Marc Chagall is an artist we think we know. When someone mentions his name, certain images will come to mind — floating figures in the sky, perhaps a married couple, a goat, a bouquet, a brightly coloured fiddler, a cockerel, a village… We see this artist as brightly coloured dreamscapes. The fact that Chagall lived locally and depicted Vence and St Paul de Vence so beautifully makes him even more special. However, the current exhibition at Musée Marc Chagall in Nice, which is open until 28th August, provides a rare opportunity to reconsider this artist through his sculpture work.
When trying to understand the work of Chagall, it is important to consider his incredible life. The artist was the eldest son of a family of Hasidic Jews from the small town of Vitebsk in Belarus, a sect of the Jewish faith that reveres a Lurianic version of the Kabbalah. All of the sudden, the magical dreamscapes, village scenes and repetitive themes of the Old Testament make perfect sense. Having become a successful artist in Paris, Chagall had to endure two world wars, one revolution, an escape to America and the loss of his beloved first wife Bella, just as he learnt of the atrocities of the Holocaust. It is unsurprising that, after the war, he wanted to return to the south of France and escape it all.
Upon his arrival, he began his collaboration with the great gallerist Aimé Maeght. Chagall was looking for ways other than painting to express himself. He created brilliant stained glass (some of which can been seen at the museum), mosaics and ceramics. In 1951, Chagall embarked on sculpture. This involved thinking in an entirely different way, learning how to carve art works out of stone using a reductive method and foregoing perhaps one of his most vital artistic tools, colour.
This was a bold challenge for an artist who is best known as a colourist and was once described by Picasso in the following terms: “When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” It is intriguing to consider whether this loss of colour is balanced out by the achievement of three-dimensional form. Without the punch of colour, Chagall had to find an another way to give his work power. He seems to have found this through Primitivism and by giving his works an immediate emotional resonance.
It is very interesting to compare the sculptures to the paintings. His marble Bathsheba is all curves; there is no mistaking what drew David to her. The strong physical connection between the couple is obvious in the 1962 marble sculpture David et Bethsabée. In the sculptures, we find familiar motifs: birds, animals, bouquets and particularly love. Anniversaire (1968) refers to a 1915 painting of the same name, which celebrates Chagall's wedding to his first wife and great love, Bella. In Deux Nus (1953), Adam and Eve are melded together, their hair is conjoined. Although they are hewn from stone, it is almost as if they have been formed together and revealed by the artist as the marble was chipped away.