‘When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is’ — Pablo Picasso, 1954
Marc Chagall continued to work for another three decades beyond Picasso’s proclamation, right up until his death aged 97 in 1985. As 20 works from the artist’s estate come to Hong Kong, Alastair Smart examines the richly experimental, luminous twilight of his long career
In the summer of 1973, Marc Chagall made an emotional return to Russian soil. He was 85 years old and hadn’t seen the country of his birth for more than half a century.
Following the Russian Revolution, Chagall’s avant-garde imagery increasingly came to be deemed unacceptable by the authorities, and in 1922 he, his wife Bella and their young daughter quit the Soviet Union for Western Europe.
‘I am an alien to them,’ he wrote in his autobiography, My Life, published the following year.
By the early 1970s, however, there had been a certain liberalisation in Soviet quarters, and the Minister of Culture invited Chagall to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and Moscow for 10 days. The visit included the opening of an exhibition of his work at the prestigious State Tretyakov Gallery in the capital.
In Leningrad, meanwhile, he saw his sisters, Lisa and Mariaska, for the first time in 50-plus years. ‘I feel… more muscular now,’ he said shortly after the trip was over. ‘It did me good. It refreshed me for my work.’
The remarkable thing, however, is that despite his advanced age, Chagall never needed much refreshing. He continued working pretty much till his dying day, in 1985, aged 97.
Twenty of his works are being offered in the second part of the Marc Chagall, Colour of Life sale, at Christie’s in Hong Kong on 1 December — most of which date from the latter part of his career, i.e. the 1960s onwards. (The first part of the sale was held in London in June.)
Chagall relied on a fantastical set of characters, which served him faithfully across the decades. These include blue cows, rooftop fiddlers, smiling goats, circus clowns, giant roosters and lovers floating in mid-air, all of whom populate an instantly recognisable Chagallian universe.
Though he disavowed any connection with Surrealism, it’s little surprise that the leaders of that movement hailed him as a godfather. ‘No work was ever so magical [as Chagall’s],’ said André Breton.
The inspiration for his scenes came, in part, from memories of life in Vitebsk, the small town in present-day Belarus where he’d been born, in 1887, and brought up. According to Jean-Michel Foray, erstwhile director of the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice, however, we shouldn’t push too hard in trying to ‘decrypt’ what the scenes mean.
‘We cannot interpret them,’ he says, ‘because they are simply part of Chagall’s world, like figures from a dream.’
It might be tempting, for example, to see the painter and bride in one of the paintings coming to auction — L'envol du peintre — as depictions of Chagall and Bella (who had met and married young in Vitebsk). In Foray’s view, the two figures are better regarded symbolically than as portraits.
If Chagall’s choice of characters remained similar throughout his career, one way in which his painting notably advanced was with his use of intense colour in his latter years.
There were two obvious catalysts for this. One was Chagall’s move in 1949 from Paris to the Côte d’Azur (where in the hillside communes of Vence and, later, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, he would live the rest of his life). The Mediterranean’s bright light and richly hued landscape, with its turquoise seas and lavender fields, very much left their mark.
The other catalyst was Chagall’s work designing stained-glass windows. This became a fundamental part of his career from the early 1950s onwards and included commissions for Reims Cathedral in France, Mainz Cathedral in Germany, Chichester Cathedral in the UK, the synagogue of Hadassah University Medical Centre in Jerusalem, and the United Nations headquarters in New York (for which he conceived the famous Peace Window).
Chagall’s efforts in stained glass undoubtedly fed into his oil-painting practice. The pure passages of yellow, green, orange, purple and white that divide the canvas of L'envol du peintre into three are a fine example.
As Picasso put it shortly before Henri Matisse’s passing in 1954, ‘When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.’
As he advanced in years, Chagall never stopped experimenting. Alongside stained glass, he began creating in various other media that were new to him, such as ceramics, mosaics and tapestry.
He married his second wife, Valentina, in 1952, a little under a decade after Bella had died of a viral infection. Both women served as business managers as well as spouses, looking after Chagall’s affairs so as to allow him to concentrate on his art.
By the time Valentina appeared on the scene, he had riches and recognition unimaginable to a boy from a poor Hasidic Jewish family in Vitebsk whose father had hauled barrels in a herring warehouse for a living. In 1977 the French state awarded him the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.
Was there a single factor that defined the artist’s latter decades? The American professor of philosophy Fred Dallmayr, writing in his book Marc Chagall: The Artist as Peacemaker (2020), certainly thinks so.
Dallmayr suggests that after living through two world wars, as well as the horror of the Holocaust, Chagall developed an ‘artistic vision of peace’. His work was characterised by a sense of harmony and happiness at odds with ‘the impulses of narrow selfishness, wilfulness and nationalistic violence’.
In truth, Chagall’s oil paintings had always had that sense. What’s interesting, though, is how undiscriminating he was when, from the 1950s onwards, he started accepting large-scale commissions. As proven by the aforementioned venues for which he designed stained-glass windows, Chagall made no distinction between Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or secular settings.
Dallmayr argues that ‘in later life, a certain multiculturalism became a prominent feature of his work’; and that the artist showed an ‘openness to the distinctive quality of other people and cultures’.
Another noteworthy commission from this period was the pair of murals he painted for the lobby of New York's Metropolitan Opera House in the mid-1960s: The Sources of Music and The Triumph of Music. Chagall took the opportunity to pay homage to the great composers of the past, most prominently Mozart, who flies like an angel above the Manhattan skyline in the former mural, embracing characters from his opera The Magic Flute.
‘Love should be the basis of true politics — [it] could bring about real peace’ — Marc Chagall
The Cold War extinguished any hope that the peace achieved in 1945 would last, and Chagall articulated his worldview in a number of speeches while it was being waged.
At the opening of an exhibition of his work in Tel Aviv in 1951, for example, he said, ‘I dream of the day when the spirit of idealism and purity impels humanity everywhere to conduct its battle for justice, and [we] emerge… from the epoch of fear.’
Chagall’s status as one of the world’s greatest artists ensured he was never short of speaking invitations, and in a lecture at the University of Chicago in 1959 he anticipated a credo of the Swinging Sixties when he said that ‘love should be the basis of true politics — [it] could bring about real peace’.
Speaking at the unveiling of a trio of his tapestries in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, a decade later, however, Chagall admitted that his dreams remained unfulfilled. ‘People prefer to embrace evil and injustice rather than love,’ he said, as conflicts continued to be fought across the globe, from Mozambique to Vietnam.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
It’s important to stress that Chagall was an artist, not a politician — but the speeches from his latter years do shed a certain light on his work from that time.
He never stopped innovating, whether in painting, the medium with which he’d made his name, or in his embrace and command of new media entirely. All the while, his art was marked by its warmth, wit and — perhaps especially in later life — the aim of giving peace a chance.