Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Belated birthday kiss for Marc Chagall

A couple of days ago, you might have noticed, Google redesigned its homepage in the style of Marc Chagall, in honor of his July 7 (1887) birthday. Marc Chagall. I went around the world for that guy.

When I first washed up in New York City (in the early 1990s), like many of us do, I got lost in the museums. At the time I was on a kick, and I’ve mostly stayed on it, of insisting on an original personal encounter with the art work before I read the labels and start to classify. Only after taking the journey of the work do I wonder who has taken me there, and record the name. So I would return from New York with a notebook of names, which would send me on another journey, into libraries (and, later, the internet) to learn about the artists and start to make connections.

I should mention that I managed to complete a master’s degree in literature at Washington University without ever taking a single course on visual art. I did this work alone, or with wide-eyed friends on the road, starting from nothing. Nothing: that’s what you learn about art growing up in a place like Granite City, Illinois.

The name “Marc Chagall” came home with me to St. Louis after one of those early trips to the city. His was the name attached to a work of art that had taken me on a long journey at the Museum of Modern Art – Birthday, a 1915 painting of his wife, Bella, in the year they married, in their Russia hometown of Vitebsk. A lot of people start with Chagall at this painting, which I have often seen, since, reproduced on posters and in books. It’s the one where the painter is floating up and over the shoulder of his bride, to deliver a surprise birthday kiss with half-twist.

The surprise in her eye is what stays with you from this painting. It has always stayed with me. I tried to write a Chagall song that never really went anywhere. I mumble through most of the verses when I try to sing it now, but I did retain the line I wrote about that element of surprise: “crack-up fright in a birthday girl’s eye.”

It’s possible to get lost in Chagall. He left behind so much vivid work, drawings and paintings and stained glass. He and Bella were both also highly skilled writers, who wrote wonderful memoirs that have been translated into all of the world’s languages. When they fled the Soviet Union – two years after that birthday kiss, Russia was shattered forever – Chagall got tangled up with any number of poets in Paris, so phantom traces of him survive in modern poetry. It was following Chagall around through books that I stumbled upon Blaise Cendrars (“Chagall, Chagall, on ladders of light”), whose work has been with me ever since, a trusted travel companion. I also have Chagall to thank for Nicolai Gogol, whose Dead Souls he illustrated unforgettably.

When I moved to New York, I knew where to look to find my Chagall. I made a pilgrimage to the Union Church of Pontico Hills. Nestled in the Hudson Valley, this was the family church of the Rockefellers when they were nesting in their nearby summer home. My independent studies had taught me Chagall had made a series of stained glass windows for this church (after Henri Matisse did the central altar window, the last piece he completed before his death in 1954). Between the name magic of the Rockefellers and the logistics I would associate with 10 Chagall windows (complementing one big one by Matisse), I had expected a big, cold, roomy place. It’s not. Standing in the center aisle, it’s as if you get colored light from Chagall windows on both your shoulders, streaming in from both sides of the sanctuary. Since Chagall stands out as a colorist above all, this is a big deal: this small church provides the most Chagall color by capita in the world.

It took Chagall to get me back into church – and into my first opera house, the Palais Garnier in Paris, which I encountered, later, on a visit to meet in-laws in the placid suburbs of the French capital. (It ain’t all flaming banlieue, torched by disgruntled Algerian immigrants.) I didn’t stick around for any opera, but I did develop a stiff neck craning on a balcony to study the ceiling, which Chagall had painted in 1964. It’s a fabulous, phantasmagoric tribute to the world’s great composers; and, in a palace of visual treasures, it’s where the opera house’s millions of tourists tend to bottleneck. Of course, Parisians being Parisians, they have found reasons to complain about Chagall’s ceiling; there is a controversy that his painting is too unlike the rest of the rather pompous opera house. They might be right. It might be the only thing in there that is genuinely alive.

Coming back home, I notice the Saint Louis Art Museum has two Chagall paintings. Happy to have them here. I have always seen Temptation on display. It’s a big geometric experiment, painted in Paris in 1912, and reflects his dabbling in Cubist ideas, not terribly successfully, from what I can tell. I don’t think I have ever seen on display at SLAM the much smaller and humbler Chagall painting Pink Cow.

It was painted in 1930 after he had moved to the country, and rather than fracturing all of his typical farm village imagery, he just indulges in it nostalgically. Maybe I like this one so much because I recognize so much of myself in it. Off to one side from the village woman milking the pink cow is a distracted man standing on a porch, sawing on a violin. That’s me, I’m that guy. I’m not the romantic lover swooping in for the birthday kiss after giving his beloved a boquet of flowers; I’m the isolato with the violin, absconded in song while someone else gets the necessary chores done before dark.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I also very much enjoy the works of Marc Chagall. His art continues to grow on me. You can check out a lot of his current works that are on the market right now through my favorite gallery, Masterworks Fine Art, Inc.

Chagall lithographs