The Theatre in the Biography of Marc Chagall

Alexandra Shatskikh

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

Abram Efros's brilliant essay on the great artist contains the following disappointingly unfair lines. "It can now be said that Chagall made us pay a high price for his Jewish form of stage imagery. The theatre is simply not in his blood."1 These words reflect the conflict that arose in 1921 in the Jewish Chamber Theatre between Marc Chagall, on the one hand, and director Alexei Granovsky and Efros himself, in charge of design, on the other. Today this distant conflict and Efros's assessment of it merely serve to illustrate how stupendous, how overwhelming was the Vitebsk master's work in the theatre.
For the best part of a century Marc Chagall showed on many occasions that there was a rich vein of theatre in his blood.

Marc Chagall working on a sketch for
the Introduction to the Jewish Theatre mural.
Moscow, 1920

The theatre began to emerge as a mainstream form of art in the second half of the 19th century. The idea of a synthesis of the arts, engendered by the historicism of the 19th century, realised its creative potential, first and foremost, on the stage. As we know, Richard Wagner's operatic performances were the fullest embodiment of the Gesamtkunst-werk.

In the life of Russian society of the late 19th and early 20th century the theatre was also destined to become the most influential force in reforming artistic processes. The stage was established as the place for asserting new trends and movements in all forms of creativity. It was no accident that the radicals Kasimir Malevich, Alexei Kruch-enykh and Mikhail Matiushin created their innovative manifesto in the form of the futurist opera Victory over the Sun, produced in December 1913.

In fact, the avant-garde, albeit involuntarily, continued the traditions of the World of Art, so detested by them, whose finest achievements were related to the theatre: the activity of the celebrated impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Russian Seasons enriched the whole of world art. Audiences at Diaghilev's spectacles were entranced by the magical sets revealed by the rising curtain. And, of course, the chief magician in the World of Art theatre was the artist.

The pathos and conventionality inherent in the theatre nourished the everyday life of many members of the educated class of society in both Russian capitals. Plays in "miniature" theatres, cabarets, and art cellars promoted a fusion of the real and imaginary, creating a kind of illusory reality. Artists joined the auditorium and the stage in a single set, for example, at the Stray Dog, where Sergei Sudeikin painted the walls with the same ornament, turning the whole area into a stage. Not only the actors, but also the spectators were given roles; frequenters of this cellar and similar venues were provided with make-up and costumes just like those of the professionals who were entertaining them.

Life creating, a popular idea among the Russian intelligentsia of the early 20th century, found its extreme expression in the so-called theatricality of everyday life. One of the theoreticians and propagators of this "theatricality" was the director Nikolai Evreinov, whose name we shall meet again later.

Scene from the play Agents based on Sholom Aleichem. Set by Marc Chagall. State Jewish Chamber Theatre, 1921

Marc Chagall was to become actively involved in the theatre movements of both large and small forms. One of his St Petersburg mentors was Leon Bakst, the bright star of Diaghilev's Russian Seasons. Bakst's personality and work had a great influence on Chagall, albeit a latent one. In the processes of self-determination so painful for a young man with a stutter from the Pale of Settlement, the Jew from Grodno Leib Shmulev Rozenberg, now known to the world as Leon Bakst, served as a kind of signpost. Later the pupil, who had by then outgrown his teacher in fame and achievement, would write with gentle irony about their association: yet it was Bakst who summoned the young man from Vitebsk to Paris and to the stage.2

Chagall either would not or could not become Bakst's assistant in making the sets for Nikolai Cherepnin's ballet Narcissis and the Echo, but go to Paris he did. And there, in the artistic capital of the world, he devoted all his powers to his own "theatre": the amazing pictures of Chagall's first Paris period belong to a kind of magical reality, a "surnatural- ism”, as Guillaume Apollinaire put it.

The work of the Russian Parisian was always figurative and anthropomorphic; his pictures have an intriguing subject and his figures fixed, typical features. The ramified associative nature of his painterly mise-en-scenes elevated his work to the level of a mythological reality that was more authentic than the visible and everyday. Chagall's works were about fundamentals — love, birth, death, the people. As in masterpieces performed on the stage by great actors and actresses, his main instruments were transfiguration and catharsis.

At the same time it must be stressed that Chagall understood the phenomena of the theatre and "theatricality" in his own idiosyncratic way, attributing to them a kind of artificiality. Later he was quite critical of theatricality as such, and used to compare the theatre unfavourably with the circus. Everything in the circus was real and authentic, according to Chagall.3 The clever animals and clowns, the gymnasts and acrobats with their creative bodies performing at the very extreme of their natural potential, did not represent — they actually were. The colourful costumes of the circus artistes merely underscored the festive impact of their life creating.

To digress for a moment, it must be said that this love of organic circus art would show itself in more than one stage masterpiece by Chagall.

New theatre encounters awaited Chagall on his return from Europe. In 1916 Nikolai Evreinov invited him to design the sets for A Totally Happy Song at the Players’ Rest art cellar. An enlarged composition based on his Paris picture The Drunkard (1911) served as the backdrop to the action. Eyewitnesses said that Chagall painted the actors' hands and faces green and blue to break with realism.

The recent Parisian was by now well known in Petrograd artistic circles. In 1919 Nikolai Gogol's characters, which were to play such a decisive role in Chagall's life, appear for the first time in his biography. The Petrograd Hermitage theatre commissioned the artist to design the sets for one-act plays by Gogol. And whereas Chagall used a subject from an earlier canvas for the production at the Stray Dog, he created new works for Gogol's The Gamblers and Marriage.

The production did not take place with Chagall's designs, however his sketches show that the artist had by now acquired an understanding of his role in the theatre, to which he remained true until the end of his days. In his theatre work Chagall sought to reveal and record the hidden essence of what was taking place on the stage, that is, to embody in plastic form a super-task, as the theatre reformer Konstantin Stanislavsky, for whom the artist had little love, used to say. For example, his sketch for the backdrop to The Gamblers shows the grotesque picture of a theatrical mise-en-scene that seems to have split in two, distorting the appearance of the characters in order to reveal their hidden intentions.

Vitebsk, Chagall the man's small home town and Chagall the artist's eternal motherland, provided him with invaluable theatrical experience. The author of these lines has already drawn attention to the fact that the first theatre to which Marc Chagall owes his development was not the Moscow Jewish Chamber Theatre, but the Theatre of Revolutionary Satire, Terevsat for short, which appeared in Vitebsk at the beginning of 1920. It had a great influence on early Soviet theatrical developments all over Russia: the Vitebsk abbreviation of Terevsat was immediately adopted as a terminological definition for agitprop theatres in general.

Свадебный стол. 1920
Wedding Feast. 1920
Tempera, gouache and white highlights on canvas, 64 by 799 cm. State Trtyakov Gallery

Terevsat's productions were rooted in folkloric street performances, puppet and Petrushka shows at fairs, and amateur productions. The actor and director Mark Razumny, who had already achieved great success in the capital's cabarets and "miniature" theatres, an eminent representative of the St Petersburg bohemian world, became director-producer of ventures in Vitebsk.

As head designer for Terevsat, Chagall embarked for the first time on reworking and making use of archaic theatrical forms in his own stage work.

The rapid development of all forms of creativity based on folk traditions was promoted, as we know, by the agitprop aims and tasks of Soviet power Pre-revolutionary forms of variety theatre responded easily to the requirements of the new commissioners and new audiences. At the same time the vitalising power of primitive art had been discovered by professional art as early as Paul Gauguin. In the archaically innovative productions of Terevsat it was hard to distinguish real primitivism from neo-primitivism. A highly sophisticated exponent of naivety, Chagall must have been in his element.

His sets for more than twenty productions are known from one or two verbal descriptions only,4 but we can get an idea of them from other designs that he produced in Vitebsk, which are genetically related to future theatrical masterpieces.

The fusion of art and life sought for since the beginning of the century reached unprecedented proportions in the early Soviet years. The broad masses were drawn into revolutionary celebrations. This "carnivalisa- tion” of life, to quote a later definition by Mikhail Bakhtin, then living in Vitebsk, required colossal sets.

In 1918-1920 Marc Chagall was head designer of mass productions in Vitebsk. Under his supervision some monumental murals were painted on canvas. They served as banners, decorated the facades of buildings and were placed on rooftops for meetings and demonstrations.

We can get an idea of these works from the few surviving sketches intended for enlargement and also from newsreel footage and the recollections of contemporaries.

Throughout his life Marc Chagall painted all his monumental works for the theatre, not only his sets, on canvas, as in his heroic years in Vitebsk.

In 1920 the artist moved to Moscow at almost the same time as the Vitebsk Terevsat, the theatre arriving at the end of April and Chagall at the beginning of June. In Moscow, however, various changes and replacements were made in Terevsat, and the former Vitebskians did not resume collaboration until a year later, and then only at the level of a project, as we shall see.

The end of 1920 is marked in Chagall's biography by his work for the Jewish Chamber Theatre (EKT), renamed the State Jewish Chamber Theatre (GOSEKT) in 1921 and the State Jewish Theatre (GOSET) in 1924.

This major work by Chagall drew on all his Petrograd and Vitebsk theatrical and monumental design experience. Chagall's encounter with the Jewish Chamber Theatre produced an explosive flowering of the new national theatre.

At the end of 1920 Efros invited the artist to design the sets for the Jewish Chamber Theatre's first Moscow production based on one-act plays by Sholom Aleichem. After examining the premises Chagall suddenly announced his intention of producing paintings for the walls as well as the sets. In November- December 1920 he created eight compositions for the small auditorium with ninety seats, which had been refurbished from drawing rooms in the mansion (still standing) of first-guild merchant I. Gurevich in Bolshoi Chernyshevsky lane, central Moscow. The auditorium was so dominated by the paintings that it immediately became known as the "Chagall Box". The seven murals were painted on canvas. The medium of the ceiling (now lost) is not known.

The murals stayed where they were until 1925, when they were removed to the foyer of the State Jewish Theatre in Malaya Bronnaya, where the theatre put on its productions from 1922. There the canvases remained until the summer of the fateful year 1937, when they were rolled up and hidden. After Stalin's onslaught on the theatre, which followed the murder of Solomon Mi- choels, the murals were reportedly rescued by Alexander Tyshler, who handed them over to the Tretyakov Gallery in August 1952 (all other artistic valuables belonging to the State Jewish Theatre and its museum went to the Bakhrushin State Theatre Museum).

Over a period of more than fifty years the wall murals were shown once only — in June 1973 they were unrolled in front of Chagall during his first and last visit to the USSR. The artist signed the murals in Russian.

Since the murals' triumphal entry into the exhibition world in the spring of 1991,5 a great deal has been written and said about them. The compositions of all seven have been dissected and analysed, the connections with Jewish folklore and the use of verbal metaphors clarified, the inscriptions deciphered, the relationship between individual subjects and Hasidic legends and beliefs explained, and a great deal more.6

Like Chagall's oeuvre as a whole, the Jewish Theatre murals are and always will be the source of an infinite number of different interpretations. Their spiritual potential is inexhaustible and their artistic embodiment of the magical "surnatural" close to perfection.

The power of Chagall's Jewish murals lies in the combination of his profoundly individual view of the world around him and the cosmic significance of what is taking place before the eyes of the enthralled spectator. Chagall was always an independent artist who felt free to treat epoch-making cultural trends as he thought fit. But even those who knew his work well were astonished by the freedom he showed in the Jewish murals. With the greatest of ease the artist offered the world and the town his intimate autobiography, which he turned into the quintessence of Jewish life. The universal appeal of this art nourished on national soil was enhanced a hundred-fold due to the accent he placed on it.

At the time it was painted the real personages in the largest mural, Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, were young people, full of strength and hope. Their names and destinies are now well known.

Abram Efros, aged thirty-two, spectacles glinting, is striding into the temple of art with Chagall like a child in his arms. They are met by the gloomy director Granovsky and the stocky little actor Chaim Krashinsky with a glass of tea. Then comes a scene with Solomon Michoels and the long-necked conductor Lev Pulver surrounded by unknown musicians. Among the visitors we recognise Sarra Roitbaum and Ida Abragam, the dramatist Yikhezkel Dobrushin and other contemporaries.

Michoels makes several appearances in this long canvas. He is traditionally associa-ted with three figures. From left to right we find him in the character wearing a cap and playing a violin with broken strings, then in the figure dancing and kicking up his heels in the middle. And finally, in a tight-fitting jacket and hat, behind the strangely contorted white cow, which is hovering in space.

Granovsky is also depicted more than once here. Thus, after receiving the visitors, the director has shifted to the far right of the composition, where he is sitting on a stool, with an arrogant expression on his face and his feet in a tub of water, as if to concentrate on the scenic liturgy. This scene refers to a practice observed by religious Jews. To stop themselves from falling sleep during a night vigil and to concentrate more fully on prayer, they kept their feet in cold water. This would probably have needed to be explained to the slick European Granovsky, who did not speak Yiddish and knew little about life in the Pale. As the subsequent course of events was to show, Granovsky became increasingly irritated by what he regarded as the artist "taking liberties", quite unaware that Chagall's unusual images were bestowing immortality on their prototypes.

The murals invested the auditorium with features that made it resemble the interior of a temple. The sacral space of this theatre-cum-tem- ple had lots of Hebrew characters and Jewish letters in most unexpected places. Written on scraps of paper and misspelt, these names and phrases set the tone for the "babel" so essential to the life of the people of the Book and so important for the structure of the murals.

Thus, the belt of the acrobat standing on his head by the cow has the words "я балуюсь я" ["I('m) naughty I"]; on the inside of his leg is a scrap of paper with a list of famous writers, such as Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem and others; the surnames of Efros, Chagall and Granovsky are written over the red segment above their heads (note also that they are written from left to right, and not right to left as they should be in Hebrew). These are but a few examples.

The whole Chagall family is to be found here. The artist himself with his wife-muse Bella and their little daughter Ida are depicted as portraits, while their numerous Vitebsk and Liozno relations are present in the form of inscriptions in Yiddish. The names of his father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles, sisters and brother are written in tiny letters round the geometrical patterns on the clown's trousers of the flute player in the middle of the Introduction.

As well as real people the nameless creators of folk art are also taking part in these festive celebrations — street musicians, circus performers and shtetl dwellers, to say nothing of wise goats, roosters, a cow and even a "Russian" pig.7

For the master from Vitebsk the universe revolved round weddings, the culmination of the lives of individuals and the whole people. The characters in this mystery play — the figures of the klezmer (popular musician), badchan (wedding jester) and svacha (woman dancing) — are allegories for different forms of crea-tiv- ity, namely, Music, Drama and Dance.

The allegory for Poetry is the soifer, a copyist of the Torah, who has retired to his cell from the noisy merrymaking of the world. Each of these figures was the subject of a separate vertical mural, which was then placed in the space between the windows.

Above the heads of these allegorical muses of the Jewish theatre ran a long narrow frieze showing a wedding table set with an extraordinary assortment of food including the paschal hala next to Jewish New Year dishes. These items would never be placed together on the table of a religious Jewish family, for each festival has its own special dishes. By showing them together Chagall was compressing the whole Jewish year, as it were, thus giving the event an all-temporal or extra-temporal dimension.

The celebrations of this ordinary shtetl wedding unexpectedly include a ballet pas-de-deux performed by ethereal dancers on a square wall panel at the end of the hall; it is interesting that in My Life Chagall refers to them as a couple of acrobats on the stage.8

A written interpretation of the various subjects and images would take up many pages, so concentrated are the meanings, so multi-dimensional and convincing the associations, and so intriguing the puzzles presented by a number of scenes designed for flights of fantasy and free interpretation.

Yet it must be said that Chagall's Jewish murals are a source of enormous enjoyment, which derives not only from a profound understanding of the finer points of Jewish and world culture, but from a visual appreciation of their magical space and colour. The artist invites us to take a ride on the roller coaster of perception during which our mental optics must be capable of switching instantly from the minuscule letters of enigmatic inscriptions to the rhythm of the large geometrical planes that divide the compositions with bursts of Orphist, or is it Suprematist, light.

Mention has already been made of Chagall's important experience of working in small theatrical forms before he came to the Jewish theatre. In connection with his plastic experiments in the theatre during the second half of the 1910s there is one fascinating parallel, which has so far attracted insufficient attention.

As well as Sudeikin's painting in the Stray Dog Chagall must have been familiar with Alexandra Ekster's work for the Moscow Chamber Theatre, which caused such a stir in the 1916/1917 season.9 Commissioned by director Alexander Tairov, she designed highly innovative sets for his production of Thamyras Cytharoede based on the drama by Innokenty Annensky, and also painted the theatre's foyer, staircase and stage portal in her inimitable mixture of baroque and cubism. It was Ekster's sets and murals that placed the Chamber Theatre's among the leaders of the new experimental drama.

In his struggle against the "false beards” and "psychological naturalism" of the realist theatre Chagall made use of the life-building potential accumulated by small variety forms. The experimental variety of the prerevolutionary theatre played an important role in the revolutionary reforms of Vsevolod Meyerhold, who revolted against the theatre of Stanislavsky.

Chagall sensed that he and Meyerhold had much in common and followed the reformer's bold experiments carefully. As Commissar of Art he took steps to invite Meyerhold to accept the post of director at the Municipal theatre in Vitebsk; a report of their talks appeared in the local press.10 The artist and the director were personally acquainted and got on well: in the late 1920s Meyerhold asked for Chagall's assistance in renting premises for a Paris tour by his theatre. Hilla Rebay, subsequently director of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, first saw Chagall at the Meyerhold Theatre in Paris in the spring of 1930. She was struck by the highly sensitive response to the production from a member of the audience with an unusually expressive face, who turned out to be Chagall.11

There was no direct collaboration between the two great men in Moscow in the early 1920s, unfortunately, although "happiness was so close at hand". Meyerhold was appointed director of Terevsat in the spring of 1922, by which time People's Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky had managed to get Chagall a visa for Berlin.

A little earlier, before Meyerhold took up the post, Chagall was invited to Terevsat to design the stage sets and costumes for Dmitri Smolin's play Comrade Khlestakov, based on motifs from Gogol's Inspector General (the master later referred to these sketches mistakenly as designs for the Inspector General itself).

It is worth noting that Chagall's last piece of work for Terevsat provided the impulse for his famous cycle of illustrations to Gogol's Dead Souls (1923-1925) in the "splendid remoteness" of Paris emigration. An underestimated impulse, yet the substitution of Leninist Russia for the Russia of Nicholas I and the translation of Gogol's immortal collisions into the language of the modern day, so effective in Chagall's series of etchings, go back to his theatre work, the designs for Smolin's play, in which Khlestakov's adventures were transposed to the land of the Soviet deputies.

To be fair it must be said that the unknown playwright Smolin was not original. He was simply exploiting new trends in the theatre: ever since the beginning of the century producers had been updating stage masterpieces, transposing the action to the present day. Meyerhold is generally recognised as the finest exponent of this transposition: his production of Fernand Crommelynck's The Magnificent Cuckold, the Belgian dramatist's stylised mediaeval farce, caused a great stir and remains forever in the history of Lyubov Popova's constructivist "machine".

To return to the years 19201921, it must be reiterated that Chagall followed Meyerhold's experiments carefully, intuitively absorbing all the talented ideas of the day necessary for his own work. Meyerhold's innovations known as "biomechanics" needed no explaining to him. We have already mentioned Chagall's attitude to the circus and circus performers with their body art. It is not surprising that he should attribute the most active role in the emergence of the new Jewish theatre to the expressive grotesque and plastic metamorphosis that were ousting naturalism.

The topsy-turvy pictures, the costumes and household objects spangled with "tiny birds and goats", and the appearance and acting of the cast were to be domina-ted by a kind of festive spirit that had nothing in common with dreary everyday routine. The boring harbinger of this routine, a tea towel, which Granovsky hung up to give a touch of authenticity to Reb Alter's tea drinking scene in the one-act play Mazel Tov, infuriated Chagall. This marked the end of the romance between the artist and the director, as the master was to say later with sad irony in My Life.

Chagall was never invited to the Jewish Chamber theatre again. Talks with the Moscow Habima Theatre also came to nothing. Yet the great painter's art had such a powerful style-forming effect, that the development of the new national theatre was unthinkable without his work. His stage designs were being imitated, as the artist was to find out in Europe.

At this point the theatre disappears from Chagall's biography for many years to come. His only works for the stage were his paintings of costume designs for the ballet Beethoven Variations commissioned by Bronislava Nijinska in Paris (1932). This project, which did not materialise, provided the direction, as it were, for Chagall's future work in the theatre. The designs were made for the celebrated choreographer and dancer of the Russian ballet school, who appeared in the Russian Seasons together with her brother Vaslav Nijinsky.

The master's real productions did not begin until the 1940s, in the New World, where he moved from France with his family to escape the Nazi genocide. In 1942, at the invitation of the American Ballet Theatre, Chagall designed the sets and costumes for the ballet Aleko. The libretto was based on Pushkin's poem The Gypsies and the music made use of Tchaikovsky's piano trio in A minor. The invitation was initiated by the choreographer and dancer LOonide Massine, a pupil of Diaghilev's, who produced ballets for Diaghilev and inherited the fame of the Russian Seasons.

Chagall had long since become a world celebrity, and his dominant role in the production did not give rise to either protest or surprise. The great World of Art traditions seemed to rise again on the stage: it was a musical ballet production, but its organic creation was in the Diaghilev style, involving the close everyday cooperation of designer and producer. In a letter to New York from Mexico City, where the ballet was prepared and the premiere took place, Chagall wrote: ”I hope that my dear friends and all other friends in America will see this ballet, which I made thinking not only about the Great Russia, but also about us Jews..."12

The artist worked on the huge backdrops from dawn to dusk, as he had in Moscow many years ago, while Bella Chagall supervised the execution of the costumes, also painted by hand. After the premiere of Aleko she wrote to the same people: "Chagall's decorations are burning like the sun in heaven. And the whole ballet Chagall's spurts with light and joy."13 Researchers note that in his grandiose panel for act 3 of the ballet Chagall the figurativist went beyond the tense colour compositions of such masters of American abstract expressionism as Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.14

Igor Stravinsky's Firebird ballet continued Chagall's collaboration with the American Ballet Theatre. The artist's common-law wife, Virginia Haggard, recalled her husband's work in the summer of 1945 at their house on Long Island: "he listened to the music all day long in the big bedroom upstairs where he worked and at once he began to float in the Stravinsky element, completely tuned in to its mysterious archaic strength. He started sketching feverishly, jotting down vague ideas, sometimes in colour, sometimes in pencil. These were barely more than abstract shapes, movements, masses. They contained the living seed that would grow into birds, trees and monsters."15 The New York premiere in the autumn of 1945 was a resounding success.

Chagall was associated with two more productions. In 1958 he was invited by the Grand Opera in Paris to design the sets and costumes for Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloё. The premiere of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute with sets and costumes by Chagall took place on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1967).

All Marc Chagall's productions abroad were musical spectacles, all were engendered by his painting and enchanted audiences by their unexcelled use of colour The traditions of the Russian Seasons were also continued thanks to the resounding success of the sets and costumes, which were and still are referred to as Cha- gallian, after their main creator.

His Russian years provided Chagall with a vector for more than just stage design. The transformation of the theatre into sacral space, first achieved by him with the paintings in the Moscow Jewish Chamber Theatre, became a characteristic feature of his new works. Successors to the Jewish murals are his canvases for the London Watergate Theatre (1950), his ceiling at the Paris Grand Opera (1964), and his paintings in the foyers in the Frankfurt Opera House (1959) and the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1966).

In his first project for a theatre building since 1920 Chagall refers back directly to his circus artistes: one of his two canvases for the small experimental Watergate Theatre in London is actually called The Blue Circus (1950, now in the Tate Gallery, London).

His huge panel for the Frankfurt Opera House is entitled Comme- dia dell' Arte. Yet this purely theatrical phenomenon is also based on circus imagery. We see a gala performance in a circular arena by Chagall's beloved acrobats, clowns, animal trainers, gymnasts and riders. And it is they who are the real creators of the spectacle— the lifebuilding art of the circus is proclaimed here by a master of the quintessential theatre.

In 1963-1964 the French Minister of Culture, Andre' Malraux, aroused a storm of protest by inviting a non-French artist, Chagall, to paint the ceiling of the country's greatest theatre, the Grand Opera. This was a repetition of an earlier situation that took place in Paris in the second half of the 1920s, when many people were unhappy that the dealer Ambroise Vollard had commissioned Chagall to illustrate La Fontaine's Fables. Fancy entrusting that to a foreigner! However, as in the case of Chagall's etchings for the Fables, which were soon recognised as masterpieces, after its opening the ceiling at the Paris Opera aroused a new storm, but this time of admiration, and even those who had opposed inviting Chagall were forced to acknowledge his great triumph. Among the allegories of Dance and Music on the "firmament" of the French temple of art was a wedding feast clearly taking place in Vitebsk...

Fate produced a remarkable ending to Chagall's work for the theatre. His first major work was the murals and sets for the Moscow Jewish Theatre, his last murals and sets for the cosmopolitan Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Chagall's colossal murals for the Opera House were opened a few months before the premiere of Mozart's Magic Flute. These impressive symphonies in colour, the living embodiment of the emotional power and harmony of Music, not only transform the space of the foyer. Clearly visible through the glass walls of the building, the murals radiate into the outside world, serving as a kind of backcloth for the whole of Lincoln Center square. The square also becomes a kind of stage, one of Chagall's magical stages, where the difference between art and life disappears and we are all actors in the festive theatre of life.


  1. Efros A. Chagall. In: Efros A. Профили. [Profiles]. Moscow, 1930, p. 202.
  2. Chagall M. My Teachers: Bakst. Published in Russian in Razsvet, Paris. Vol. XXVI, no. 18, May 4, 1930. In a somewhat changed form this article is included in the Russian publication of My Life (see: Chagall M. Моя жизнь. Moscow, 1994, pp. 88-93).
  3. Marc Chagall. Le Cirque: Paintings 1969-1980. New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1981.
  4. See: 1) Театр революционной сатиры. In: Советский театр. Документы и материалы. 1917-1921 [The Theatre of Revolutionary Satire. In: The Soviet Theatre. Documents and materials. 1917-1921]. Introduction, compiled and notes by AN.Manteifel. Leningrad, Iskusstvo, 1968, pp. 181-190; 2) Shatskikh A.S. Витебский Теревсат (Театр революционной сатиры). In: Витебск. Жизнь искусства: 1917-1922. [The Vitebsk Terevsat (Theatre of Revolutionary Satire). In: Vitebsk. Artistic Life: 1917-1922]. Moscow, 2001, pp. 184-186.
  5. Chagall's murals were first displayed at an exhibition in Martigny in March-June 1991. See the catalogue: Marc Chagall. Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, Suisse, 1-er mars au 9 juin, 1991.
  6. See the main publications: 1) Shatskikh A. Marc Chagall and the Theatre. In: Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 1906-1922. Exh. Cat. Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 1991, pp. 76-88; 2) Kampf A. Chagall in the Yiddish Theatre. In: Ibid., pp. 94-106; 3) Ziva Amishai-Maisels Chagall's Murals for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre. In: Ibid., pp. 107-127; 4) Benjamin Har- shav. Chagall: Postmodernism and Fictional Worlds in Painting. In: Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theatre. Exh. Cat., Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1992, pp. 15-63; 5) Benjamin Harshav. L'Introduction au Theatre Juif. In: Marc Chagall. Les anne'es russes. Exh. Cat., Muse'e d'art moderne de Paris, 1995, pp. 200-222; 6) Schulmann D. Painting as Theatre, or Theatre as Painting? In: Chagall: Love and the Stage: 1914-1922. Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1998, pp. 10-12; 7) Compton S. Marc Chagall: Love and the Stage. In: Ibid., pp. 13-25.
  7. The small scene in the lower right-hand corner of the Introduction to the Jewish Theatre murals in which a Vitebsk character in clown's trousers is urinating next to a pig, is interpreted by Professor Ziva Amishai-Maisels as an artistic expression of Chagall's contempt for and rejection of the Russian world.The pig, an unclean animal, personifies, in her opinion, the Russian peasant's way of life. It must be said, that the numerous scenes of urinating in Chagall more likely testify to the growing power of the "material- bodily masses", to use another expression of Bakhtin's, and not to simple negativism or mockery.
  8. The text of My Life, which existed in Russian, was translated into Yiddish and then into French. The French translation using both versions, Russian and Yiddish, was made by Bella Chagall (for more about the order in which the chapters in the autobiography appeared and their translation see: Harshav B. Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 70-166). In spite of the lack of the Russian original, the definition of "acrobats" for the figures in the murals Love on the Stage seems acceptable in the light of Chagall's above-mentioned attitude to the circus.
  9. Tairov's name is mentioned in My Life; see Chagall M. My Life (translated from the French by Elisabeth Abbot), New York, 1960, p.161.
  10. Известия Витебского совета рабочих, крестьянских, солдатских депутатов, 1919, № 6, 10 января, с. 4 [Izvestia of the Vitebsk Soviet of Workers', Peasants', and Soldiers' Deputies, 1919, no. 6, 10 January, p. 4].
  11. A letter from Hilla Rebay in Paris to Rudolph Bauer in Berlin dated 25 June 1930: "Yesterday, in the [...] Meyerhold Theater I noticed a man sitting off to one side. His glowing, changeable, devout and ecstatic face so fascinated me that I no longer looked at anything else, and I suddenly realised that he had to be Chagall": Harshav B. Marc Chagall and his Times: A Documentary Narrative, op.cit., see note 8, p. 355.
  12. A letter from Chagall in New Mexico to the writer Yosef Opatoshu in New York dated 10 September 1942. See Har- shav B. Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, op. cit., see note 8, p. 519.
  13. A letter from Bella Chagall in Mexico to the Opatoshus in New York [September 1942]. See Harshav B. Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative, op.cit., see note 8, p. 520.
  14. See: Bohm-Duchen M. Chagall. London, Phaidon, 1998, p. 258.
  15. Haggard V. My Life with Chagall: Seven Years of Plenty with the Master as Told by the Woman Who Shared Them. New York, Donald I.Fine, 1986. Quoted from Bohm-Duchen M. Chagall. London: Phaidon, 1998, p. 272.





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