Flying people are what we recognise first in the pictures of Marc
Chagall (1887-1985); they are flying at the beginning of his career
- in the wonderful (in all senses of the word) pictures of couples
and nudes flying over Vitebsk, his hometown - and at the close there
are still couples, animals too, flying over Nice, in the South of
France where he ended his days. Those flying people are what made
Chagall famous, perhaps too famous; they were what collectors wanted
to buy, and that is what he painted, but there is a danger when an
artist repeats himself - the prices go one way, and the reputation
Bonjour, la patrie!
The title of the exhibition 'Bonjour, la patrie!' (Hello, My
Motherland) comes from a painting with that title, completed in
1953. It shows an athletic young man, in an acrobatic movement,
holding, or perhaps reaching for, a bouquet of flowers; he is
clearly flying, and we can see the outline of rude houses below, but
what do we make of it? Is this a symbol of Chagall himself? If so,
has he come back to stay, or is he just passing through, the
boy-made-good, showing the folks at home how well he's done, and
leaving them to carry on with their mundane lives?
If this is a return to Vitebsk, to Russia, then an interesting
paradox is at work here; Vitebsk is not in Russia, it is in Belarus.
Even more curious is the French language of the greeting, it is not
in Chagall's native tongue, he is, as it were, saying hello as a
foreigner. Chagall himself agreed, "Why was I always the fifth wheel
of the cart in Russia? Neither tsarist, nor Soviet Russia needs me :
they find me alien, incomprehensible." His Jewishness in
anti-semitic Russia also affected him: ": you're a Jew and have no
homeland." The exhibition wants to make a case for Chagall as a
Russian artist, to include him in the official pantheon; well, you
cannot deny Chagall his Russianness, but if he loves his country he
loves it from a distance. Perhaps this is why there are so many
windows in his work, windows that offer two different views: a view
into what he wants to escape from - village life, a life of
hardship, the Jewish ghetto, anything that is pedestrian - and a
view out towards a wider world, a world of an imagined unrestricted
His themes change very little through the decades, there is the
appearance of biblical subjects, but what you notice most is the
change in his use of paint; in his early work he lets the white of
the canvas show through, the bright colours don't seem too crowded;
in the later works he builds up colours in a thick impasto, but we
still seem to be in Vitebsk.
His paint thickens, the imagination thins.
Fame can be a dangerous thing; perhaps it would have been better
for Chagall if he had developed a fear of flying.
'Bonjour, la patrie!' An exhibition of
works by Marc Chagall
When: February 26th through to
Where: Tretyakov Gallery, 12
Lavrushinsky Per. Moscow
Tel: (095) 230
Battle of Flowers.