In the days following the blaze that engulfed the Notre Dame, a fluke fire which sent the cathedral’s iconic spire crashing down as all of Paris looked on in horror, I came across a lithograph by Marc Chagall, Le Dimanche (1954), and in viewing the work both mourned the downfall of a building that has stood and endured a range of near-disasters for nearly 900 years, and subsequently admired the widespread acclaim this cathedral has received via its transition into a symbolic extension of France itself.
This vibrant work is charged with human emotion, manifested in the rich colours that bleed into different sections of the composition: an effervescent yellow casts light over the Parisian skyline below, now sunk into an enveloping purple gloom as the contrast in complementary hues imbues the work with a striking luminosity. Furthermore, I was forced to reflect upon the nature of Chagall’s mastery, and whether or not it exists as an illustration of reality of fantasy.
Its expressionist style harbours a mystical atmosphere, and the pictorial iconography has been drawn from the folkoric memories of his Russian-Jewish childhood in the town of Vitebsk. Chagall’s creative spirit is expressed powerfully, commenting on the modern world as experienced through the eyes of the artist. By observing the juxtaposition of rabbinical figures and synagogue steeples with flower bouquets, farmyard animals, dancing peasants and brides, we are granted access to Chagall’s fantastical realm of art. It provides us a sense of catharsis.
In the aftermath of the Paris fire, Le Dimanche became the subliminally sought-after vehicle for my emotional release, and thus Chagall’s artwork doubled as a form of escapism, both for the artist himself and for the viewer.
The element of fantasy pervading Chagall’s work is rooted in the world of nostalgia, accessed through his characteristic incorporation of Hasidic Russian folklore. He has continuously woven the memories of his early life into his artwork, and it offers a new dimension of meaning for his audience. Born into a Lithuanic Jewish Family in 1887 in what was then part of the Russian empire but is now Belarus, Chagall was one of nine children and received his initial education at the local Jewish school. His desire to become an artist came from a natural fascination with drawing, which he initially sated by copying pictures from books in his school library. He uses the ephemeral quality of nature’s beauty to merge two cultural worlds, Vitebsk and Paris, and the subsequent fantasy realm that is created is bound by no set of societal regulations or conventional expectations.
In the Cubist manner of his painterly style, Chagall explores a dreamlike version of reality, and as a result achieves a feeling of magical realism in his work that is inherent in the contradiction between the ordinary and the quaint. In his nostalgia-soaked work I and the Village, Chagall bestows the role of a “dreamer” on the viewer, for they are required to experience the ethereal process of metamorphic developments and displacements, as in a dream. Yet his work is almost gentle, in contrast to the disturbed, Freudian representations of the subconscious by Chagall’s contemporaries, the Surrealists.
Chagall was renowned for his reputation as a fantasist and expressionist, and was not limited by the boundaries of the more orthodox Surrealism. His versatility as an artist was proven through his success across a diverse range of media, from stained glass to painting, printmaking, murals and tiles: Chagall was a man whose work never fell short of a spectacle. André Breton acknowledged the artist’s innovation when he wrote, “with Chagall alone…metaphor makes its triumphant entry into modern painting.”
Yet Chagall himself rejected such literary explanations that others superimposed onto his artwork. He is said to have stated that “the theories which I would make up to explain myself and those which others elaborate in connection with my work are nonsense.” In a much more authentic style, the artist uses Romance, pushed to the point of fantasy, as an outlet for emotional expression: “My paintings are my reason for existence, my life, and that’s all.”