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A Surreal World in Paint
The Broadway play, Fiddler on the Roof, is set in a small, provincial, Jewish, backwater community in Russia. It was just such a setting into which the painter Marc Chagall was born in 1887. He was the son of a grocery clerk and one of nine children. It is little wonder that even as a child he rejected the harsh realities of this life and tried to escape into the inner world of his own imagination. Yet it was from these early memories and imaginings that he was to draw upon for his painted subject matter for the rest of his life. It was a colourful childhood, filled with elaborate ceremonies and festivals set against a backdrop of ancient Russian/Jewish culture. But it was also a world of intense poverty and grinding hard labour. As a young man, Chagall's family strongly discouraged his decision to enter art school in St. Petersburg and later Paris. It was 1910 when Chagall arrived in the City of Light and fell into line with the hot young radicals of the art world, men like Picasso, Matisse, Miro, and others. Following in the artistic path of the previous generation comprising CÚzanne, van Gogh, and Monet, Chagall and his friends were strongly influenced by the contemporary writings of Sigmund Freud, especially his ideas about dreams and the subconscious. And like Miro, he fashioned his own surreal world in paint, drawing from the dreams and fantasies of his childhood. His work if filled with somewhat cubistic symbols of his Russian, Jewish, and agrarian past. But unlike some artists whose work dealt with the subconscious, Chagall's paintings tended toward happy, childlike images.

After the Russian Revolution, Chagall briefly returned to his native land where he found a post as director of culture in his home province, but instead of directing the painting of Communist Party propaganda and revolutionary images of Marx and Lenin, he had the townspeople decorating their drab existence with murals of brightly coloured farm animals and children playing. Having taken his appointment a little less seriously than party officials would have liked, he soon found himself an outcast from Mother Russia and spent the rest of his life living and working in Paris, transporting himself through his paintings back to the life he knew and loved in the sophisticated, yet joyful painted images that elevated him late in life to one of the most beloved artists of the twentieth century.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
22 March 1998

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