Marc Chagall - The Violonist
In painting, surrealism had as its forerunners various examples of fantastic, double-image, and trompe-l'oeil (Fr., "deceive-the-eye") art throughout the ages. Giorgio di CHIRICO was the first important painter of surrealism proper, but Salvador DALI became the most famous, supplanting Chirico as leader. Other surrealist painters include René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, and Frida Kahlo. In addition, the surrealists claimed affinities with their work in the painting or sculpture of the following, although the artists named were known chiefly for their experiments in new forms: Pablo PICASSO, Marcel DUCHAMP, Constantin Brancusi, Francis Picabia, Hans Arp, Paul KLEE, Joan Miro, André Masson, and Pavel Tchelitchew. It was customary for surrealist poets to paint pictures and for surrealist painters to write poems, the difference in content being so slight that an effective interchange was possible.
The Expressionists had sung of anguish. At the same time, other painters sang the fantastic. These participated like their fellow artists in the rebellion of irrational forces against the excessive intellectual tendencies of Cubism, and gave whole hearted support to the conception of a fluid style of painting as against that of an exclusively plastic mode. The analogies are close between these two tendencies: in both we find the same rejection of pure painting, the same return of the majority of the painters to the traditional idea of métier, the same exaltation of direct communication by painting in which the artist expresses himself and by which he frees himself; the same attempt to insist on the value of vague emotion; the same conviction that it is only by this emotion and through this emotion that we can enter into contact with the deepest truth of being. None the less, this conception marks a difference between Expressionism and the style of painting whose modifications we intend to study: with very few exceptions the Expressionist painter, a voyant of the concrete, does not leave the realm of Nature to soar into that of the supernatural; whereas it is the realm of the fantastic, the surreal which constitutes the world of Chagall, Chirico, the Surrealists and their followers whose experiments we will study in this chapter.
Having received an academic training at the Society for the Protection of the Arts at St. Petersburg, Chagall came to France in 1910 and settled at La Ruche. Immediately he comes under the influence of both Cubism and Orphism. After the first impact of these new ideas, he begins to paint more orginal pictures towards 1912, and these are already the ancestors of Surrealist painting. In such canvases as The Village and Me or Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, although his intense colors are obviously inspired by those of Delaunay and although the sharp construction of his form as well as the clear-cut organization of the painting all betray the influence of the painters of Puteaux, the Expressionist conception of the communicative value of painting and his own shining lyricism already mark him out as a creative genius of the first order. The most original aspect, however, of Chagall's work is the rich strain of fantasy with which he transforms the objects and subjects which come tumbling from his memory and introduces them into his own personal world--a world that is impossible, illogical and unreal. Obsessed by the memories of his Russian childhood with its people and countryside, its customs and costumes, haunted by the stories of his childhood which spring from Jewish rather than from Slavonic folklore, finally burning with anguish when confronted by the world in which he lives, he uses as subjects for his painting his own face which he visualizes as a seven-branched candelabrum, the cattle which his uncle Neuch used to sell as well as the isbas of the snowy steppes, the greatcoats of the moujiks as well as the unrolled Torah, and all these memories enrich his imagination which finds artistic expression in canvases full of splendid fantasy. And so in his composition entitled To Russia, Donkeys and Others, a pink cow grazes in a dark sky, while peasant women seem to dance a frenzied sarabande in the rest of the composition under the ironic onlooking stars. We are transported into the realm of pure fantasy which from now on we will never leave.
In spite of Chagall's efforts, which now follow, to modify his technique, to change even his paint quality, he will never forsake those enchanted worlds where the most fantastic dream becomes reality, where a man walks upon the waters, flies out through an open window, where animals play music, where objects no longer have contour nor thickness nor weight, but become polychromatic and dazzling, like butterfly wings, diaphanous and featherweight, which exist in the fantasy-ridden world of an imaginative child.
Now begins a more Expressionist period (1922-1927); and then coming down from the heights of his empyrean to the commonplace things of daily human existence--his world, rather the world of his experiences (The Rabbi) which he is incapable of evoking without bathing it in fantasy (Double Portrait of a Wine Glass), is orientated later (1927-1935) towards the evocation of a gracious universe whose inhabitants are flowers and lovely young girls ( The Acrobat), but whose details make it as unorthodox as a dream (The Lovers in the Flowers). Haunted later by the warning signs of the impending catastrophe, he paints gloomy war scenes--scenes of persecution and death which become more numerous during his exile in the United States and especially after the death of his beloved wife (1944). Dream and horrible reality mingle in these paintings ( War, The Soul of the Town). Filled with a new joyful inspiration on his return to France which is responsible for his landscapes of Paris, he again mingles the imaginary with the real. And this we may say in general, from one end of his career to another and whatever type of painting he does--still life, landscape, portrait, social painting, religious painting--Chagall's inspiration will just not soar without the impetus of this very decided imaginative element. The objects and beings which inspire him and which he untiringly reintroduces into all his paintings and which, without doubt, are of absorbing interest to those psychiatrists interested in his inner life--clocks, chandeliers, violins, animals, reindeers, youthful nudes, angels he makes them all winged and soars with them into an ethereal world where everything whirls, mingles and rises ever higher. His treatment of form, which is slender, light, drawn out as in certain works of El Greco's last period, adds to this impression of fantasy, less however than does his color. His colors are arbitrary--this pig is green, this face red--but above all it is so rich, so iridescent, so seductive, that it becomes very obvious that such color simply does not exist in our poor workaday world. Lively or somber, rich in this almost musical attractiveness, it receives an added strength from the paint quality, especially when Chagall uses gouache, whose dullness he transforms with a mastery hand into a disquieting phosphorescence. And so this art of a wonderstruck child flowers for the whole length of a varied career, and so completely is he obsessed by his dreams that he obstinately refuses to renounce these childhood wonders. Thus an exuberant style of painting developed in a way that we have just shown, and this style is born about 1912 not of the pathetic reality of the Expressionists but rather of the most whimsical fantasy. The fantastic at last gained a foothold in Western painting which had practically ceased to cultivate it since the end of the Middle Ages--with very rare exceptions of which the most glorious example is Goya--but from Chagall on seems to feel a deep need to express an urgent vision in this genre which we shall shortly see assuming greatness in the art of Georgio di Chirico.
At the same time as Apollinaire was becoming enamoured with the multicolored and riotous dreams of Chagall, he found among the paintings exhibited at the Salon d'Automne of 1911 and at the Salon des Indépendants of 1912 strange canvases which evoked his admiring attention, canvases in which he saw dead cities dear to d'Annunzio's artifice whose only inhabitants are the shades of invisible people and in which streets stretched out in long perspective under the emptiness of a lonely, hopeless sky. The painter, in fact, was an Italian born in Greece and who after having lived in Munich, Turin and Florence, finally settled in Paris in 1911--this, of course, was Georgio di Chirico.
What was attractive and stimulating in these works to the "discoverer" of the Cubists, the godfather of Orphism, the art lover who was sensitive to avant-garde research? Perspective took a place of supreme inportance, the forms were modeled according to the most traditional rules while those of light and shade were applied with an implacable rigor; even the trompe l' il (deceptive appearance through painted illusion) was not distasteful to the artist. Reactionary in this respect, they were even more so in their obstinacy to sacrifice to a tyrannical drawing a color which had merely local tones, to paint in the most applied manner, to give to the painted surface the most conventional aspect of porcelain and to the painting itself a quality of finish capable of delighting the public of the Salon des Artistes Français.
Was Apollinaire, who had preached a kind of painting without subject, sensitive to the themes of these canvases? They were decidedly literary--literary and heavy in the worst sense of the word, filled with everything that is falsely poetic-- those compositions of Arnold Böcklin which Chirico had seen in Munich and had not admired in vain. In Böcklin, one of the most unhappy currents of nineteenth-century art that of the narrative painting of Nazareens, Feuerbach and Marées, makes its reappearance.