The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
It rings in me–
The distant city.
The white churches,
The synagogues. The door
Is open. The sky blooms.
Life flies on and on.
Marc Chagall, My Distant Home (Autobiographical Poem), March-June 1937 (B. Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall and His Times, Stanford, 2004, p. 460)
“My world comes to me in a dream,” Chagall wrote in My Distant Home, the poem which begins as quoted above. The blue air in this painting is the nebulous, fathomlessly deep tone of the nocturnal sky, the color of dreams. The long-haired artist-poet embraces his beloved–they are, of course, Chagall and his perpetual bride Bella–on a bed of purple lilacs, an aromatic harbinger of spring, a symbol of the first burgeoning emotions of love. The scattered blossoms of white lilac proclaim the flush of youthful innocence that transforms their love into a transcendent moment of poignant purity and hope.
“Where are my white flowers
From our khupa on the road?
For the first time I came to you.
The whole night I lay with you.
“You became a wife to me,
For long years, sweet as almonds,
Your belly gave me a gift–
A daughter pretty as the New Year.”
(ibid., p. 463)
This man and woman float over a city, actually more like a small town resembling a shtetl in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in western Russia, which Chagall would have imagined from his memories of Vitebsk, where he was born, grew into early manhood, and became an aspiring artist. Here Chagall, the sorcerer of his own singularly populated animist world, has given significant emblematic roles to his two favorite totemic creatures, who have materialized at the threshold where dream merges with folk tale and myth, a place not unlike that described in the Fables of La Fontaine, which the artist illustrated for the dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard in 1926-1927. This cock does not crow but instead serenades the lovers with a melody on its violin. A white goat indulges its taste for the written word in a book that lies open before it. “The fantastic motifs recall familiar things and modes of life in childish harmony with nature and the world,” Franz Meyer wrote. “Fairy-tale traits are not uncommon in Chagall’s earlier works, but the fairy-tale mood was never so simply and plastically insistent. It give the pictures he painted during the last years before the war itself their peculiar character” (Marc Chagall, New York, 1964, pp. 422 and 424).
There is, nevertheless, a sense of foreboding in this tender scene. Chagall has evoked a private moment of splendid isolation during the calm before an approaching storm. During the late 1930s, in those years immediately leading up to the beginning of the Second World War, Chagall was fully aware of the troubling events of the day. Having observed what had already transpired since 1933 in Nazi Germany, the artist–as a Jew–knew the dangers that lay in store for the people whose faith he shared, and for greater Europe as a whole.
The beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 signaled the alignment of contending partisan ideologies that would define the course of events in Europe for the next decade. The machinery of government in the democracies that had emerged at the end of the First World War had proved too slow, cumbersome and inept to lead Europe out of the Great Depression. The only ostensible alternatives were two systems of totalitarianism: Soviet communism on one extreme, and Nazi fascism on the other. The two ideologies were mutually exclusive and would eventually confront one another in a fight to the death, first taking opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War. The politics in France became increasingly polarized on the left and right, reflecting the growing tensions in greater Europe during this period.
The liberty and life of the individual meant nothing to either system, especially if you were a Jew. Chagall travelled in the summer of 1935 to Vilna, the Lithuanian city then within Poland’s borders–the “Jerusalem of Eastern Europe”–to inaugurate a new Museum of Jewish Art. The journey made him ever more conscious of his Jewish identity. And then he learned in early 1937 how precarious his existence might have been had he remained in Russia after the revolution. He had written to Yuri Moyseevich Pen, his favorite early art teacher. Pen, then eighty-two and still a professor at the Vitebsk Technical Art School, did not reply to Chagall’s letter, and perhaps never even read it. He was murdered in March, presumably a victim of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, at the height of Stalin’s show trials and purges during 1936-1938. Many of those whom Stalin persecuted were Jews. The news of Pen’s death made Chagall realize that he could not visit his homeland anytime soon; he was not permitted, moreover, to contribute work to represent Soviet Russia in the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
In increasingly perilous times, Chagall realized he and his family were people without a country. He possessed no valid passport that would serve as legal identification and permit him to travel abroad. He knew he must become a French citizen. It was difficult, however, for an Eastern European Jew living in France to obtain a naturalization decree, especially one like himself who also had to overcome the political stumbling block of having been made a “commissar” during the early Bolshevik regime. Chagall wrote letters suggesting projects to editors of various reviews, including Jean Paulhan of the influential Nouvelle Revue Française. It was the result of Paulhan’s intervention, as it turned out, that a notice dated 13 June 1937 appeared in the Journal officiel, declaring Chagall and his family to have been made naturalized French citizens.
Chagall could take some consolation in his newly won citizenship when in June 1937 he also learned his paintings in German public collections had been included among the 730 works the Nazis confiscated to comprise the Entartete Kunst exhibition, the show of “degenerate art”, in Munich. He was grateful to be French; he loved Paris and especially the French countryside. France stood for him as the land of lumière-liberté–“the light of freedom which I had seen nowhere else, he wrote. “And this light, reborn in art, passed easily onto the canvases of the great French masters... Only this lumière-liberté can give birth to such sparkling canvases, where technical revolutions are just as natural as the language, the gesture, the work of the passerby in the street” (“Address at Mount Holyoke College, August 1943,” in B. Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall on Art and Culture, Stanford, 2003, p. 68).
The lilac blossoms in L’air bleu embody Chagall’s vision of a beneficent France; this fantasy of a floral extravaganza represents an outpouring of the lumière-liberté which Chagall cherished in his now officially adopted land. He painted other major floral compositions during 1935-1938 (Meyer, nos. 633-637). “One is tempted to link the new natural sensuousness of Chagall’s art with the happy turn in his personal affairs,” Franz Meyer wrote. “The move to a new home in 1936 (at 4, Villa Eugène Manuel, near the Trocadéro), where he felt especially at ease, may have contributed to his change of mood.” The atmosphere in Paris “was also more relaxed despite current world events. The year 1937 brought the universal exhibition to the Trocadéro Gardens, a few yards from the Chagalls’ home” (op. cit., 1964, p. 422).
The protection of French citizenship, as it turned out, lasted only while Europe remained at peace, and France a sovereign nation. At the beginning of the war in 1939, Chagall, his wife Bella and daughter Ida moved south of the Loire, and finally to Gordes in Provence, where on 10 May 1940–the very day German armies invaded France–Chagall purchased a house in which he hoped to safely spend the duration of the war. The subsequent defeat of France gave cause for grave concern, but it was not until the puppet regime in Vichy, at the instigation of their German overlords, began to enact the Nazi racial policies against Jews, that Chagall finally realized he and his family must leave France. They were stripped of their French citizenship, further imperiling their situation. When they finally left in May 1941 they escaped just in time, while other refugees were being rounded up and deported to forced labor camps.
[A] Chagall painting Bella en vert, circa 1935. Photographer Unknown.
[B] Marc Chagall, Bella en vert, 1934-1935. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
[C] Marc Chagall, Les amoureuses, 1937. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
[D] Marc Chagall, Bouquet aux amoureuses, 1934-1947. The Tate Gallery, London.
[E] Marc Chagall, Fleurs dans la rue, 1935. Museum of Art, Kochi, Japan.