The Revealing of the Later Works by Marc Chagall: 1948-1985

Meret Meyer

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


At present it seems to me
Even if I draw back
I go ahead...1

Some years ago the French critics reviewed the later work by Chagall as being repetitive, decorative and commercial. They placed greater homage and importance on the artistic innovation of his earlier work produced in Russia, and his first visit to Paris (1911-1914). Conversely the public, though, do not share the same opinion. At each successive exhibitions, the majority of viewers appear to universally agree that the later works from the artist's vaste oeuvre are part of a harmogenized continuum which predicate and conclude his entire works. Evidence is partly due to the number of major inclusions of post 1945 works in exhibitions throughout the world. Countries have increasingly demanded a holistic overview of his episodic creative output. Each country receiving a Chagall exhibition relates to it with their own historic and national perogatives. What Chagall does, by radiating his exquisite colour combinations and iconographical elements provides and emphathizes the different needs for the ever changing generations of viewers. Iconographical elements like exuberant flower bouquets, lovers and biblical interpretations are imbued with a universal language of peace, and consequently many diverse cultures find significant reference points in his work.

He returned to France in 1948, after living for several years in exile in the United States due to the Nazi occupation of Europe. This adopted country France had always had a decisive influence on his work. His reabsorption of French culture afforded him the latitude to reinvent the serenity which his works had possessed prior to his forced departure. The works produced in the United States did not reflect this new environment. There are though one or two exceptions, like Cranberry Lake, but austensibly the paintings are images of Russian pastoral landscapes. This is not the case when absorbing the French interior before and after exile. It is as if Chagall remained in a state of limbo, unable to communicate verbally with the vernacular and hence suffered from the lack of communication with the cultural world of Europe. America did though provide the ambiance for the commissioning of ballet costumes and scenery for "Aleko" by the New York Ballet Theatre in 1942 and in 1945 "The Firebird" (Forêt enchantée, 1945).

In Chagall's earlier works for the Jewish Theatre in Moscow in 1920 the interpretation of space and the synthesis of Music, Theatre, Dance and Literature was one of the most innovative concept to influence 20th century art. These ideas would later resonate throughout the world. The magical and monumental scenery of the Jewish Theatre created on canvas for the "Chagall box" is witness to his fantastic artistic innovations, a "Gesamtkunstwerk" or total theatre.

Chagall's works for the American stage are a means to elaborate pictoral space with the "space" provided conceptually and physically by musical and choreographical libretto coupled with the interaction of dancers. The simultaneous relationships of scene and movement on diverse planes incapsulated within the same scene were reminiscent of his Russian experiments and certainly contributed to enriching choreographic language in America. This also provided Chagall a platform towards a new monumentality later seen in many of the works produced in France.

After the war, Chagall felt not only the need to reembrace France but the totality of Europe. In returning to the "old continent" he reinterpreted the mastering of light and shadow within a vocabulary of both the spiritual and pictorial. His return coincided with considerable international recognition of Marc Chagall as a major classical modernist. These undertakings were nurtered by great European museums but also carefully monitored by the artist and his daughter Ida. This manifested itself in very substantial international exhibitions, commissions and publications throughout Europe. The exception was Germany where Chagall consented to exhibitions and agreed to new editorial publications which undoubtedly expanded his profile but for the rest of his life he refused to return to that country.

After a period of almost a year at Orgeval, Chagall chose to live in Cote d'Azur. The crystalline light and sumptuous vegetation were instantly absorbed and reflected in his work. His paintings became more sensual, forms adopted a gracious ease being wider and sometimes becoming more reductive (Le divan, 1950). Also the density and luminosity by the introduction of saturated colour without light became manifest (Le Monstre de Notre-Dame, 1953). From this period onward, the concern with the alliance between light and colour is critical in most of his work. His palette finally liberates itself in a symbolic and transcendent expression which the artist had strived to establish in France in the 1920's. As early as the 1950's, the artist concentrated on a lucidity and rhythmic relationship between form and increased depth, constructed by infinite and numerous little brush- marks. This technique, used by other modernists, can be seen as both impersonal and abstract (La famille, 1977). He nevertheless repeatedly concerned himself with a personal interpretation of the concept of "chemistry". By this Chagall referred to as the reason to be, and an essential essence for an artist: In the course of recent years, I have often spoken of the so-called chemistry of authentic color, and of matter, as providing the measure of authenticity. An especially sharp eye can recognize that an authentic color, like authentic matter, inevitably contains all possible techniques. It has also a moral and a philosophical content.2  The painting lives as an awakening, thanks to a point of departure and explodes in all the senses. This new liberty reveals the earthly character of his art. The material begins to awaken and even burst forth from within. The layers of colours are superimposed so as to confront the eye with the density and transparency of outlined shadows, carefully modelled or arbitrarily indefinite, matt brilliant tender and nervous, dense and smooth. The nuances between gentleness and violence express themselves as tenants of the same whispering.

When one adheres one of the numerous flower paintings (see e.g. L'Atelier de Saint Paul, 1967; Le couple au-dessus de Saint Paul, 1968) which often dominate the canvases of the later works, a strong suggestion of abstraction is evident, as if an independence with regard to nature has taken place and a freedom of representation becomes superfluous. The painter penetrates the interior of the physical and visual substance into the very heart of the image. The freedom that colour affords him often approaches the boundaries of representativity. Chagall masters a pictorial universe which adheres to its own laws. This inversion of reality provides for a lexicon of imagery far more convincing than rigid logic. He shows how strange and credible new world can appear and be rejuvenated through the «Gestalt» of magical realism which has little to do with representation or naturalism. The work is a consistent rejection of the observable world, conversely naturalism is, by definition anathema. Chagall was also profoundly hostile towards non representational art. Though he was acutely aware of the underligning aesthetic objectives of abstract Expressionsim, and was able to absorb and marry the forms and techniques advocated by the movement, like Cubism or any other ideological structure, he consistently refuted any adherence to a fixed manifesto. Like Picasso and Matisse the great modernists dabbled close to the edges of abstraction but their works always remained rooted within the ambit of the figurative.

Chagall's interest in tactile malleable substances was by no means new. Since the painter was introduced to the world of ceramics (Flowers, 1951) as well as sculpture, stained glass, engraving and mosaic, dialogue with the plasticity of material was incorporated into his extensive repertoire of creative expression. He carefully selected the potential of various materials within the richness and uniqueness of French soil and its geology. He internalized the unique riches of clay and stone from the South of France as well as the renowned glass making tradition of the region. The artist experiences a freedom to identify and harmonize with each medium and to succeed in internalizing each material. As with the other great modernists of his time who now lived in the South of France, he was capable of absorbing a spectrum of diverse practices, conquering the different techniques and reflecting a serenity within a rapport of a new landscape. Modernism in 1950's France concerns itself with the disintegration of fixed disciplines. This ultimately nurtured, for Chagall further and future dimension to enrich his later painting.

Matter is expressed in the same breath as form. Beyond the essential message Chagall continually wished to reveal, the artist nourished the transposition of painting into a series of works which generated an entire generation of new literary pieces. During the course of several years a series of paintings entitled the «Biblical Message» were produced and presently exist in several collections. Chagall was equally drawn to reflect and adapt mural techniques which allowed him to explore the possibility of space. It manifests itself in the commission for the great ceiling of the Paris Opera in 1963 as well as in the mural paintings of Lincoln Center, New York in 1966. This constitutes an overall circular vision, and an approach to deepening for example the connection and the contrast between his Opera ceiling reflecting the vast universes of music and poetry and the architonic environmental structures and excessive ornamentation of a Roccoco building in Paris.

His new experiences in the physicality of three dimension is witness to a preoocupation with space that the artist reintroduced in the Opera and also into his paintings. From 1949, works with clay and ceramies inspired Chagall to enhance density and superimpose layers of colours in his paintings (Le nu mauve, 1967). By synthesizing the subject within matter, often extending sculpted barriers beyond their functional form (Le paysan au puits, 1952-53), the artist accomodates space in a remarkable dialogue between material and what subject or iconography has to be shaped. Works in stone and marble manifested in three dimensional sculptural form allowed the artist to enhance and explore space, either through the addition of matter in bronzes and ceramics, or through deeply incised surfaces (La Bête fantastique, 1952). The marriage and design engraved in stone or bronze reveals a particular illumination between the umbras and penumbras of the incised relief tactil surfaces. The works on glass also allowed him to understand the perceptual and complex interplay of light contained by coloured and architectural form juxtaposed between the interior and the exterior of buildings. The experience through stained glass windows accentuated the «play» of forms and the relationship between the object signified and the sign itself. The accents are defined by the lead tracery and the complicated method of grisaille. By numerous maquettes in two dimensional material using supplimentary fabric on paper within the collage, Chagall enriched the substance of translation by giving birth to a core of creative works which combined strong colour and images further enhanced by powerful calligraphic strokes. The revisiting of his past innovative ideas are reinvented and become integral elements inmeshed in a balance congealed within a single work.

During the 1920s in Berlin, Chagall was curious about the art of engraving, lithograph and wood-cut where features sharpened and heightened the forms and contours. These techniques mastered by practice over decades created a balance between the technique and the pictorial message, and even an attenuation of the technical aspect, can be observed in later works.

The first creative explorations dealing with material, form and space directed Chagall in latter years towards the great tradition of mosaics. His emergence as a major mosaic innovator was fascilitated by a professional mosaic practicianer and the first work was conceived and executed in 1964-65 for the Foundation Maeght in Saint Paul. A painting of Chagall was transposed into mosaics where the artist adopted the forms of flat colour dissociated from the dark contours of engraved shapes and synonimous with the method of coloured glass (Le grand soleil, 1967). This new innovative mosaic work was as innovative as his works on canvas and concerned itself with decentralization and fragmentation, reflective of his thinking during the 1960s'. Mosaic was the ideal vehicle to express what Chagall had orchestrated in painting: Perhaps, it seems to me that other dimensions exist, - a fourth, a fifth dimension which are not only those of the eye, and that, I emphasize it, do not in the least appear to me of "literature, of symbolism”, neither that one calls poetry in art. Is it perhaps something more abstract, liberated - abstract not in the sense of not recalling the real, but more ornamental, decorative, always partial. Is it perhaps something which gave birth intuitively to a range of malleable contrasts at the same time as psychic, penetrating the canvas and the eye of the spectator with unusual, new conceptions and elements.3

Since the painter had internalized the vast potential of sculpture and ceramics within his painting, he found it unnecessary to further continue with three dimensional pieces. The creative dialogue between painting and glass windows would be kept on though for a considerable period of time as the transmission of the mysteries of light onto canvas appeared to remain no less enigmatic. Chagall succeeded to regain a marvellous incandescence of transparency in his paintings using a composit of a multitude of little abstract touches (Le fils prodigue, 1975-76).

There is no doubt, that when one considers the major art movements of the 20th century, Cubism, Surrealism and Fauvism which Chagall was strongly influenced he remained independent of being labelled within such categories. This has always been his strength. Subsequent art movements since the Second World War appear to have little influence on Chagall's future directions. Like Picasso and Matisse the new generation of younger artists found little to influence the direction for their contemporary practice. Though Chagall appears not to have been influenced by art movements of the 1960s, there are indications that he renewed the use of collage of various found papers and fabric, lurid colours and the superimposition of alternative materials which indicates a clear awareness of contemporary practice. Likewise in the past he once again reinvented his repertoire by recognizing, borrowing and absorbing aspects of these new inventions but as always retains the stamp of his original identity.

The final decade of Chagall's working life extolled a determined positivism, an insistence for a love of life and for life itself. Coupled with this is the essential ingredient of humour which assures a cohesion and equilibrium consistence throughout his iconography. Painting and its interrogation has always been the core of his daily preoccupation. His dedication to embrace newly discovered areas into his pictorial vision contributed to the ongoing evolution of his work. But the discipline and work ethic were concommitant with the inevitable reapparance of doubt and also remained a primary force of this artist. This, like many other contemporaries provided the energy to reinvent his iconology which withstood enormous geographic, political and philosophical changes in that century. He became a true oracle of his time.

An intense overview of his latter works illustrates, in some respect, a recognition of Post Modernism, a nourishment from the past as well as a reinvention of a future and a definite but subtle refusal of conformity. Chagall's verses may well reflect his understanding of life and have resounding credibility: Even if I draw back / I go ahead.

Translated from the French by Gail Schaefer English editing: Alan Crump


  1. Verses from Marc Chagall's poem, Seul est mien, 1945-50.
  2. Marc Chagall, "Why have we become so anxious?", in: Bridges for Human Understanding, ed. by John Net. New York: University Publishers, 1964, p. 118.
  3. ChagallМ. Quelques impressions de la peinture franHaise, in: Renaissance, II-IN, 1945. P 48.





Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play