By 1926 Chagall had his first ever exhibition in the United States. Over 100 works were shown at the Reinhardt gallery of New York, although he did not travel to the opening. Ironically it was not until 1927 that Chagall made his name in the French art world.
During this period in France he traveled throughout the country and fell in love with Cote d’Azur, where he was impressed by the rich greenness of landscapes, colorful vegetation, the Mediterranean blue and the mild weather. His wife Bella had always a special role in his life. According to Chagall she was the living connection to Russia that allowed him to evolve as an artist in exile. He also visited nearby Holland, Spain, Italy, Egypt and Palestine and later wrote on paper the impressions some of those travels left on him: in Holland it was the throbbing light, like the light between the late afternoon and dusk. In Italy he found that peace of the museums which the sunlight brought to life. In Spain he found inspiration of a mystical, if sometimes cruel, past. And in the Palestine he found unexpectedly the Bible and a part of his very being.
Beginning in 1937 more than twenty thousand works from German museums were confiscated as “degenerate” by an order from information and propaganda committee headed by Joseph Goebbels. Although the German press had once admired his art, the new German leadership now made a mockery of Chagall’s art, describing them as “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth”…and therefore representing assault on Western civilization.
World War II was on the horizon…
After Germany invaded and occupied France, Chagall naively remained in, unaware of the intentions of Vichy Government to let the Nazis to collect French Jews and sent them to German concentration camps, from which nearly all would never return. Chagall’s attachment to France blinded him and didn’t allow him to judge the situation realistically.
After numerous warnings by their daughter Ida, who desperately stressed the need to act fast, Chagalls agreed to leave France. But it was the help from Alfred Barr who actually saved Chagall by adding his name to the list of prominent artists, whose lives were at risk, that the United States should try to extricate. He left France in May 1941 – almost too late. Other artists like Picasso and Matisse were invited to come to America too but they decided to remain in France. Chagall and Bella arrived in New York on June 23, 1941, which was the next day after Germany invaded Russia.
Although he was recognized in America, well before his arrival, Chagall did not feel comfortable. He felt not practically suited for this new role in a foreign country whose language he could not yet speak. He became a public figure mostly against his will, feeling lost in the strange surroundings. In addition his discomfort in America was compounded by his knowing that why he left France under Nazi occupation the fate of millions of other Jews was at risk. It took a while before he began to settle down in New York which was full of writers, painters, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions. He spent time visiting galleries and museums, and befriended other painters. But the contemporary American artists did not yet understand or even like Chagall’s art. For them ‘Parisian Surrealism,’ meant little to nothing. Things started to change when Pierre Matisse, the son of recognized French artist Henri Matisse, became his representative and held Chagall exhibitions in New York and Chicago in 1941. Critics slowly but surely liked his art. By 1946 his artwork was becoming more widely recognized and acclaimed.
After the liberation of France Chagall returned to Paris alone as his wife Bella has died in New York from infection. He traveled throughout Europe and chose to live in the Cote d’Azur which at that time had become an artistic centre. Henri Matisse lived above Nice and Picasso lived in Vallauris. Although the three famous artists lived nearby and sometimes worked together, there was artistic rivalry between them as their work was so distinctly different, and they never became long-term friends. Regardless Picasso had great respect for Chagall and the rumors are saying that once Picasso noted: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color is… His canvases are really painted, not just tossed together. Some of the last things he’s done in Venice convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”
Critics who studied Chagall’ work are noticing like one that in all of his work, it was his colors which attracted and captured the viewer’s attention. The colors are a living, integral part of the picture and are never passively flat, or banal like an afterthought. His colors do not even attempt to imitate nature but rather to suggest movements, planes and rhythms. He was able to convey striking images using only two or three colors.
One of them, Cogniat writes, “Chagall is unrivalled in this ability to give a vivid impression of explosive movement with the simplest use of colors…” Throughout his life his colors created a “vibrant atmosphere” which was based on “his own personal vision.
Chagall’s paintings would later sell for record prices. In October 2010 his painting “Bestiaire et Musique,” depicting a bride and a fiddler floating in a night sky amid circus performers and animals, “was the star lot” at an auction in Hong Kong and it sold for $4.1 million, to become the most expensive contemporary Western painting ever sold in Asia.
According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be “the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists.” For decades he “had also been respected as the world’s preeminent Jewish artist.” Using the medium of stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz windows for the United Nations, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. At age 77 he also did large-scale paintings, including the ceiling for the Paris Opera.
Chagall, the last surviving master of European modernism, died in France in 1985. He had experienced at first hand the high hopes and crushing disappointments of the Russian revolution, Word War I, and had witnessed the end of the Pale, the near annihilation of European Jewry, and the obliteration of his home town of Vitebsk, where only 118 of a population of 240,000 survived the Second World War.
He came from nowhere to achieve worldwide acclaim. Yet his fractured relationship with his Jewish identity was unresolved and tragic. Ironically Chagall would have died with no Jewish rites, had not a Jewish stranger stepped forward and said the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over his coffin.
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