What Lies Behind Marc Chagall's 'Untitled' (1967)?

In this article, guest writer Andrea Baiguera takes a deep dive into LTArt's very own 'Untitled' (1967) by Marc Chagall.

2 May, 2023

An intimate celebration of Marc Chagall’s symbolism. This untitled gouache, created by the artist during his last production phase, is representative of his figurative language. Placing the viewer directly at the heart of his creative process, the piece displays all the aspects of Chagall’s emotional sphere.

In a dreamy, imaginative and surrealist landscape, a fiddler and a floating cow, Chagall’s recurrent themes, are protagonists of the piece, representative of the artist’s symbolism.

The first valuable element to consider in this artwork is the date, 1967, the year of a late production consciously lived by the artist. Far from Belorussia, from the horror of the holocaust and from his life in the United States, Chagall moved permanently to the south of France, working mostly on decorative art projects. Stained glass windows and tapestries, made by the artist at the time, host a wide range of biblical scenes, while less frequently themes connected to his emotional memories are depicted. It is, therefore, surprising to find a gouache from that period, especially one that is so well-structured with all the iconography from his early production.

The ubiquitous fiddler is the fulcrum of the work. Jewish culture is personified by the violin, the main instrument of the “klezmer” (Jewish folk music), which had a profound influence on the artist. Music was a vital presence in religious ceremonies and festivals, as well as a way to glorify God; the klezmer is an expression of feelings of joy and deep pain, a voice that connects all the communities, while the violinist is a creative figure with an active role, capable of representing a shared emotional sphere. The fiddler, in particular, is a symbol of Chagall’s Jewish sense of belonging and a possible reflection of himself. The theme was treated by the artist in several pieces, most famously 'The Green Violinist', 1926, ‘The Fiddler’, 1913, and ‘The Blue Violinist’, 1947.

Marc Chagall, 'Untitled', 1967 with features outlined for the purpose of the study.

This central character is paired with another recurrent one: the blue cow. In the Šagal family (Chagall's native surname), originally from Lëzna shtetl, a small Jewish village, the father and uncle of young Marc were both butchers. This is why the artist spent most of his childhood in contact with farm animals[1]. In fact, his rural origins have led Chagall to depict a series of humanised fantastical creatures, often of an unnatural colour and with the ability to fly. In this gouache, he also plays with the meaning of images: every symbol or construction that looks apparently playful covers an untold message. What appears to be just a cow becomes a representation of life itself. In other words, it is not only an element - meat for nutrition - but it’s a creature close to a human being, as we can see in the works 'Cow with a Parasol', 1946, ‘Loneliness’, 1933, and ‘I and the Village’, 1911. Chagall often uses animals to represent phases of life, such as birth, marriage, and death. In this artwork, the blue cow embodies maternity. Pregnancy is expressed by a red chicken that fills the belly of the mammal, a result of the artist’s contact with the Eastern iconography of the Holy Mother. [2]

This coloured fowl is not the only bird shape here; in fact, in the top left corner, there is a small flying undefined figure, which, with great probability, refers to an angelical biblical image, often present in the artist’s production[3]. Birds are common icons for the artist, also found in ‘The Blue Landscape’, 1949 (now at Museum von der Haidt, Wuppertal), or ‘The Betrothed and the Eiffel Tower’, 1913 (now at the National Museum Marc Chagall, Nice). The co-existence of the blue cow and red chicken also appeared in the later work, ‘Bouc Bleu au Coq Rouge’, 1974.

Two of Chagall’s other life memories complete the setting of the drawing: his native village and the encounter with his beloved woman. Some geometrical boxes on the right, just under some leaves, are a simple and instinctive representation of “home”. Rectangular shapes topped with triangles are the meeting point between the viewer's imagination and that of the artist. The connection with the theme of home is clear, also visible in ‘Au village rouge’, 1968-73, and ‘Village natal’, 1954.

The second memory can be found on the left-hand side of the artwork: a weak trace of two people hugging each other, both floating in a shapeless vortex. Chagall’s first wife, Bella, prematurely deceased, is a key figure for the artist and their relationship had a great role in his paintings. The use of the colour red, used for the pregnant cow and in this small hug, highlights the importance of marriage and love in life. It is possible to identify similar features in 'Nu rose ou Amoureux en rose’, 1949, or ‘The Betrothed and the Eiffel Tower’, 1913, as well as in the late ‘Les amoureux dans la nuit d'hiver’.

This sketch, connected to the use of a deep reflexive blue tone, recalls the previously mentioned emotional value and a changing point in the painter’s life. In the last decades of his production, during an intense period of commissions, this gouache opens a window onto one of the artist’s most intimate moments of expression, confirming his iconography and portraying the man beyond the artist. This work witnesses a return to a more evocative and intimate way of painting, characterised by Chagall's easily recognisable style and preferred themes.

Marc Chagall's 'Untitled' (1967) is currently available for purchase in Art Shares here.

References:

[1] [1] Allyn Weisstein. “Iconography of Chagall.” The Kenyon Review 16, no. 1 (1954): 38–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4333462.

[2] Allyn Weisstein. “Iconography of Chagall.” The Kenyon Review 16, no. 1 (1954): 38–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4333462.

[3] Terracinii, Enrico. “La Felicità Biblica Di Chagall.” La Rassegna Mensile Di Israel 50, no. 1/4 (1984): 58–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41286784.

Andrea Baiguera

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