Chagall, between War and Peace

Chagall, between War and Peace


The Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” would certainly have applied to the life of Marc Chagall (1887-1985). He lived through a revolution, two exiles, two world wars and ethnic persecution. His longevity became as much a part of his art as the work itself. While his imagery can be decoded,  the question remains whether it will ever mean the same to the viewer as it did to the artist, or if it is rather to be taken as a frame of reference from which we have the freedom to depart into our own dream world.

Arriving at the Musée de Luxembourg there is a sense of expectation similar to that of the entrance to a stadium. Visitors funnel through the windowless passage as the light dims. When the light comes back, it is beamed precisely on each piece, instructing the eye to abandon any distractions around them.  The exhibition is organized to illustrate four key periods in his long life (Chagall lived to be almost a hundred).


Russia in times of war


The path starts in his native Vitebsk in present day Belarus during the first world war.  Chagall’s family formed part of a community of Hasidic Jews. This particular movement within Orthodox Judaism places a strong emphasis on music and dance as a way to commune with God through joy, but ironically, frowns upon drawings or pictorial representations of God’s creation.  This fact didn’t prevent him from enrolling in art school and becoming a curator under the Bolshevik regime but his style and attitude eventually fell out of favor with the powers in Moscow.  He made Paris his home, where he imbibed  Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism but the first war trapped him in Russia. This period includes works such as the muted black ink on paper of the Wounded Soldier, and depictions of his native village, his Jewish roots and his moving relationship with his beloved bride Bella.


Between two wars

In the next stage between  the wars partly in Berlin and then in self-imposed exile in Paris, Chagall illustrated books including the Bible about which he said, “I didn’t paint the bible, I dreamt it.” The Judeo-Christian iconography blends with hybrid human-beast creatures and oneiric couples consolidating the imagery that would keep revisiting his paintings later on. His colors become more vivid, stating that “I have always painted pictures where human love floods my colors”.


Exile in the USA


Then comes his exile within an exile during the second world war. His work had already been ridiculed and branded as “degenerate art” in Germany. Even with his acquired French nationality his position as a Jew during the occupation was precarious and in 1941 he is forced to flee. In America the work gets bolder and bigger, as in the monumental triptych “Revolution” that started as one huge canvas and evolved into three cut pieces. Far from escaping the carnage he left behind, his work is drenched with violence and persecution, using the crucifixion as a focal symbol of all human suffering. In 1944 his beloved Bella died and Chagall’s world “plunged into darkness”. Two years later he achieved superstardom with his own major retrospective at the MoMA.


After the war

Finally the return to France and serenity in the post-war years. Chagall never fully integrated into life in America, even refusing to learn the language. He came back firmly enthroned as an internationally renowned artist.  Throughout both good and hard times his paintings had always carried an optimism, an eternal hope. This trait is even more evident now as his colours achieve a heightened incandescence.


This division of the exhibition into the different periods of Chagall’s life helps us both follow the thread of his work and also connect with the fair share of upheaval that he endured.  It makes us cheer even more for his merited success. If you have the opportunity to visit the Opera Garnier you can view his polemic ceiling fresco, which Chagall painted in his late seventies.  Even though he was an established celebrity in the art world, Chagall never rested on his laurels and always kept art critics on their toes.




Many attempts have been made to interpret Chagall’s imagery. It can be taken as a form of diary, a way of recording thoughts and emotions, or as a way to express the artist’s spiritual intelligence,  his inner life. Of this the artist himself said “if a symbol should be discovered in a painting of mine, it was not my intention. It is a result I did not seek. It is something that may be found afterwards, and which can be interpreted according to taste.”

Candle: Either appearing by itself or in the form of a menorah,  the light can be seen as bringing a sense of hope, as when it’s shining on a married couple, and also as knowledge or enlightenment.

Clock: taken literally, the passing of time. More poetically the limits of human life in contrast to the eternal nature of spiritual life, as when the clock has wings.

Rooster: a symbol of atonement in Jewish tradition. Sins are transferred to the bird and the believer thus escapes divine punishment.

Couple: a bride and groom often are depicted floating or flying above the scene, as if they are being carried by the ecstasy of their love, and being elevated a little closer to God.

Crucifixion: violence and suffering in general, and the suffering of the Jewish people in particular, as in the way that Christ is wrapped in the traditional Jewish prayer shawl.

Goat: part of the Jewish folklore, villagers raised goats to have an independent supply of milk. It also stands for the sacrifice of the innocent who symbolically bear the sins of the people (where the word scapegoat comes from).

Musical instrument: Hasidism has a long and rich tradition of music and dance as an integral part of life, an act that permits every part of the body to joyfully serve God.

Palette or easel: The artist as part of the picture, a way to signal the painter’s involvement as being both an observer and a participant.


Chagall Entre Guerre et Paix

Through July 21

Musée du Luxembourg

19 rue de Vaugirard,  Paris 6th

Métro: Saint Sulpice or Mabillon



Tip: This is one of the main exhibitions of the season. You can avoid the (long) lines by making your reservation online with a specific time slot for your visit.



Originally published in the June/July 2013 issue of France Today.

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