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The gate is open, the sky blossoms: 130th anniversary of the birth of Chagall

July 7, 2017, marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of one of the most eminent 20th century avant-garde painters, Marc Chagall.

Chagall primarily brings to mind paintings showing a pair of lovers floating in the air, or goats and hens fluttering over wooden houses. He was, however, a much more versatile artist. Apart from painting, he worked on graphics, ceramics, stage decorations, stained-glass windows for synagogues and churches, and illustrations for books. He was also the author of the autobiography written in French (Ma vie, Paris 1931).


Self-portrait, “Literarisze Bleter” no. 12, March 12, 1930, page 1; in the photo, Chagall's dedication to “Literarisze Bleter”, 1924.   

Not many people know that Chagall wrote poems in Yiddish. In his reminiscences, he often returned to his hometown. Vitebsk – the town of his childhood – shaped him, and the artist immortalized it both in poems and in paintings.


It rings in me

The faraway town

White churches

And synagogues. The Gate

Is open, the sky blossoms.

And life goes on.


I’m longing

For curved streets.

For grey matzevot on the hill,

Where the devout Jews are buried.

[Translation of the poem Majn wajte hejm]


Marc Chagall came into the world on July 7, 1887, in Pieskowatina, at the outskirts of Vitebsk. He was born as Mosze Chackielewicz Shagal (Shagalov). He was the oldest of nine children of Chackiel Zachar and Fajga-Ita. His education began in a cheder in Vitebsk. He became interested in drawing in a Russian high school, which accepted him thanks to bribery. He attended his first painting classes in a studio run by Jehuda Pen.


Vitebsk, 1917, photo: public domain   

He left Vitebsk as a nineteen-year-old. He went to St. Petersburg, where he threw himself into the whirlpool of painting studies. The next important stage in his career was a trip to Paris in 1910. There, he entered the circle of avant-garde artists. He became acquainted with new trends in art, new techniques.

Just before the outbreak of World War I, he set out for Berlin, and from there to his hometown. It was then that the war broke out, which prevented him from returning to France. After the October Revolution, he joined in the efforts at creating the "new art". He was appointed artistic commissioner of the Vitebsk Governorate and ran the Academy of Fine Arts. His career developed and his paintings were exhibited.


From the right: Marc Chagall, Nachman Majzil, Feliks Fridman, Celina Beker, Bella Chagall, “Literarisze Bleter” no. 9, February 25, 1938, page 149.   

But he felt that in the new system his artistic individuality would not be respected. In the summer of 1922, he decided to move to Western Europe. He settled in France, but accepted orders from different places. He travelled to Palestine, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. In 1935, he also visited Poland.

After Hitler's rise to power in Germany, his paintings in Munich were confiscated. After the outbreak of World War II, Chagall, together with his family, moved to the south of France. In May 1941, literally at the last moment, he managed to travel to the United States.


Marc Chagall with his daughter Ida, “Literarisze Bleter” no. 41, October 12, 1928, page 803.    

In 1946, he returned to Europe and settled permanently in France. He created great projects in many parts of the world – wall decorations in Tokyo and Tel Aviv, stained-glass windows in churches (among other places, in Metz, Mainz, New York) and at the Headquarters of the United Nations. In both the paintings and in the large-format works, he often referred to biblical themes. We can see there the world of his childhood, wooden Vitebsk cottages, and circus characters. Not without reason, still before the war, he was described as a "painter of dreams". He died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France on March 28, 1985.

Aleksandra Król