Around the exhibition - with Marc Chagall'

Jean-Louis Prat

Magazine issue: 
Special issue. Marc Chagall "BONJOUR, LA PATRIE!"

Chagall often used to drop in to the Maeght Foundation, which was close to the Les Collines house-studio built by the artist in Saint-Paul in the shade of tall pine trees. During his walks in the rare hours set aside for rest (how hard he always worked!), invariably accompanied by his wife Vava, he would visit us at the Foundation to see the latest works or take another look at pictures by artists he liked: Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, Georges Bracque, Joan Miro and many other contemporaries who had been pioneers of the new art, like he was.

Chagall knew them all and admired their achievements, but the paths they followed to achieve creative freedom were different ones. He understood clearly what these fellow artists were, who had chosen aesthetic principles that were alien to him. They were creators of a new artistic reality, based on the narrow area that each of them had chosen for self-expression. Few people realised how interested Chagall was in all this: he studied avidly the works of his own generation and those of young artists.

Marc Chagall. 1977

They spoke of the eventful and turbulent age in which he himself had been destined to live, but they did so in a way he would never have chosen. He discovered for himself their manner of "interpreting" and each cleverly executed detail brought an almost youthful smile to his lips that reminded one of his self-portrait of 1924. He immediately looked younger, assuming the characteristic expression of a grinning faun. Then he would suddenly grimace, which made him resemble another, by no means flattering self-portrait of the same year Probing questions betrayed his interest and sophistication: "We've seen plenty of that," "you can't kid us", "but no one's ever done that before." And each time, satisfied with the impressions he had received, he would end his tour by adding: "and he really is a great artist."

Marc and Valentina Chagall (centre) at the Maeght Foundation for Chagall’s exhibition. Saint-Paul-de-Vence. 6 July 1984.
Left to right: Daniel Mitterand, Adrien Maeght, Jean-Louis Prat and Bella Meyer

It was 1983. Marc Chagall was ninety-six. Following his cherished custom, he appeared at the Maeght Foundation together with Vava, towards evening, not long before closing time, to take another look at the exhibition. That summer it was Max Ernst. His first visit left him deep in thought for some time. I sensed it at once. He moved along, taking Vava by the arm or holding on to me for support, but also in order to share his reactions with us. The hard or soft pressure of his hand accompanied his words and reactions to everything. Chagall shared his feelings with us, opening up a world that to him seemed so unlike his own. Tales about German forests are very different from Russian folk stories and Gogol's “Dead Souls” of course. He was well aware of this, but nevertheless took a gourmet's pleasure in this artistic "tasting".

The rhythm of his footsteps, slow or quickening, reflected the degree of his interest in a particular work. He occasionally gesticulated with his free hand, waving it in the air as if to say: "let's forget about this one and go on.” There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the visit. Grimaces and head shaking accompanied his words, indicating either a wish to go on looking or disappointment with the work. His eyes would rest on a detail or form and stop for a long time on colour, then he would casually drift on, sighing loudly, and these sighs said reams about what he had been looking at.

The day in question was probably not a very good one. There were fewer smiles than usual and they were more restrained, even when he encountered visitors who were astonished to meet him in person, and invariably wanted to talk to him, listen to him and express their admiration and gratitude to him. That day Chagall, usually delighted by the public's interest, seemed tired, almost aloof. I realised fairly quickly that he had had enough of Max Ernst and that we should make for the exit as quickly as possible. I did not tell him all the good points I found in this artist, because that would probably have upset him even more. Neither Ernst's discoveries nor his remarkable technique made any impression on Chagall that day. With a grimace expressing all his doubts, he said, gripping my arm, "Max Ernst is a very great artist... Do you like his painting? For me it's all so sad, there's no chemistry... I don't understand his colour... or his forests, or his birds." We had now arrived. He continued with a detached smile, "It's all so far removed from what I do!" Amazed by what he was saying, Vava exclaimed, "Oh, Marc! You usually like Max Ernst so much and find plenty of good things in him!" With the expression of a sad clown, he replied, "Yes, but not today." Then turned to me and added, "You must never hold anything like this again, dear friend! It removes all hope! There is no poetry in it. What have you got planned for next year, by the way?"

I was confused and quite at a loss. What is more I did not know what our next exhibition would be and suddenly found myself blurting out, "It would be really good to have a large Chagall exhibition, your exhibition, here. Everyone's waiting for it. But there's the Chagall museum so close by, in Nice, so probably it should be held there!" Chagall's face lit up and he replied at once, "Yes, that's a brilliant idea, to have an exhibition of Chagall here [he sometimes referred to himself in the third person]. Everyone will love it. I entrust it to you. Let's start work now." The amazed Vava chimed in, "But, Marc, that's against your rules, to demand something!" Raising his voice, he said, "I'm not demanding anything! It was Jean-Louis Prat's idea and I think it's an excellent one!" Turning to me, he added in a special tone of voice, "I congratulate you on thinking of it! Now all we have to do is put it into practice!" Which we did the following year.

So that is the background to the exhibition in the summer of 1984, the artist's last retrospective during his lifetime, which gave him such pleasure. It was held the year before he died.

The exhibition included many fine early works from the Soviet Union, which Marc and Vava visited in 1973 at the invitation of the Minister of Culture, Ekaterina Furtseva, who often came to see them at Saint-Paul. This journey was a kind of pilgrimage for Chagall, a return to his roots. He rediscovered his homeland and works he had left behind during his hasty departure in 1922. In the Tretyakov Gallery he was delighted to find the large murals painted in 1920 for the Jewish Theatre in Moscow (indisputable twentieth-century masterpieces) and put his signature on them. Deeply moved by this long journey, he decided not to go on to Vitebsk, where he was born and where his parents had lived. Perhaps because he did not want to prolong or intensify this emotional experience more than was advisable.

He then returned with Vava to his beloved Provence, full of light and colour He chose it for his life and work, settling in the small village of Saint- Paul that reminded him of the villages in his childhood in Russia.

Russia, his country, now pays tribute to him by receiving him today at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. On the land he always extolled and his love for which was so wondrously conveyed. The unique, inimitable Marc Chagall...


  1. The article is illustrated with the works of Marc Chagall, displayed at the Maeght Foundation at the exhibition in 1984. (ed.)





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