EXHIBITION DIGITORIAL®: CHAGALL. WORLD IN TURMOIL

Intro

With Marc Chagall to the Other End of Colors In the face of dramatic events, Marc Chagall changes the tone and the themes of his art.
Find out more now in the Digitorial to the exhibition
CHAGALL. WORLD IN TURMOIL

Around Her, 1945, detail Around Her, 1945, detail

To the Other End of Colors

In Marc Chagall’s oeuvre, his fantasy seems to have no limits. He is regarded as one of the most unconventional artists of the modern era. Colorful. Expressive. Brilliant. In the 1930s and 1940s his palette became darker. The experience of displacement and persecution was henceforth reflected in new topics—while motifs and moments of happiness also remained part of his work.

VITEBSK

VITEBSK

In striking recurring motifs, Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk shaped his pictorial world throughout all his creative periods.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Vitebsk was a vibrant city with over 66,000 residents, not least due to its advantageous location at the confluence of two rivers. The Jewish population accounted for half of its inhabitants. Marc Chagall was born into a Jewish family there in 1887, and his childhood and youth amid the Jewish culture of Vitebsk would shape him permanently.

Vitebsk became the leitmotif in Chagall’s work

Even though he left for good at the age of thirty-three, he depicted motifs from Vitebsk and its surroundings throughout his life. Small wooden houses, crooked fences, and the Orthodox Church with the large dome: all were incorporated in an artistic fundus of memories that Chagall took recourse to again and again.

“Why do I always paint Vitebsk? With these pictures I create a home for myself.”

Marc Chagall

Learn more about Vitebsk and life in the shtetl community

Although located in today’s Belarus, at the end of the nineteenth century, Vitebsk was part of the so-called Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, and the Jewish population’s right to live and work was restricted to this region. As Chagall described in his autobiography “My Life,” the “introspective existence” in his hometown was largely played out between the synagogue, stove-side benches, and shops. Influenced to a great extent by the wider Eastern European Jewish culture, Vitebsk displayed the traits of a typical “shtetl.” Characteristic of the way of life of Eastern European Jews, shtetl communities placed a central importance on family and tradition, most commonly spoke Yiddish, and were shaped by their high proportion of Hassidic residents—Hassidism being a widespread religious movement in Eastern Europe. This spiritual and mystical expression of Judaism sees no separation between the material and the immaterial or celestial—instead emphasizing the immanence of God in mundane acts and the physical world. Chagall’s family members were also Hassids, and the shtetl community culture and traditions of his parents continued to have a formative influence on Chagall’s pictorial world throughout his life.

A burning candle stands over Vitebsk lying in darkness. But it does not entirely succeed in lighting up the darkness. In this dreamlike scene, winged figures, a fabulous beast, and a female figure holding a child in her arms float above the city. The latter evokes associations with the Madonna, but also with a bride whose forehead is being kissed by the groom.

Marc Chagall married his fiancée, Bella Rosenfeld, also from Vitebsk, in 1915. Again and again, the artist processed memories of their wedding in his works. In "The Village Madonna", which was produced before and during the Second World War, motifs of remembering are combined with Chagall’s concern about the future of his homeland. In connection with this, in addition to radiant white and luminous yellow, the artist turned to more somber colors to render the city of his birth.

The Village Madonna, 1938–42

Vitebsk in luminous colors: learn more about Chagall’s pictorial language in the 1910s

Chagall, who was trained at private art schools in Vitebsk and St. Petersburg, traveled to Paris for the first time in 1911 to continue his art studies. The French capital was an artistic crucible and offered the young painter a broad palette of formal and stylistic possibilities. Here, he took up influences from the modern art movements and experimented, for instance, with the Cubists’ principle of decomposition of form. In the structure of the picture “I and the Village,” four sectors radiate out from a central point. Within, one finds a man and an animal, nature in the form of a tree, and civilization as a village opposite it. The artist succeeded here in cross-fading Cubistic simultaneity with memories of Vitebsk. The interlinking of the real and the fantastical, the past and the present, as well as a bright, luminous color palette became characteristic of his pictorial language at this time.

I and the Village, 1911

PARIS

PARIS

In 1922, Marc Chagall left post-Revolution Russia for good. Along with Bella Chagall and their daughter Ida, the artist settled in the French capital in 1923 following a short stay in Berlin.

While he was initially enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution, Chagall quickly realized that communist pictorial propaganda could not have anything in common with artistic freedom and individualistic design. This reinforced his decision to leave his hometown of Vitebsk.

In Paris began a productive creative phase

Chagall strove to establish himself on the French art scene. Thus, he was interested in being perceived as an international artist who also appealed to a French audience. Nonetheless, Chagall did not feel like he belonged. The discussions triggered by his being commissioned by the influential art dealer Ambroise Vollard for the illustrations of Jean de La Fontaine’s “Fables” were also a background for Chagall’s sentiment. The fact that a Russian Jew was commissioned to illustrate this “most” French poet created a scandal. But not only the hostility of the press was an occasion for Chagall to think about his identity as a Russian-Jewish artist in France. He also occupied himself more intensively with Jewish topics and his own Jewish origins as a result of Ambroise Vollard’s subsequent commission for Bible illustrations.

The Black Glove, 1923–48

Close-up: The Black Glove

In many artworks Chagall processed his memories of Vitebsk or referred back to earlier works like a portrait of Bella with black gloves and a book from 1909. As a reference to this portrait, Chagall depicted a black glove and a book in the painting that he began working on during his first year in Paris and reworked four years after his wife’s death.

Joined together like a two-headed being, Marc and Bella Chagall observe their surroundings from different perspectives: the artist is looking at a canvas with a picture of a clock. Bella is touching the face of this clock with one hand, while simultaneously turned toward a scene in the background.

The young Marc Chagall steps out of a house in Vitebsk onto the street. He is proffering the bouquet of flowers in his hand to a floating Bella in a lemon-colored dress and a wedding veil.

A cock is leaning confidingly toward the head of the artist. The chicken yard was a formative memory from Chagall’s childhood, and his examination of the firebird, a figure from Russian-Slavic mythology, gave the motif new topicality in the mid-1940s. The cock plays a role in the religious rituals of diverse peoples as an embodiment of the energy of the sun and fire.

Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. That same year, the National Socialists burned works by Chagall and other modern artists. In view of the political events, Chagall strove to obtain French citizenship, which he finally received in 1937, despite considerable difficulties and after two refusals. While the artist has been working on the painting "Bonjour Paris", the Vichy regime in France, like the National Socialist regime in Germany enacted anti-Jewish laws, which, among other things, deprived Jews living in the country of citizenship.

Chagall brings the French metropolis to life: while a pair of lovers continue exchanging caresses in the midnight-blue sky, the cock in the center wakes the Eiffel Tower from its slumber to greet the new day. The portrayal of the lovers thus evokes associations with the artist and his wife. With the city of Paris and the Eiffel Tower, its emblem, Chagall associated the idea of freedom, even though it was overshadowed by the current political events.

Bonjour Paris, 1939−42

“... my art needed Paris like a tree water.”

Marc Chagall

Learn more about nationalist movements in Europe in the early twentieth century

Starting from the period of international crisis that began after the First World War, nationalist movements characterized by racism, xenophobia, and rightwing extremism—always supported by an ideology of the superiority of one’s own nation—developed in many European countries. While most of the movements were based on the idea of the nation-state, these violent notions also prevailed beyond specific national territories in the form of colonialist expansionism. In quite a few countries, such tendencies ultimately culminated in dictatorships and other totalitarian forms of government. Italian fascism began as a political movement under Benito Mussolini in 1919 and developed into a dictatorship in 1925, employing violence and terror against its own population. In Spain, Francisco Franco governed as a dictator from 1935 to 1975. It was, however, National Socialist fascism under Adolf Hitler in Germany, lasting from 1933 to 1945, which led to the outbreak of the Second World War and took shape in the gravest of dimensions. The effects of such totalitarianisms were felt around the world and endured well after the end of each respective regime—even today, these ideologies are regularly reprised in new political movements.

With the rise of fascist and authoritarian regimes in many countries in Europe in the early 1930s, the tone and topics of Chagall’s paintings changed.

Chagall’s paintings express unease about current events

The works became more subdued and bleaker in color and expressed unease with contemporary events. The artist thus shows interest not only in processing personal experiences, but also in the question of how individual experiences can aid the incorporation of existential themes in pictures.

The drawing, dominated by the deep blue of the sky, radiates a gloomy, melancholic atmosphere. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Chagall moved southward in 1939 and, in 1940, on to Gordes in Provence, which was not yet occupied by the German Wehrmacht. Inspired by nature in southern France, the artist produced a village landscape in various shades of green. But one also sees here a petroleum lamp and a wall clock.

These elements came from the artist’s memories of his childhood: in Chagall’s parents’ living room, there was a pendulum clock that he was afraid of as a child. The wall clock, which sets its own pace, simultaneously points to the unstoppable passage of time.

The Dream, 1938/39

“When the clockmaker hears that the heart of a clock is beating too weakly, he bends over it ... and blows his breath into its ear.”

Bella Chagall

The idea that one’s own culture and homeland are threatened existentially, as well as the attempt to record and preserve them artistically, is formative for the works of Marc Chagall. His works prompt viewers to examine historical and also contemporary events and to consider questions relating to identity, memory, fleeing, and migration. We asked four individuals to share their thoughts about the artist’s works and the concept of “home” with us. Translations of audio recordings can be found in the SOURCES AND PICTURE CREDITS at the bottom of the web page.

Michel Bergmann, author

00:00 00:00 00:00

For me, home is a specific feeling

Viktoriia von Rosen, German-Ukrainian Society for Economy and Science e.V.

00:00 00:00 00:00

Chagall remained true to his origins in Vitebsk in many respects

Yan Varashkevich, Über den Tellerrand Frankfurt e.V.

00:00 00:00 00:00

It’s naturally not that easy to be a foreigner

Vivien Hashemi, Afghan Women's Association Zan e.V.

00:00 00:00 00:00

I think that people always leave part of themselves behind when they are forced to flee

PALESTINE

In 1931, Marc Chagall traveled through the British mandate territory of Palestine for a total of three months and visited religious sites. Ambroise Vollard had commissioned him to illustrate the Old Testament. In addition, he participated in the laying of the cornerstone for a museum of Jewish art at the invitation of the mayor and founder of the city of Tel Aviv.

Already prior to his trip, the artist produced the first gouaches as a basis for the subsequent graphic reproductions. In Palestine, he created many drawings and paintings that are distinguished by an almost documentary character that is unusual in his oeuvre. His motifs focus on the depiction of sacred Jewish sites. He, however, didn’t capture the current life world in Palestine or the local Arab or Christian population in his works.

September 1939: the German Wehrmacht invades Poland

The concentration on Jewish culture can also be explained based on the growing threat to Jewish life and Jewish identity. Even before the National Socialists came to power, Chagall was ostracised because of his religious affiliation and his art was thus regarded negatively. The project came to a standstill in 1939, when Vollard, the person who commissioned it, died. One month later, the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland—the Second World War began. The publication was first completed later and finally released in 1956.

Moses Spreads the Darkness over Egypt, 1931

As in the Christian pictorial tradition, Chagall shows Moses as a bearded older man with horns. He is in the process of unleashing the ninth plague on Egypt and its population in order to persuade the Pharaoh to free the Israelites.

Abraham’s Sacrifice, 1931

Chagall depicts the key moment in the famous biblical story: at the very last minute, the angel sent by God prevents Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac to prove his obedience.

Moses Receiving the Tablets of Law, 1931

Dark shading dominates the nearly abstract design. The way in which God’s hands extend from a cloud to give the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments to Moses, however, seems almost childlike and naïve.

The Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, 1931

In the presence of his son Joseph, the aged patriarch Jacob is blessing his two grandsons from his deathbed. Contrary to the tradition of the tribe of Manasseh, he favors the younger of the two brothers.

As in the Christian pictorial tradition, Chagall shows Moses as a bearded older man with horns. He is in the process of unleashing the ninth plague on Egypt and its population in order to persuade the Pharaoh to free the Israelites.

“From my early youth, I was fascinated by the Bible … the greatest source of poetry of all time.”

Marc Chagall

Places of faith

During his trip, Chagall documented numerous sites in and around Jerusalem in gouache sketches. He focused particularly on those mentioned in the Old Testament and thus of outstanding importance for the various religious communities living in Palestine.

As a result of their naturalistic, almost documentary character, these works differ from Chagall’s other, typically dreamlike works. The painting “The Wailing Wall” unmistakably shows the site in Jerusalem’s Old City that is of such great importance for Judaism.

The Wailing Wall, 1932

Learn more about the Holy Land after the First World War

When Chagall visited Palestine, it was not yet a single unified country, although the term “Palestine” had already appeared during the nineteenth century. The British conquered the area—which had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries—at the end of the First World War. Military rule over Palestine was later superseded by a British civil administration. The so-termed “British mandate territory” was installed with the approval of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, with the aim of implementing the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. Among other things, the declaration included the intention of making part of the region of Palestine into a home for the Jewish people. The declaration thus makes reference to several recent waves of Jewish immigration into Palestine. Seen as "the promised land" in Judaism, and spurred on by pogroms and expulsions from all over the world, Jewish immigration to the area had increased from the late nineteenth century and was continuing to increase into the 1930s. This augmented the minority of (mostly) Arab Jews previously living in the area, and tensions subsequently flared between the Arabic Palestinian population and the new (mostly European) Zionist Jewish settlers, leading to civil war-like conflicts in the 1920s. With the backing of the United Nations and against the wishes of the Palestinian population and the neighboring states, the State of Israel was declared on the territory of Palestine in 1948.

Solitude, 1933

Close-up: Solitude

The painting “Solitude” was created in 1933, the year when the National Socialists seized power in Germany. In France, the country in which Chagall primarily lived, anti-Semitic currents as well as a shift to the right also became palpable. Chagall was aware of the effects of this historical upheaval for Jews and reflected them in his picture. The pictorial elements are reduced to just a few motifs expressing the solitude named in the title. Stylistically, the painting is related to those produced in Palestine, but already shows the search for a visual imagery that expresses the injustice befalling Jewish individuals in Europe.

Solitude, 1933 (detail)

The bearded man holds a Torah in his arms and rests his face in his hand in a melancholic pose. The prayer shawl protectively covers the man as well as the scroll.

Solitude, 1933 (detail)

The violin represents solace and memories of Chagall's childhood. It is also an important instrument in the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe, especially for Jews who had to leave their home.

Solitude, 1933 (detail)

The otherwise dark sky becomes brighter around the angel. They keep the Jewish man company in his solitude and bring him consolation .

NEW YORK

NEW YORK

As people of the Jewish faith, Marc and Bella Chagall were also under existential threat in France due to the continuation of the Nazi’s aggressive war of expansion. Consequently, they had to leave Europe at the beginning of the 1940s.

In 1941, the US-American journalist Varian Fry visited Chagall in Gordes in the south of France on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee, an aid organization for refugees from the National Socialist regime. He passed the artist an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which had the intention of offering him a safe refuge.

Packing bags in France, boarding ship for the USA

Chagall at first hesitated to accept this offer. Moreover, the money for the journey also still had to be procured, since the invitation did not include the costs for the trip. The artist’s brief detention in 1941 while traveling to Marseille must, however, have made the seriousness of the situation clear to him. With Fry’s assistance, Marc and Bella Chagall finally traveled to Lisbon to board a ship to the United States from there. Their daughter, Ida, followed with her husband six weeks later.

“I lived and worked in America at the time of the global tragedy ...”

Marc Chagall

Unlike in France, where various typical landscape or city views by Chagall attest to a rapprochement with the country, the United States are barely reflected in the artist’s works. Chagall was instead occupied with the events in Europe and in his home country.

The War, 1943

Close-up: The War

Just a few weeks after arriving in the United States, he learned that the Wehrmacht had captured Vitebsk. In the years that followed, the city was almost completely destroyed and its Jewish inhabitants expelled or murdered. News, such as that of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943, must also have horrified the artist. Many of his paintings from this time revolve around the topics of war, displacement, and violence.

A row of low-slung houses with the small, towering church dome of Vitebsk behind them forms the background. A deceased person with arms extended lies, left behind, in the middle of the snow-covered street.

A horse-drawn sleigh is attempting to help a mother and child to flee. Soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, approach from the left of them. The female figure calls to mind the vulnerable victims of the war, while her rendering is borrowed from portraits of the Madonna.

A resident of the village is fleeing with a sack of possessions slung over his shoulder. He evokes associations of the “eternally wandering Jew” — a figure in Christian folktales that is damned to wander homeless through the world for all time. For Jewish intellectuals, this figure symbolizes the fate of the many Jews who were displaced and forced into exile.

Chagall’s son-in-law worked in the news media sector and was able to provide the painter with information, so he was one of the first exiled artists to hear about the murder of European Jews.

On the horror of the Shoah and a search for a visual idiom

But Chagall did not have a precise or visual notion of the horrors of the Shoah at the beginning of the 1940s. The shocking photos of concentration camps, for instance, first became accessible to the public after the end of the Second World War. The artist thus applied his knowledge in a pictorial language that was familiar to him.

He took up Christian motifs that had already appeared in his oeuvre in the late 1930s: the crucified Christ becomes a central figure, but he is depicted as a Jewish martyr rather than as a savior.

“I carry a cross every day … Have you abandoned me, my God? Why?”

Marc Chagall

In the painting “The Yellow Crucifixion,” Jesus is wearing a Jewish prayer cloth, a tallit, as a loincloth. The wound tefillin (phylacteries) and an open Torah scroll in front of his right arm also underscore his Jewish identity. An angel is simultaneously illuminating the writing with a candle and blowing into a shofar, a highly significant instrument in Judaism made from a ram’s horn. In the foreground of the picture, a family is fleeing with a donkey, a motif that takes up the Christian iconographical schema of the flight of the Holy Family.

In the background, it is possible to recognize a burning city and a shipwreck—an allusion to the sinking of the “Struma” refugee ship, which was sunk near Istanbul in 1942 with more than 760 passengers aboard. Starting from concrete events, Chagall develops a universal pictorial language here: Jesus thus becomes a suffering figure with which both Jews and Christians can identify.

The Yellow Crucifixion, 1942
  • Life and Miracles of St. Louis, ca. 1480
  • Crucifixion with 12 scenes from the Passion of Christ, seventeenth century

Learn more about Chagall’s life in exile in New York

Marc and Bella Chagall arrived in New York on June 21, 1941. The artist’s pictures, which were packed in boxes and suitcases weighing 600 kilograms, were initially impounded in Spain. Through the intervention of Ida Chagall and her husband, they were finally released and could be brought to the United States. What awaited Chagall in New York was not only the Museum of Modern Art—which organized the first large solo exhibition of his works in 1946—but also Pierre Matisse, son of the painter Henri Matisse. Matisse was running a gallery of modern art and became an important supporter of Chagall, helping him to sell several paintings. The artist also earned his living from various commissioned works: In 1942 Chagall designed sets and costumes for the ballet "Aleko" to music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. He became involved in the piece by invitation of the choreographer Léonide Massine and the dancer Lucia Chase, who would later cofound the American Ballet Theatre. Three years later the American Ballet Theatre commissioned Chagall to do the same for the piece "The Firebird" by Igor Stravinsky. Since he was recognized as one of the most important artists of his time, Chagall enjoyed celebrity status, but this did not result in him settling down in the United States. Chagall never learned English and spent the majority of his time in immigrant circles, with artists in exile, and with Yiddish-speaking intellectuals.

Two years after the end of the Second World War, Chagall took up the motif of the slaughtered animal in the painting “Flayed Ox.” On the one hand, this is connected with Chagall’s memories of his grandfather who was a butcher. At the same time, it also goes back to the work “Slaughtered Ox” by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, which Chagall had seen at the Louvre in Paris.

  • Flayed Ox, 1947

    The dead ox hangs upside down, streaming with blood in front of a wintery city scene. Its tongue laps at its own blood, which drips into a vat underneath its head. The unvarnished, brutal scene can be interpreted as a metaphor for suffering and loss, but simultaneously also as a variation on the crucifixion: in place of Christ, an animal has been killed. Chagall was already moved by the process of slaughter as a child, and his autobiography describes a cow whose death he witnessed as “naked and crucified.”

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Slaughtered Ox, 1655

    The cadaver of an ox is hanging from its hind legs in a stall or shed. The gaze of viewers falls on the inside of the body, with its exposed flesh and ribs. The motif of the slaughtered ox can be found multiple times in Dutch paintings of the time, but generally as a detail supplementing a main theme. Even though a woman stands in the shadow of a half-open door in the background of Rembrandt’s work, the focus is entirely on the ox. The spanned animal carcass makes reference to the impermanence of life, and, moreover, suggests a reference to the crucified Christ with its back legs spread wide.

The Loss of Bella Chagall

Marc and Bella Chagall were bound together by an extraordinary domestic and intellectual partnership: in his wife, the artist found a partner who understood his art and inspired and influenced it to a significant extent. The two of them shared the need to process memories of their hometown of Vitebsk, which Bella Chagall processed in literary texts. In New York, she wrote her autobiography with the title "Brenendike likht" ("Burning Lights") in which she reviewed memories of her youth in Vitebsk based on the rituals and feasts of the Jewish tradition.

“... it is so hard to draw out a fragment of bygone life from fleshless memories!”

Bella Chagall

After Paris was liberated in August 1944, the couple hoped to return to France. But before they were able to do so, Bella Chagall came down with a viral infection and died on September 2, 1944 at the age of just forty-eight.

For a long time, sorrow left no space for inspiration

Chagall was profoundly affected by the death of his wife and was unable to paint for several months. "Around Her" and "The Wedding Candles" were among the first pictures that the artist took up his work again in the spring of 1945. They were created from an older painting, "Circus People" from 1933, which Chagall cut into two halves and painted over.

  • Around Her, 1945

    An acrobat is floating down from above. In his hands, he holds a transparent sphere in which it is possible to recognize the interlocking houses and the Orthodox Church of Vitebsk. The artist himself, with his head turned upside down, is sitting in front of an easel on the lower edge of the picture. To the right of him is his wife, who is looking with sadness at the picture of her lost home, one hand placed on her cheek in a melancholy gesture.

  • The Wedding Candles, 1945

    Surrounded by musicians, the bride and groom are standing under the traditional wedding canopy for Jewish wedding celebrations. Juxtaposed with this scene, the left-hand side consists of a curved picture area in a rich shade of blue, reminiscent of a nocturnal dream. This gives the originally cheerful composition the heaviness of a nostalgic memory. On the far left, a creature with wings and a ram’s head is raising its glass to the bridal couple.

FRANCE

The Second World War had come to an end in Europe, and Marc Chagall left the United States in 1948 and returned to France. But his memories and experiences of the past continued to influence him and accompanied him to his new life in southern France.

The spirit of the deceased Bella Chagall hovers over the artist, who depicts himself along with his new partner Virginia Haggard—whom he had first met a short time before he painted this scene. Marc Chagall, who had just started painting again after being plunged into profound grief following his wife’s death, was often torn between the painful memories of the past and a new beginning in his private life.

Here, he works on a depiction of the crucifixion, representing the suffering endured by the Jewish people during the Shoah. The family was still in exile, and the Second World War had ended only a short time before with the victory of the Allies in Europe. The horrors of the war and the scale of the Nazi’s crimes were just now being revealed to the global public. The world around them is dominated by shades of gray.

The Soul of the City, 1945

Learn more about Jewish exiles after the Second World War

With the end of the Second World War and the liberation of survivors from the concentration camps, the public was becoming aware of the crimes of the Nazi regime. Many Jewish exiles and survivors could not imagine a future in Germany, or in any of Europe for that matter. The persecution, repression, and murder of Jewish people was not a phenomenon specific to the German program; it was widespread in many countries and did not come to an end with victory over Germany. Pogroms in Eastern Europe, for example, continued to increase even after the conclusion of the war. Many Jews chose either the United States or Palestine as their new home, although settling down in the latter was made more difficult by the administration of the British mandate territory, which denied residence to those arriving in many cases. The need for Jewish people to have a defined geographical location where they could feel safe was soon recognized internationally and became a leading factor in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

The once brightest angel in heaven has turned its back on God and fallen to the Earth and henceforth propagates evil and destruction among the people there. Chagall staged the biblical story in dark colors, with Lucifer as a central figure in flaming red. Marc Chagall began working on the first version of this painting in Paris in 1923 under the influence of the Russian Civil War as well as the atmosphere that he had perceived in Berlin during a preceding visit.

An early sketch suggests that this first version only contained the two main figures: the angel falling from the heavens and the man with a Torah scroll in his arms. In 1933, he painted over the already completed picture—a practice that occurred again in his work, generally to refine or hone a picture’s message. Several sketches from this time convey an idea of the work process. The final reworking took place in 1947. In it the falling angel now clearly displays female characteristics. In particular, the angel no longer seems to be the cause from which the other figures are fleeing, but instead to be horrified himself by the events on earth. After completing the work, Marc Chagall left the United States and moved back to the southern French province near Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

The Falling Angel, 1923 – 1933 – 1947
Sketch for The Falling Angel, 1934

Only a few motifs in the sketch, such as the Madonna with child, the clock, the crucified individual, and the candleholder are found in the picture. This and other sketches show that the motif continued to occupy Chagall from then on.

Sketch for The Falling Angel, 1934

Here, Chagall depicts the fall of the angel mentioned in the title, but in a landscape that is staggered in perspective and augmented with numerous pictorial elements. Several individuals supplement the scene in the foreground.

Sketch for The Falling Angel, 1934

As a composition, this colored sketch displays all the elements of the second version realized by the artist. The dark colors, however, come closer to the reworked third version.

Marc Chagall in front of the painting “The Falling Angel” in his studio at the Villa Montmorency, Paris, 1934

The painter stands in front of the finished version of “The Falling Angel.” Even though we cannot see the individual colors and shades used in this black-and-white photo, the coloring seems brighter than in the third version.

Only a few motifs in the sketch, such as the Madonna with child, the clock, the crucified individual, and the candleholder are found in the picture. This and other sketches show that the motif continued to occupy Chagall from then on.

The end of the Second World War was an ambivalent time—from the perspective of international politics, but also for Marc Chagall personally. It was at this time that the artist produced the painting “Cow with Parasol”, and also considered leaving the United States. The latter would signify a large spatial separation from the grave of his deceased wife.

The depiction of the couple that is integrated in the painting as an extension of the wagging tail of the cow shows his wife Bella with a self-portrait of the artist floated in front of her. The white cow nursing her dark calf stands out from her surroundings, which are painted in rich shades of red. The village setting and the man in a clown costume lying on the ground, on whose chest the cow comes to stand, disappear into this background.

Cow with a Parasol, 1946

Looking forward to Chagall?

Marc Chagall will be presented in a comprehensive exhibition in Germany for the first time in 15 years. Public interest will be great – so plan your visit to the SCHIRN in good time.

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Insider tip

Is the world turned on its head in this picture? No. “Sleigh in the Snow” is one of those works by Chagall that can be looked at from two perspectives. In his oeuvre, the painter produced many paintings that could be rotated 180 degrees.

Sleigh in the Snow, 1944

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The Digitorial is optimised for portrait mode.