What makes Chagall’s art so special?
Ask me, and I would say it is the richness of the imaginary world he built with his art. Of course, he was an outstanding colorist, but I don’t believe his works would have been as powerful without the incredible set of characters that he created.
His paintings are filled with recurring imagery and landscapes, almost like the characters of a book.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to appreciate Chagall’s art without being familiar with those characters, which at the same time are very personal to the artist himself: I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there is no understanding Chagall’s art without understanding Chagall.
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Want to know how to animate those characters into a puppet show? Scroll to the end of this page or click here to see how we did it!
I often see, especially online, Chagall’s art being “interpreted” through the analysis of so-called “symbols,” referring to the recurring set of characters that appears in his paintings: the rooster, the cow, the bride, the fiddler… After all, most of his art looks straight out of a dream, and it’s very tempting to consider it as a representation of the subconscious mind.
After all, a simple google search for “Chagall’s symbols explained” will give hundreds of thousands of results. Unfortunately, we know by now that “popularly believed” doesn’t necessarily mean “factually correct.” To the disappointment of thousands of art lovers, art historians have pretty much agreed that to interpret Chagall’s imagery as symbols is, at the very least, misleading.
I feel it’s time to add a little disclaimer: it may seem like I enjoy complicating things just for the sake of it. I swear I do not. In my humble experience, it’s not the complexity that scares people off art, but rather the jargon, the abstract rhetoric, the hyperbole that often accompanies it.
My mission, as an art writer and as an art teacher, is to dive into this complexity, unravel it, and make it accessible to students and to laypeople. For instance, to say that Chagall’s rooster is a symbol is not just an oversimplification, it’s factually incorrect, and I would be doing a great disservice. Art is no fast-food: it’s meant to be consumed slowly, with the senses but also with the mind, like a good meal or a nice glass of wine.
Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure anymore; nowadays we talk about “symbols,” “symbolize,” “represent” a whole lot and with very different meanings.
So, by definition, a symbol is a mark or a character used as a conventional representation of an object, function or process. Simply speaking, a symbol is used as a stand-in for a more broad, general, idea.
The tricky thing with symbols though, it’s that to keep their representative potential, they need to convey the same meaning at least within a given population, epoch, culture or geographic area. In other words, for an image to be a symbol, multiple people have to interpret it the same way even when placed in different contexts.
Additionally, the relationship between symbol and meaning (or signifier and signified for anybody familiar with semiotics) is most times a two ways path: the dove is a symbol of peace and peace can be represented with a dove. To believe that bride=Bella, rooster=Chagall, fiddler=jewish culture, is not just wrong, it’s also incredibly limiting to the depth of Chagall’s universe.
Earlier I mentioned the rooster that appears in almost all of his paintings. It is correctly said to be a representation of the artist himself: not a symbol, but more like an avatar, an expedient for the painter to be part of the scene without it being a self-portrait. Picasso used a very similar trick in his paintings by identifying with the Minotaur’s character.
Chagall’s paintings may look like they came from a dream, but there is nothing oneiric about them. Even if sometimes considered the father of Surrealism, he refused any association with it, as he never shared any interest for subconscious or automatic art. For Chagall, his craft was a very deliberate action, there was nothing “casual” about painting.
“They are only pictorial arraignments, which obsess me. The theories that I could make up to explain myself and those that others elaborate regarding my work are nonsense. My painting are my raison d’être, my life, and that is all there is to say. “
In conclusion, the reasons why I don’t think it’s correct to talk about symbols are:
- The significance of Chagall’s characters develops over time and changes with context.
- Images and meanings do not coincide and cannot be used interchangeably (es. The painter and the rooster).
- The characters’ references come from the personal life of the author, not from common knowledge.
Instead, I came to the conclusion that the most effective way to understand (and to teach) Chagall is to consider his art as a whole, all coexistent within the same fictional world.
What I’d like to do, is to draw an analogy between Chagall’s work and that of a writer that creates characters that live, grow, and interact within the same narrative universe.
A narrative universe, or storyworld, is a group of characters and locations related to each other to create a coherent and functional unit, a recognizable unified structure capable of evolving.
In literary theory, a successful storyworld is defined by seven fundamental parts: location, Epos (the cultural background), shared values, language, relationships and hierarchies, aims and objectives, and time.
The issue with calling his art a narrative universe is that it makes it very easy to identify Chagall’s as a storyteller, a title which he has always firmly rejected.
Russia and France are the locations for his paintings, the cultural background is clearly that of Hasidic Judaism, sentiments such as joy, love, and melancholy are all present in his paintings.
The big absent, at first glance, is time.
A storyteller, in the conventional sense, is, of course, somebody who tells a story: an account of real or imaginary events with defined beginning and conclusion.
On the other hand, the dreamlike quality of Chagall’s paintings set them on an alternative reality where temporal reading (a chronological account of actions and effects) is made impossible.
Borrowing again from literary terminology: there is no plot to his stories, at least not within one frame.
However, his paintings are all but static: there is, in fact, a historical depth to them, which is built through the backstories of those characters. The fiddler is the embodiment of the childhood memories in the Shtetl and the joyful spirit of the Hasidic Jews. The bride is forever entangled with Chagall’s love for Bella, the first youthful love. Those characters existed in real-life and in tradition before they were ever painted.
In my opinion, the richness and depth of his characters is the most fascinating aspect of Chagall’s art and the reason why I personally find his work so captivating.
Chagall’s work constitutes a narrative universe in the sense that all characters coexist together and each of them brings about a rich story that remains constant throughout the artworks.
To be in Chagall’s painting is somewhat like to be in a dream, where things are just slightly so different from what we would know and expect: unrealistic but not abstract, improbable but not impossible, realistic but not rational.
It is in those dreamscapes that we encounter the fiddler on the roof, the lovers floating over the city, the acrobats, clowns, blue donkeys, and a green horse.
Unsurprisingly, Chagall’s paintings have inspired a remarkable number of theatre plays including “The Fiddler on the roof” and The flying lovers of Vitebsk. Chagall himself loved the theatre and worked on numerous productions.
We were inspired as well! Scroll to the end of this page to see how we have turned Chagall’s characters into a puppet theatre.
Introducing Chagall’s characters
Chagall was born in a small Russian town, Vitebsk, home to a large community of Hasidic Jews.
Hasidic Judaism, a spiritual revival movement originated in Western Ukraine around the 18th Century, is tightly connected with Orthodox Jews and the Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe. The peculiarity of this faith is the belief that communion with God can be achieved through joy and happiness; because of this tradition, musicians were fundamental elements of the village’s life, as they celebrated God with their music and dance.
One of Chagall’s favorite relatives was Uncle Neuch, the cattle dealer, who played the violin at festivals and celebrations. Even though “he played the violin like a shoemaker,” young Chagall was mesmerized by his dancing and music. As he recalls, the sight of Neuch playing would give him such joy, that his head would float away from the body and follow his uncle.
The violin player, a reference to his childhood but also to the joyful life of the Jewish shtetl, became one of the most iconic imagery in Chagall’s repertoire. Some of the most famous paintings include “A Violinist” 1912-1913, “A Violinist and an Inverted World”1929.
and the famous “Green Violinist,” all depict a fiddler floating above the roofs, which served as inspiration for the name and stage design of the Broadway musical “The Fiddler on the roof.”
Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld in 1910 during a brief visit home where the two fell in love immediately. Even though he had moved to Paris to pursue his artistic career, they remained lovers until 1915, when Chagall decided to travel back to Vitebsk to marry her.
He had planned to be in Russia for only a short period when the First World War began. Unable to leave Russia and separated from all of his paintings, Chagall moved with Bella to St Petersburg where their daughter Ida was born a year later.
Despite the war and the upcoming Russian revolution, the paintings of this period, showing the young couple floating in love over Vitebsk, are some of the most euphoric and lighthearted of his career.
Marc, Bella, and Ida traveled as a passionate trio through Europe as history unfolded: they were in Russia during WWI and the communist revolution, then back to Paris until World War II, and ultimately fled to New York to escape the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, just weeks before the couple was to return to France in 1944, Bella suddenly died of a viral infection.
Deeply shaken by the sudden loss, Chagall stopped painting for a year.
Chagall had started “The Bride and Groom on Cock” in 1939 while in Paris with his wife and daughter. It would finally be completed almost a decade later, in 1947, by an older and very changed Chagall: a widower, returning to France after six years in the States with a new partner, Virginia Haggard McNeil, and a newborn son, David.
In the years following Bella’s death, Chagall became even more devoted to these themes, making “The Lovers” and “The Bride” some of the most recurring sets of characters.
‘For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world,’
‘These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces? With them, I can move towards new horizons.’
Starting from 1926, Chagall’s friend Vallard would often invite him to his private box at the Cirque d’Hiver, (the Winter Circus) in Paris. This was the same venue where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat painted their circus drawings. During this time he completed what came to be known as the “Cirque Vollard” series.
Like many other artists of the time, Chagall was incredibly fascinated by the circus and its acrobats: the extravagant spectacle of outcasts, the colors, the exaggerated drama and comedy. The farce and make-believe nature of it resonated with the Parisian artists, who identified with the acrobats living at the edge of society.
Painted in a multitude of colors, the rooster holds a very special place in Chagall’s personal mythology: reminiscent of the artist’s childhood at the village, it often works as a non-human projection of the artist in his paintings, as a personal avatar of Chagall in the canvas.
Often paired with lovers, sometimes used as the subject, other times hidden in a corner, the rooster can be found in most of Chagall’s works.
In “Corbeille de fruits“1980, a goat is seen in the background. The goat is significant in Jewish folklore because on the Day of Atonement, to symbolically expiate the people’s sins, a red ribbon is tied around its neck and the animal it’s then released into the wilderness to die.
Besides the religious references, the goat is also a reminiscence of Chagall rural life in Vitebsk along with rooster, the horse, the donkey, and the cow.
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