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Chagall Art and War

Just as writers use words to express themselves, artists use their art to express their views on issues that touch them, and Marc Chagall is no exception. War affects us in a profound way and leaves a lasting impression. Chagall art is similar in that respect – once viewed, it is not easily forgotten.

Chagall Art in the First World War
The year of 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War. Chagall and his wife Bella were visiting Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk in Russia when they became entrapped by the fighting. At this time, the artist’s work began to reveal a subdued nature. His paintings, once rich in symbols of freedom and love, now depicted simple scenery and portrayed the inhabitants of Vitebsk. His work during this time is almost devoid of the chimerical quality that once characterized his artistic style. Chagall often referred to Paris as his muse; perhaps his more realist pieces were indicative of his desire to be able to live in Paris at the time. His painting “Praying Jew” (1914) shows a Jewish man kneeling down in solemn prayer.

Chagall’s use of vibrant colors was his signature; however, this painting is noticeably lacking the usual rich tones of his style. Also painted at this time was “Soldiers with Bread”, which portrays two soldiers dolefully toting their bread rations along the street. The hues are somber and bland. Dusty browns and muted greens infer a feeling of resignation. One soldier’s eyes are downcast and he appears defeated. The majority of Chagall’s art during this period is representative of his perception of Vitebsk, e.g. “Uncle Zussi (The Barber Shop)”, “Uncle’s Store in Liozno”, “Over Vitebsk” and “The Clock”. Although these pieces still manage to highlight his skill in Impressionism, they do not appear to be as poetic as some of his other works, nor do they exhibit his predilection for vivid colors.

Chagall’s Self-Portrait
Chagall art also includes many self-portraits. In 1914, he painted one titled “Self Portrait at the Easel” which is strikingly different from his many other representations. In this painting, Chagall maintains an aura of severity and resentment. Again, his infamous use of lively colors is markedly absent. The canvas is swathed in dark burgundy and navy blue. The portrait conveys anger. His heavy-lidded glare is accusing and his hand is poised in a fashion that leads us to believe that he was rudely interrupted. His mouth is pinched into a disapproving frown. The obvious distaste in this piece is undeniable. For a man so infatuated with fantasy, it is assumed that his creative inspiration was being choked by the violence surrounding him.

Chagall Art in the Second World War
Chagall is known for his optimistic, almost child-like representations of lovers, his beloved home of Vitebsk and biblical themes. There are many recurring symbols in his artwork; however, with the outbreak of the Second World War, his religious themes became much more prevalent and vivid. In 1941, the year that saw the Nazi occupation of France, Chagall was forced to abandon his beloved Paris once again. At first, he refused to leave, believing that his fame as an artist would protect him. However, as the violence and persecution of the Jewish nation escalated, Chagall realized that his attempts to remain in Paris were putting his family in grave danger. So, when he fled to safety in America, his paintings lost their naive undertones and adopted a profound aura of torment.

The Era of Chagall
During the time of the Second World War, Chagall produced many great works. In 1933, the artist painted “Solitude” in which a Jewish man appears secluded and inconsolable, clutching his scrolls to his chest. This painting is a prime example of Chagall’s mastery of iconography. Next to the man is a cow, a metaphor for life due to its provision of meat, milk and leather, the necessities for survival. However, next to the cow is a fiddle. In many of Chagall’s work, there appears a fiddler or a fiddle. In Chagall’s era, fiddlers played music to commemorate the crossroads of life, such as birth, marriage, and death. It is interesting that Chagall would put the cow, representing life, next to the fiddle, representing death. Chagall‘s affinity for depicting dualities is evident in this painting as his consciousness was torn between his undying love for Vitebsk and his fierce passion for Paris.

Chagall’s “Crucifixion”
Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” (1938) is horrific and at the same time moving in its imagery. The painting abounds with symbols. Jesus is depicted on a white cross teetering above a scene of destruction and chaos. Soldiers bearing red flags desecrate a village on the right, and the German flag is displayed above a burning synagogue on the left. Below the image of Jesus is a menorah, the symbol of a pious Jew. Several people are fleeing the scene with bags, clasping their religious scrolls and belongings tightly in their arms. Again, elements of duality are present. Jesus is wearing a Jewish prayer shawl around his waist, yet, Jesus on the cross is a prevalent Christian symbol of suffering. It is as though Chagall had meant this piece to appeal to Jews and Christians alike. This production leaves little open to interpretation; his illustrations clearly reflect his feelings concerning the chaos surrounding him. His sadness and helplessness at the persecution of his people transcended onto his canvasses, portraying Jewish martyrs and refugees.

In 1943, Chagall created a similar painting called “Yellow Crucifixion”. In this work, Jesus is displayed on the periphery of the canvas and a large Torah scroll is centered in the foreground. At this point in time, the Holocaust was at its peak and innumerable Jews were being exterminated. This could explain Chagall’s need to reproduce this piece with the Torah as the focal point.

During war time, Chagall used his art as a catalyst for his tumultuous emotions, but also as a weapon to strike back at the Nazi Regime. Through his creative vision and his mastery of iconography, he managed to immortalize the trials and tribulations of war.


About the Author
Julie Gladstone is an aspiring artist and avid Marc Chagall fan. She provides content for the Marc Chagall Paintings website.


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