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. Amoureux dans le ciel ou Village enneigé (Vitebsk) combines rural simplicity with the strange, idiosyncratic and magical sense of myth and wonder so distinctive in Chagall's work. The blue air in this painting is the nebulous, fathomlessly deep tone of the nocturnal sky, the color of dreams. The artist-poet embraces his beloved–they are, of course, Chagall and his perpetual bride Bella–above a bouquet of red roses, a potent symbol of the enduring emotions of love. 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 reimagines from his memories of Vitebsk, where he was born, grew into early manhood, and became an aspiring artist.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution, as Chagall began to perceive with increasing disappointment that the arts were not benefiting as he had hoped and intended from the overturn, Chagall left his native country. In 1923, he settled in Paris. During this period, he sought to recover some of his older works from Herwath Walden and Ambroise Vollard and others, but met with little success. He therefore set about recreating many of those works from memory. These were not replicas, though, but reimaginations, works that reflected his new, nostalgic perspective. Amoureux dans le ciel ou Village enneigé (Vitebsk) shows Chagall's preoccupation with summoning the memories of the hometown of his youth. The street in Vitebsk is marked by the same details, filled with the same houses, yet now has been filled with a sense of lyrical whimsy. In a surreal manner various apparitions–the flying couple, a larger than life size bouquet, and various untended animals–have filled the streets. The jaunty sense of fun and simplicity of a decade earlier remains, but has now been re-invoked with a new layer of capricious details, bringing a folk-tale sense of magical surreality to the picture. This combination of strange and impossible and magical elements allows Chagall to bring about the reincarnation not only of his lost works of art, but also of the home that he had now finally abandoned.
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. 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. 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.