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26 June, 2013
Chagall Revisited
If you've ever seen the play, Fiddler on the Roof, (or the movie), you know where Marc Chagall is coming from. If the lead character, named Tevya, a somewhat distressed, orthodox Jewish dreamer, had had a son instead of three daughters, that son could easily have been Marc Chagall. Born Moisel Segal in 1887, Marc Chagall (he changed his name when he moved to Paris) lived much of the life and times of Fiddler on the Roof. He even painted a fiddler (floating in the sky - more over the roof than on it). Raised an Orthodox Jew in the small Russian town of Vitebsk with its quaint streets and even "quainter" houses, young Moisel grew up taking violin and singing lessons, though his real first love was art. Even as he matured, moved to Moscow, migrated to St. Petersburg, then to Paris, and finally, near the end of his life, to the United States, Marc Chagall never completely got over Vitebsk. His hometown continued to reappear in his paintings from time to time. It was as much a part of him and his work as his colourful Russian charm.

The Jewish Museum in New York recently mounted a show of their favourite artist, "Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections." It could just as easily have been called "Vitebsk: Revisited." Except for his famous murals (on canvas) from the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow, none of the works displayed have ever been seen in the United States. Completed in just two months (November and December of 1920), the theatre murals were the stars of the show. Consisting of four panels symbolising Literature, Music (with his famous floating fiddler) Dance, and Theatre, plus the centrepiece, Introduction to the Theatre, the atmosphere is one of Jewish Purim or carnival. They include the faces of people (including himself) he knew at the time with several glimpses of Vitebsk where he was Commissar of Fine Arts.

In other works displayed in the show, we saw both Chagall and Vitebsk through the faces of its people, the Butcher painted in 1910; Mariaska, his pregnant sister; The Barbershop is his Uncle Sussy; My Father and his mother, Shop in Vitebsk; his brother, David with a Mandolin; and often in dual portraits, Chagall and his sweetheart and wife, Bella. And though not pictured himself, in all these we also see the dominant, primal influence of Yehuda Pen, his first art instructor. Even though rocked by war and disillusionment with the Russian Revolution and the Communism that came with it, we see in all these works a sunny, optimistic, thoroughly Jewish disposition. It's in his self-portraits where we see this most indelibly - his 1898 Self-Portrait with Pallet, and 31 years later his Self-Portrait, Breakfast. But it's his View from the Window, on the Olcha from 1915 in which Bella's head rests directly over his own that we best see Marc Chagall, the vibrant, colourful, even playful young artist who has become so much beloved both here and in Russia.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 June 2001

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