Fiddler on the Roof of the World
Mark Zakharovich Shagal, later celebrated as Marc Chagall, was born in the Belorussian village of Vitebsk on July 7, 1887 - the oldest among nine children in a family of rich Hassidic faith but modest means. His father, who worked at a salt herring factory, was less than thrilled by the lad's artistic ambitions, partly for religious reasons. The 'graving of images isn't popular in Jewish Orthodox circles.
Though you could take the boy out of Vitebsk - and in 1910, he moved to Paris, mecca of the epoch's art scene - you couldn't take Vitebsk out of the boy. Not ever.
By depicting his home village, the devotions of its residents and the gentle creatures in their care, he was to become the twentieth century's foremost chronicler of shtetl life and of Judaic and Biblical subjects in general. Even his secular works are acts of worship: lyrical celebrations of love.
By 1914, when he returned to Vitebsk to marry his sweetheart after a 12-year engagement (almost as long as Jacob waited for Rachel!), he was already a truly cosmopolitan artist. His work had been exhibited in Paris, Moscow and even Berlin, where the gallery of the trail-blazing modernist publication, Der Sturm, gave him a one-man show.
Chagall meant to bring his bride, the former Bella Rosenberg, to France; however, World War I intervened to keep the newlyweds in Russia. They settled first in St. Petersburg and, after the Russian Revolution, made their home in Vitebsk. Here Chagall established an art academy and became its most popular teacher until politics caused him to be ousted from his own institution. The so-called "Malevich faction" of Suprematist artists wanted to limit aesthetic points of view, which didn't suit Chagall's eclectic outlook.
His pictures grew wildly popular, his etchings illustrated Nikolay Gogol's novel, Dead Souls and Jean de la Fontaine's Fables and Chagall's reputation as a modern master was cemented by a major 1933 retrospective at Basel's Kunsthalle.
With the growing threat of Nazism, his vision altered:
His beloved Bella having died in 1944 - not at Nazi hands, but during the family's wartime exile in America - Chagall found solace in producing backdrops and costumes for another postwar Firebird, this in New York rather than Moscow. He then returned to France and, time and again, in memory to Bella.
Chagall's stunning windows appear not only in synagogues but also in cathedrals and churches, as well as in the United Nations building and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The many paintings, lithographs and monotypes of this prolific artist can be seen in public and private collections around the world -even in Vitebsk, where his childhood home became a museum in 1996. Another aspect of his legacy is the National Museum of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message, dedicated at Nice in 1973.
May his memory be for a blessing.
To identify artworks, position mouse over images above.