How can a goat play a violin or a cello wear a tie? Surely you have never seen a green horse? Or a pair of lovers flying through the air? And yet perhaps you have seen lovers fly, at least figuratively. That is what the Russian Jewish artist, Marc Chagall seems to have seen and depicted over a painting career of more than 90 years. Born in 1887 in the shtetl town of Vitebsk on the edges of Russia, the Pale of Settlement to which Catherine the Great had relegated the Jews, he grew up in a Hassidic community which celebrated the poetry of life through music and dance and sensed the Divine in the quotidian. In his magical memoir, My Life, Chagall describes his hometown:
Churches, fences, shops, synagogues stand on every side, simple and eternal as the buildings of Giotto's frescoes. Around me all kinds of Jews, old ones, young ones... A beggar runs toward his house, a rich man goes home. The Cheder boy runs home. Papa goes home... I say nothing of the sky and stars of my childhood. They are my stars, my sweet stars; they accompany me to school and wait for me in the street till I return. Poor things, forgive me. I have left you alone up there at such a dizzy height! My sad joyful town!
It was this 'sad joyful town' that Chagall painted over and over again through the years of his studies in St Petersburg and Paris, through his founding of the Vitebsk Arts College during the Revolution, back in Paris and later in America. His art flirted with the movements which he encountered: the folk art of Russia, the Cubism of his Parisian colleagues, the vivid colours of the Fauvists, and yet remained a personal expression. His friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire deemed his fantastic references 'sur-naturel' (later surreal) but Chagall was far more an influence on the surrealists than influenced by them. In 'Portrait', the surrealist poet Blaise Cendrars wrote:
Suddenly he's painting
He takes a church and paints with a church
He takes a cow and paints with a cow
With an anchovy
With heads, with hands, with knives
He paints with a bull's pizzle
He paints with all the dirty passions of a little Jewish town
With all the fired-up sexuality of provincial Russia
For the French
He paints with his thighs
He has eyes in his backside
And all at once it is your portrait
It's you gentle reader.
Music was a constant source of inspiration for Chagall, from his childhood studies of the violin and the street sounds of Klezmer musicians in Vitebsk, to the performances in Russia and France for which he created sets and costumes. The designs he created for Debussy's Daphnis and Chloe, Stravinsky's Firebird and Mozart's Magic Flute as well as the tributes he paid to these and many other composers on the ceiling of the Paris Opera House and in the murals for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, attest to the way in which music and musical associations drove his compositions and influenced the intensity and range of colour in his work. Equally the language of music is surely the perfect way to pay tribute to the poetic insight of Marc Chagall's art.