flying on a Friday Fright Flight — a special flight offered only on Friday the 13th. It was a beautiful, moonlit flight. Nothing scary about it at all. There were lots of other jumbled-up things going on in my dream, too, although it’s all just a vague memory now. Chagall’s dreams, however, live on, as captivating today as when they were first painted.
I admire Chagall, too, because he wasn’t confined to a single art form. He explored cubism, expressionism, fauvism. He worked in stained glass. He designed theater sets.
And he spoke of love. “Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love.”
While he spoke of love, his personal life was often difficult. He faced heartbreak, lived through dangers, and endured war. His art was persecuted and sometimes misunderstood.
Through it all, I see Chagall as a very real artist — in a way that I can’t fully explain. Maybe it’s because he was a living artist as I was growing up, but I’ve always thought of him as more human that artists whose works I’ve seen hanging in museums and whose lives I’ve only read about in books. Chagall always impressed me as someone I’d like to know, someone it would be fun to sit down beside and talk. I would love to hear his stories. In many ways, he always felt as real to me as my grandfather or one of my great uncles — an old man who’d lived a long life, a friendly fellow as I imagined him, one who would open the door and invite me in, and maybe we’d even share cookies and milk.
Of course, he’s gone now, but thankfully he left us a wealth of stories, like that colorful story of the town of Vitebsk where he was born. I may never hear his voice, but through his art he has many tales to tell.