Marc Chagall, whose paintings, etchings, lithographs and stained-glass windows depicted both the joy and the suffering of the human soul, collapsed and died Thursday at his home in the French Riviera village of St. Paul de Vence.
He was 97 and his creations spanned three-quarters of a century.
He wove, carved and drew them in his native Russia; in France, his adopted home, and, for a brief time, in the United States as a refugee from the Nazis during World War II. The body of his work was prodigious, and work was his reason for being.
"I've worked all my life," he said from his home when he was 82. "I'm never without it. There's love and work and your wife. Work isn't to make money. You work to justify life. Those are small actions and simple truths."
He was the last survivor of the \o7 belle epoque\f7 of contemporary art in pre-World War I Paris, in the company of Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and Braque. Half a century later he was still working, not only at painting, but in other mediums as well, distributing his artistic largess both ecumenically and internationally.
Chagall, who was Jewish, did the stained-glass windows for the cathedrals at Metz and at Reims, and in the late 1950s he began work on perhaps his most famous project, the 12 jewel-like windows, illustrating each of the tribes of Israel, for the synagogue at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center outside Jerusalem. The windows were dedicated in 1962.
He did the soaring murals on the ceiling of the Paris Opera House in 1964, and in 1966 he completed two more murals, "The Sources of Music" and "The Triumph of Music," for the new home of the New York Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.
His tapestries hang in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and he has a mosaic in the plaza of the First National Bank of Chicago. Somewhere in the storage vaults at the Tretiakov Museum in Moscow are the paintings Chagall did for the Jewish Theater in 1920, before he left Russia.
'A State of Soul'
It was through painting that Chagall became an artist. In Russian his name, which his father had changed from the original Segal, means "march forward," and that Chagall did to his own beat. He was neither Impressionist nor Cubist--though occasionally he borrowed their techniques--nor was he a Surrealist, whose work he influenced. Rather he relied on feelings as his primary resource.
"Personally I do not think a scientific bent is a good thing for art," he said in his autobiography. "Impressionism and Cubism are foreign to me. Art seems to be above all a state of soul.
"A pictorial arrangement of images that obsess me" is how Chagall once assessed his work, and he got those images either from Vitebsk, his boyhood town in western Russia, or from such world events as the rise of Nazism, which inspired the massive "White Crucifixion" (1938), in which the persecutions under Hitler provide a Jewish martyrology swirling around a Christ figure. The image of Christ on the cross, as a symbol of the suffering of man, was a part of his artistic repertoire.
But mostly he dealt with fiddlers on the roof.
Happy in Love
Fiddlers, green cows, winged fish, donkeys in trees, flowers, vagabond clocks, circus acrobats and humans with the ability to soar over houses, these in happy, seemingly incongruous arrangement constituted much of the work by which Chagall is identified. Here was an artist with a sense of humor. And love was a recurrent theme. He was happy in love.
Chagall's first wife, Bella, whom he married in 1915, was his lover, soul-mate, sometimes critic and model for some of his best works. They included the portraits "My Fiancee With Black Gloves" (1909) and "Bella With Carnation" (1925). There was also "Double Portrait With Wineglass" (1917), of the two of them, he sitting on her shoulder, an angel above blessing them. Their daughter, Ida, their only child, was then a year old.
Bella died in 1944, and in 1952 Chagall married again. His wife was Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a Russian-born milliner who had worked in London. She was believed to have been with him when he died and announced his death, the Associated Press reported. Before this marriage, Chagall had a liaison of several years with a British woman, Virginia Haggard McNeil, and they had a son, David.
According to some critics, his earliest work--when he was first drawn to Paris--was his best.
He was in Paris, soaking up its "light, color, freedom, the sun," but he was not of it. His major themes were still of home. "It was from then on," he said, "that I was at last able to express, in my work, some of the more elegiac or moonstruck joy that I had experienced in Russia too, the joy that once in a while expresses itself in a few of my childhood memories from Vitebsk."
His painting had the character of fable in which memories merged and imagination took flight. There was movement as well, in form and in color. Chagall was a master of color--and of light. No less an expert than Pablo Picasso thought so.