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100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith

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Marc Chagall: I and the Village - 1911

New York, Museum of Modern Art

In 1910 Moishe Segal (or Mark Shagal to use his Russified name) left the Belarusian town of Vitebsk and arrived in Paris, the undisputed capital of the art world. The city was a crucible of creativity, witnessing at that time an extraordinary explosion of innovation. The Fauves led by Matisse and Derain had built on Post-Impressionist foundations to create a new language of colour. Picasso and Braque had just invented Cubism. Artists were flocking to the French capital from far and wide in an attempt to experience this extraordinary zeitgeist. It was not just artists; critics, writers and philosophers such as Guillaume Apollinaire engaged in the intellectual ferment. And then there were the dealers, most importantly Ambroise Vollard who had established himself as the preferred route to market for many of the avant-garde. Chagall (as he came to be known) soon counted both Apollinaire and Vollard as friends.

Chagall entered this maelstrom of ideas and welded a very personal style which then remained more or less immutable for the rest of his life. In I and the Village we can see the influence of the Fauves in his use of colour and of Cubism but these elements are fused with his memories of daily life in his native Hasidic Jewish community in Belarus. A huge green face dominates the right half of the composition, topped with the archetypal hat of the Russian peasant. This is balanced by a sheep’s head, divided into zones of mid blue, grey, greyish pink and white; a vignette of a cow being milked is interposed on the cheek of the sheep. A peasant with a scythe is confronted with a woman who has flipped through 180 degrees as have two houses in the row of dwellings at the top of the picture. A central circular motif which incorporates sections of the two dominant heads is clearly indebted to the circular, pioneering, semi-abstract compositions of Chagall’s friend Robert Delaunay.

Chagall never traveled down the path to abstraction – his paintings were at this time rooted in a mystical nostalgia. ‘For me,’ he said ‘a painting is a surface covered with representations of things.’ Many of these representations were assigned symbolic meanings. The central circle in I and the Village is a symbol of divinity and wholeness, performing here a unifying function, linking peasant and animal (who were mutually dependent in a rural economy) but also representing the orbit and phases of the moon – appearing as a waning crescent in the lower left corner. To the right of the moon, occupying the lower segment of the central circle, we can see a curious flowering twig held delicately in the large hand of the peasant. This would seem to represent the tree of life – another reference to the interdependence of man and nature in the bucolic context of rural Belarus.

Chagall’s magical naturalism creates a beguiling, nostalgic vision of his home village in which scale, colour and form morph and shift. The influence of Fauvism and Cubism are clear but were clearly of secondary importance to Chagall who wrote: ‘Personally, I do not think a scientific bent is good for art. Art seems to me to be a state of the soul’.

Contemporary Works

1911 Egon Schiele: Girl with Black Hair, New York, MOMA

1911 Karl Schmidt-Rottluff: Norwegian Landscape, Munich, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst


Further Paintings of Interest

© Great Works of Western Art 2019