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The Elusive Marc Chagall

With his wild and whimsical imagery, the Russian-born artist bucked the trends of 20th-century art

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David McNeil fondly remembers the day in the early 1960s his father took him to a little bistro on Paris’ Île St. Louis, the kind of place where they scrawl the menu in white letters on the mirror behind the bar, and masons, house painters, plumbers and other workingmen down hearty lunches along with vin ordinaire. Wearing a beret, a battered jacket and a coarse, checkered shirt, his father— then in his mid-70s—fit in perfectly. With conversation flowing easily among the close-set tables, one of the patrons looked over at the muscular, paint-splotched hands of the man in the beret. “Working on a place around here?” he asked companionably. “Yeah,” replied McNeil’s father, the artist Marc Chagall, as he tucked into his appetizer of hard-boiled egg and mayonnaise. “I’m redoing a ceiling over at the Opéra.”

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Chagall, the Russian-born painter who went against the current of 20th-century art with his fanciful images of blue cows, flying lovers, biblical prophets and green-faced fiddlers on roofs, had a firm idea of who he was and what he wanted to accomplish. But when it came to guarding his privacy, he was a master of deflection. Sometimes when people approached to ask if he was that famous painter Marc Chagall, he would answer, “No,” or more absurdly, “I don’t think so,” or point to someone else and say slyly, “Maybe that’s him.” With his slanting, pale-blue eyes, his unruly hair and the mobile face of a mischievous faun, Chagall gave one biographer the impression that he was “always slightly hallucinating.” One of those who knew him best, Virginia Haggard McNeil, David’s mother and Chagall’s companion for seven years, characterized him as “full of contradictions—generous and guarded, naïve and shrewd, explosive and secret, humorous and sad, vulnerable and strong.”

Chagall himself said he was a dreamer who never woke up. “Some art historians have sought to decrypt his symbols,” says Jean-Michel Foray, director of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum in Nice, “but there’s no consensus on what they mean. We cannot interpret them because they are simply part of his world, like figures from a dream.” Pablo Picasso, his sometime friend and rival (“What a genius, that Picasso,” Chagall once joked. “It’s a pity he doesn’t paint”), marveled at the Russian’s feeling for light and the originality of his imagery. “I don’t know where he gets those images. . . . ” said Picasso. “He must have an angel in his head.”

Throughout his 75-year career, during which he produced an astounding 10,000 works, Chagall continued to incorporate figurative and narrative elements (however enigmatic) into his paintings. His warm, human pictorial universe, full of personal metaphor, set him apart from much of 20th-century art, with its intellectual deconstruction of objects and arid abstraction. As a result, the public has generally loved his work, while the critics were often dismissive, complaining of sentimentality, repetition and the use of stock figures.

A major retrospective of Chagall’s unique, often puzzling images was recently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, following a highly acclaimed run at the Grand Palais in Paris. The first comprehensive exhibition of Chagall’s paintings since 1985 brought together more than 150 works from all periods of his career, many never before seen in the United States, including cloth-and-paper collages from the private collection of his granddaughter Meret Meyer Graber. The exhibition, says Foray, the chief organizer of the show, “offered a fresh opportunity to appreciate Chagall as the painter who restored to art the elements that modern artists rejected, such as allegory and narrative—art as a comment on life. Today he is coming back strong after a period of neglect, even in his home country.” Retrospectives are planned for 2005 at the Museum of Russian Art in St. Petersburg and at the State Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow.

Movcha (Moses) Chagal was, as he put it, “born dead” on July 7, 1887, in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, near the Polish border. His distraught family pricked the limp body of their firstborn with needles to try to stimulate a response. Desperate, they then took the infant outside and put him in a stone trough of cold water. Suddenly the baby boy began to whimper. With that rude introduction to life, it’s no wonder that Marc Chagall, as he later chose to be known in Paris, stuttered as a boy and was subject to fainting. “I was scared of growing up,” he told Virginia McNeil. “Even in my twenties I preferred dreaming about love and painting it in my pictures.”

Chagall’s talent for drawing hardly cheered his poor and numerous family, which he, as the eldest of nine children, was expected to help support. His father, Khatskel-Mordechai Chagal, worked in a herring warehouse; his mother, Feiga- Ita Chernina, ran a small grocery store. Both nominally adhered to Hasidic Jewish religious beliefs, which forbade graphic representation of anything created by God. Thus Chagall grew up in a home devoid of images. Still, he pestered his mother until she took him to an art school run by a local portraitist. Chagall, in his late teens, was the only student who used the vivid color violet.Apious uncle refused to shake his hand after he began painting figures.

For all his subsequent pictorial reminiscing about Vitebsk, Chagall found it stifling and provincial—“a strange town, an unhappy town, a boring town,” he called it in his memoirs. In 1906, at age 19, he wangled a small sum of money from his father and left for St. Petersburg, where he enrolled in the drawing school of the Imperial Society for the Protection of Fine Arts. But he hated classical art training. “I, poor country lad, was obliged to acquaint myself thoroughly with the wretched nostrils of Alexander of Macedonia or some other plaster imbecile,” he recalled. The meager money soon ran out, and although he made a few kopecks retouching photographs and painting signs, he sometimes collapsed from hunger. His world broadened in 1909 when he signed up for an art class in St. Petersburg taught by Leon Bakst, who, having been to Paris, carried an aura of sophistication. Bakst indulged Chagall’s expressive, unconventional approach to painting and dropped names, exotic to the young man’s ears, such as Manet, Cézanne and Matisse. He spoke of painting cubes and squares, of an artist who cut off his ear.

“Paris!” Chagall wrote in his autobiography. “No word sounded sweeter to me!” By 1911, at age 24, he was there, thanks to a stipend of 40 rubles a month from a supportive member of the Duma, Russia’s elective assembly, who had taken a liking to the young artist. When he arrived, he went directly to the Louvre to look at the famous works of art there. In time he found a room at an artists’ commune in a circular, three-story building near Montparnasse called La Ruche (The Beehive). He lived frugally. Often he’d cut a herring in half, the head for one day, the tail for the next. Friends who came to his door had to wait while he put on his clothes; he painted in the nude to avoid staining his only outfit. At La Ruche, Chagall rubbed shoulders with painters like Fernand Léger, Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani and Robert Delaunay. True to his nature as a storyteller, however, he seemed to have more in common with such writers as French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who described Chagall’s work as “supernatural.” Another friend, Blaise Cendrars, a restless, knockabout writer, penned a short poem about Chagall: “Suddenly he paints / He grabs a church and paints with a church / He grabs a cow and paints with a cow.”

Many consider Chagall’s work during his four-year stay in Paris his most boldly creative. Reconnoitering the then-prevalent trends of Cubism and Fauvism, he absorbed aspects of each into his own work. There was his Cubist-influenced Temptation (Adam and Eve); the disconcerting Introduction, with a seven-fingered man holding his head under his arm; and the parti-colored Acrobat, showing Chagall’s fondness for circus scenes. At La Ruche he also painted his explosive Dedicated to My Fiancée, which he tossed off in a single night’s feverish work and later submitted to a major Paris exhibition. It took some artful persuasion on his part to convince the show’s organizers that the topsy-turvy mix of hands, legs and a leering bull’s head was not, as they contended, pornographic.

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