|Marc Chagall. The Birthday. 1917.|
The first thing that struck me in this first painting, "The Birthday", was the sheer amount of "decorative" details in the background, quite outside what can conceivably be thought of as focal areas. Not just details (they are abundant in other Chagall's paintings, as well, but rather the way they cry for viewer's attention, but do not detract this attention from the major motive of the painting. This is, of course, not unheard of in the history of painting: it used to be quite a common practice to show off one's skill in detailed treatment of fabrics, furs, golden stuff, etc. What we have here is different, for two reasons: the abundance of decorative details aren't an inherent part of any "style" accepted at the time, and they are also very far from being "realistic"; rather they are unrealistically decorative both in the original environment and in the painting (especially in the pillow and the throw cover on the bed).
In other words, their treatment in the painting is not realistic, but rather directly borrowed from the "style" of the room being depicted; the ornaments in the room are not so much "represented" in the painting as they are actually present in it, as though they have jumped in there from the room without the painter's mediation. This reflects the conceptual motivation for their presence: they aren't here to show off the artist's skills; they enact the somewhat artificial ornaments of the poor yet newly decorated room of newlyweds in the midst of larger-than-life catastrophes of the surrounding history. However artificial and superficial, their childish charms protect this birthday celebration from the outside world. This enactment (rather than realistic representation) is what makes this painting belong to its time, even though Chagall's reaction to the broken fabric of everyday life is so very different from most of his contemporaries.