The Comité Chagall has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
‘My paintings are my memories.’
(M. Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, Marc Chagall: 1887-1985, Cologne, 1998, p. 265)
Executed in an explosion of bright, vibrant colours, Marc Chagall’s Le voyageur combines elements drawn from memory, myth and fantasy to create a highly romanticised, imaginative vision of the artist’s own epic journey through life. In a career filled with instances of immense change, migration and turmoil, the constancy of Chagall’s source material never wavered, with the artist reaching again and again into his memories for inspiration. In Le voyageur, Chagall uses the townscape of his youth – the small rural village of Vitebsk – as the setting for a fantastical, semi-autobiographical scene. Featuring a number of the artist’s favourite leitmotifs, from the domestic farm animals in the foreground to the floating figures that levitate above the townscape, the painting is suffused with a whimsical, magical atmosphere typical of Chagall’s oeuvre. Painted during a period of intense reflection and retrospection for the artist, Le voyageur demonstrates the central importance of memory in Chagall’s work, particularly as he entered his twilight years and began to look back on his life through rose-tinted glasses of retrospection.
One of the most striking elements of Le voyageur is the vibrancy of its sparkling colour palette, and the manner in which Chagall uses jewel-like primary colours, complemented by touches of purple, green and orange, to bring the scene alive. For Chagall, colour had always been one of the most integral elements of a composition, describing it as ‘the pulse of a work of art’ (Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, Connecticut, 1995, p. 180). In Le voyageur, the interplay between the varying tones generates an elegant sense of movement across the canvas, as the scene shifts from deep reds and blues, to bright effervescent yellow. The surface of the canvas is filled with frenzied brushstrokes of colour, encapsulating a sense of the artist’s vigorous and energetic painterly technique, while the chromatic range has a decidedly Mediterranean feel. This was no doubt influenced by the azure light and lush landscapes which surrounded Chagall at this time, as he enjoyed a halcyon existence in the South of France, dreamily recalling his past through his paintings.
Chagall had remained deeply connected to his Russian and Jewish heritage throughout his life, and motifs and references to his youth emerged in his paintings across his career. His hometown of Vitebsk, with its distinctive buildings and rural character, became a fundamental source of inspiration, with the artist referring to it as ‘the soil that nourished the roots of my art’ (Chagall, quoted in J. Baal-Teshuva, Marc Chagall: 1887-1985, Cologne, 1998, p. 19). In Le voyageur, the quaint houses of the shtetl where he grew up line the sweeping street, rooting the more fantastical elements of the composition in a distinctively recognisable location. Explaining the influence of his Russian upbringing on his art, Chagall admitted that ‘every painter is born somewhere. And even though he may later return to the influences of other atmospheres, a certain essence – a certain ‘aroma’ – of his birthplace clings to his work…The vital mark these early influences leave is, as it were, on the handwriting of the artist’ (M. Chagall, quoted in K. Kuh, ‘The Pleasure of Chagall’s Paintings’, in J. Baal-Teshuva, ed., Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 149). However, Chagall’s memories of his youth were coloured and intensified by a heavy sense of nostalgia, as he recalled a home which he never saw again after he left Russia for Paris in 1922.
Indeed, memory, and in particular his recollections of his youth in Vitebsk, took on a new level of importance following Chagall’s return to Russia in 1973. Travelling to Moscow and Leningrad at the official invitation of the Soviet State, Chagall spent eleven days in the country, where he enjoyed an emotional reunion with many of the family members and paintings he had left behind fifty years previously. However, the artist chose not to visit Vitebsk on this journey, as the intervening years had resulted in monumental changes to the town, particularly following heavy damage during the Second World War. Speaking to an American journalist travelling with him at the time, he explained: ‘Even the gravestones are no longer standing since the war. If the graves were still there I would have gone. They tell me a corner of our house is still standing, but could I have stepped inside? Could you?’ (Chagall, quoted in H. Kamm, ‘Emotional Return to Russia Buoys Chagall’, in The New York Times, 17 June 1973, p. 1). As a result, the artist’s vision of Vitebsk was completely based on his own romanticised memories of his youth, mythologised by time and distance. Le voyageur is filled with a humorous, light-hearted atmosphere, accentuated by details such as the man running across the roofs of the village, or the child riding on the back of the goat to the right, which alter the mood of the scene significantly and belie the stark reality of life in Vitebsk at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
For Chagall, memories of his youth were intrinsically intertwined with the Jewish faith. Vitebsk was primarily a Jewish community and Chagall’s upbringing was shaped by the traditions and rituals of the Hasidic branch of Judaism. In Le voyageur, the artist includes several religious references, such as the figure scaling the ladder in the upper right corner of the composition, which may be read as a reference to the story of Jacob’s ladder. This motif, which featured in both the artist’s illustrations of the Old Testament and the works he created for the Marc Chagall Museum for the Biblical Message, sits alongside an image of the crucified Christ rising above the town. Chagall identified Christ as the embodiment of Jewish suffering, a symbol of the trials and tribulations they had endured throughout history, and the Crucifixion became a recurring feature in his paintings following the Second World War. By placing this figure so prominently within the town, Chagall may be referring to the loss of the Vitebsk of his youth, and the difficulties endured by its population over the course of the intervening decades. Also, by including both Christian and Jewish iconography in this way, Chagall references the cross-currents which influenced him as a result of his journeys through the West, and may be seen to represent his own crossing of boundaries, both geographic and cultural, during his years of wandering.