Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Marc Chagall. "My life" (I)

This is the second post in my "Autumn with Marc Chagall" series. I want to begin with telling you about the first part of his life (till 1922), as he tells it himself in his autobiography, "My life". What strikes me most about this book is how remarkably similar his writing is to his painting; just as whimsical, idiosyncratic, intriguing, and, when all is said and done, enchanting. Nobody, I guess, would vouch for the reality of his life as described in his book being similar to the "facts" of it perceived by someone else. It is, without a doubt, as real and genuinely truthful as his paintings are; but may be just as distant from any "realistic" documentation of life. It is written in an easy conversational style, so reading it is a bit like talking to him in the studio (assuming, I suppose, that you are an attentive and sympathetic listener: he really shies away from people who don't like him; don't we all?) Anyway, if you are interested in his work at all, this book is a must-read. I'll divide this story into two parts: this post will be about his life till 1910, when he went to Paris. 

Marc Chagall. A house in Liozna. Oil on paper. 47x39 cm. 1908.
He was born in 1887 in the Jewish settlement of Liozno, near Vitebsk; at the time, the majority of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire was confined to the so called "Pale of Settlement" – they weren't allowed to leave outside the Pale unless they had a special license for that (for practicing a particularly useful craft or having managed to obtain a higher education). So, he was born a "second-class" citizen, and even within the Pale of Settlement, into a lower working class (his father was a worker for a herring merchant). Even so, his childhood was obviously a very happy one. Loving and attentive parents, whom he recalls with heart-wrenching tenderness; a multitude of relatives, one weirder than the next, with whom he felt at home; all the little yearly rituals of traditional Jewish life (there doesn't seem to be lot of religion present, however). This is the life he would later record in his early paintings.  

As he grows up, though, he begins to feel himself more and more unusual, alien, weird – unable and, ultimately, not quite willing to fit anywhere. His clumsy Jewish studies with rabbis, his later failed attempts at studies in a Russian Gymnasium (his mother had to give a bribe to a teacher for him, a Jew, to be accepted; but he couldn't cope – and began to stutter while there); when he declared that he wanted to be a painter, his mother reluctantly took him to a local painting workshop run by Yehuda Pan. Mr. Pan agreed to teach him for free, but Chagall felt that this way of realistic "academic" portraits wasn't his (even without yet knowing what "his way" was). Since painting didn't seem like a rational career choice anyway, he worked as an apprentice to a local photographer for some time – but he didn't enjoy prettifying people's faces in photos (unless they were acquaintances, he says – in that case, it was really fun). And so he arrives at the decision to leave home and study painting in St. Petersburg. His father was angry with him, yet gave him some money for the trip.

Marc Chagall. Self-portrait. O/c. 57x48 cm. c. 1909
In 1906-1910 he is in St. Petersburg, first in the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, directed by Nicholas Roerich, then, since 1908, studying under Léon Bakst at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting. 

Even though he finally finds himself in company of genuine artists, the feeling of alienation, of "not belonging" only intensifies. For one thing, being Jewish in the Imperial Capital was no laughing matter. Even to be present there, let alone live there, a Jew would need a special license: for his first visit, his father helped him to a false document stating that he was traveling on behalf of one merchant or another. In order to stay, he had to be accepted into one of the Art Schools (his first attempt failed, by the way) and to get a stipend – apart from a few months for which he won a stipend in his art school, he had to find patrons to give him one. What he managed to receive, was barely enough for his tuition and a room, or, often, a corner of a shared room, or, on some occasions, a half of a shared bed. One year, he arrived in St. Petersburg after a summer at home without proper papers, and was arrested and put in jail. He describes a sense of relief at this: he didn't have to look for a stipend or a place to stay.   

Marc Chagall. Red Nude Sitting Up. O/c. 90x70 cm. 1908
On the other hand, he didn't feel "at home" with his studies either. Both establishments he attended were, in different senses, in opposition to the traditional "Academic" route of studies (he wasn't accepted even for preparatory studies for the Academy), and yet he felt neither understood nor being taught in any useful way. 

Here is one of the paintings done during his studies in St. Petersburg – one can almost feel the painter's effort to fit into stylistic and representational frames he doesn't belong to, just like the woman tries and fails to fit into his canvas.  

Marc Chagall. Butcher. Gouache on paper. 34 x 24 cm. 1910.
Back at home for summer, he does something decidedly different, much more palpably "Chagall-esque", much closer to his roots and his inner essence as a painter.

However comfortable it is to be back at home, he feels that he cannot stay – and so he somewhat reluctantly leaves his family, and his beautiful fiancee, and goes to Paris, the world capital of painting. 

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