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Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
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Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Hommage au passé ou La ville

Details
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Hommage au passé ou La ville
signed and dated 'Marc Chagall 944' (lower right)
oil on canvas
28 1/8 x 29 7/8 in. (71.3 x 75.9 cm.)
Painted in 1944
Provenance
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, by 1948.
Dr J.J. Mayers, New York.
Van Diemen-Lilienfeld Galleries, New York.
Feigl Gallery, New York.
The Frederick & Helen Serger Collection, New York, by 1954.
Mr & Mrs Ludwig Neugass, New York, by 1956 until at least 1965.
Private collection, Australia, by 1986; sale, Christie's, London, 7 February 2012, lot 43.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
R. Maritain, Chagall ou l'orage Enchanté, Geneva & Paris, 1948, p. 154 (the earlier state illustrated).
F. Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Work, New York, 1964, no. 736, pp. 452 & 758 (illustrated n.p.).
J. Cassou, Chagall, London, 1965, no. 115, p. 280 (illustrated fig. 115, n.p.).
J. Baal-Teshuva, Marc Chagall, 1887-1985, Cologne, 2008, p. 169 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Perls Galleries, Marc Chagall, March - April 1956, no. 15, n.p.
Tokyo, Musée National d'Art Occidental, Marc Chagall, October - November 1963, no. 69, p. 92 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, Musée Municipal de Kyoto, November - December 1963.

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Keith Gill
Keith Gill Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

The Comité Marc Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

Filled with an air of melancholic nostalgia, Marc Chagall’s Hommage au passé (also known as La ville) offers an intriguing glimpse into the ways in which the artist's emotional and psychological state impacted his painterly practice during the tumultuous events of the 1940s. In his biography of the artist, Chagall's son-in-law Franz Meyer suggested that the painter might have begun this painting, which has also been recorded with the title La ville, in France in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Second World War, before returning to it again following his escape from Europe to New York, and subsequently again following the end of hostilities in New York. As such, the painting has undergone a number of revisions and evolutions, with each stage of the painting’s development channelling the artist’s feelings at a particular moment in time.

Chagall had managed to remain in Vichy France for some time, refusing to abandon his beloved adoptive home at the outbreak of the conflict. However, increasing persecution and the erroneous arrest and detainment of Chagall and his wife Bella by local authorities left the artist severely shaken, and he finally accepted an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to travel across the Atlantic. Packaging up as many of his paintings, studies and portfolios of drawings as he could, Chagall set sail from Marseilles on the 7th of May 1941, arriving in New York with Bella a little over a month later. Chagall likened the city to a modern day Babylon, frenetic and filled with a myriad of different nationalities and voices. He felt most at home amongst New York’s Jewish communities, where the familiar sounds of Yiddish filled the air and shops selling traditional Jewish food lined the streets, leading him to feel an immediate, if somewhat unexpected, connection to the home of his youth – the small village of Vitebsk. Many of the people he encountered in New York had connections to Chagall’s homeland, and the artist would spend his mornings talking endlessly with shopkeepers and his fellow customers about what was happening to the Jewish communities of Russia under German invasion. As a result, Chagall’s thoughts returned once again to memories of his hometown of Vitebsk, to its community and its atmosphere, as he waited anxiously for news of its survival following the intense fighting it had suffered, and images of the small shtetl began to infiltrate his paintings.

In Hommage au passé, Chagall conjures up an ethereal vision of the townscape at night, its small cluster of houses and curving streets blanketed in a thick layer of fresh snow. The artist himself appears in the left hand side of the composition, seated before a large canvas, his head twisted to look back at the scene in an effort to capture his vision of the sleepy town before it disappears. A nostalgic paean to the Vitebsk of his memories, bathed in the rich, deep blue of night, Chagall creates a celebratory evocation not only of the lost homeland of his past, but also his attempts as a painter to memorialise it for eternity, at a time when it was threatened with complete destruction. Chagall heightens the dream-like nature of the image by introducing a series of characters that appear to be suspended in mid-air, from the line of anonymous figures who form a procession down the far right hand side of the canvas, to the youth mourning a lost loved one at a graveside. However, it is the profile of a young woman floating above the silent town that dominates the composition. Her gaze is focused solely on the artist, who returns her stare intently, completely absorbed by her appearance. She is most likely a reference to the artist’s beloved wife, Bella, whom he had first met in Vitebsk as a young man, and who had been his constant companion and great love for almost thirty years. Her larger than life form dominates the skyline, perhaps a subtle tribute to the manner in which the artist’s memories of Vitebsk were inextricably linked to Bella herself.

Although Chagall signed Hommage au passé in 1944, the composition appears to have been revised on several occasions over the course of the ensuing years. The adjustments were most likely made following the sudden death of Bella in September 1944, which engulfed Chagall in an intense wave of grief that left him unable to paint for several months. Discussing his despair following Bella’s passing, Chagall wrote: ‘There was a loud thunderclap and brief cloudburst about six o’clock in the afternoon of September 2nd 1944, when Bella departed from this world… For me, all was darkness…’ (Chagall, quoted in Meyer, p. 466). Chagall moved to his daughter's New York apartment shortly afterwards, where he apparently turned his canvases towards the wall, abandoning painting until the spring of the following year. The figure mourning at the headstone may have been introduced to the composition after this date, a reflection of the artist’s own anguish and pain following Bella’s death. A reproduction of the picture published in 1948, meanwhile, suggests the presence of several portrait heads which have subsequently been removed from the composition, including an image of Chagall himself. Indeed, Chagall appears to have pared back the composition so that the primary focus is on the relationship between the artist at the canvas, the vision of his muse, and his intense sense of longing and melancholy in his remembrance of her. As such, Hommage au passé stands as a romantic tribute to the memory of Bella, to their life together, and to the place where their love first blossomed.

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