What the critics say
Written by...
Photos by...
Russian Gifts
Russian Art
Russian Photos
Russian Collectibles


Flying People

Flying People
by Exhibitionist

Bonjour, la patrie! 1953

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 goes another.

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 freedom.

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
February 26th through to May 29th
Where: Tretyakov Gallery, 12 Lavrushinsky Per. Moscow
Tel: (095) 230 7788

Promenade. 1917-1918

Battle of Flowers. 1967

© 2005 Jeremy Noble