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Marc Chagall- the Influence of Memory on Art

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Fig.1  The Event  1978  Oil on canvas  130 X 162 cm 

          The estate of Aime’ Maeght

 

The exhibitionCelebration by Marc Chagallat National

Palace Museum in Taipei reminded me of an article that I

wrote years ago. The article was about how artists’

memories influenced on art.  I studied Marc Chagall due

to his paintings mainly related to his memories. I actually

had never seen Chagall’s any real painting at the time I

wrote the article. After visiting the exhibition Celebration

by Marc Chagall, my research was proved and I decided

to share the article with my Fake Fox friends.  

Fig.2  The Birthday  1915  Oil on cardboard  80.5 x 99.5 cm 

          Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Memory is a central part of the brain’s attempt to make sense

of experiences, and to tell coherent stories about it.

Physiological evidence indicates that the memories are stored

in different locations in the brain, they are tied together by

neural connections (Carlson, 1987, p.298, 312). Although some

researchers believe that some memories may decay and be lost,

others have concluded that long-term memories are permanent.

Once there, they need no longer be rehearsed or thought about,

but will remain for later use (Schacter, 1996, p.308). Memory

permits the recall of certain images or things which become the

materials of many artists’ art work. These artists rely on their

memories to tell their stories about their own experiences, and

about the traditions and momentous events of the society. Marc

Chagall, for example, is an artist who tells stories from his

memories, through his work.

 

Fig.3  Couple on a Red Background  1983  Oil on canvas 

           81 x 65.5 cm  Courtesy of the artist’s family

 

Marc Chagall was an infinitely inventive modern artist. His

colorful world of myth and magic was essentially grounded in

memories and experiences. Chagall’s Jewish background became

one of the main threads in his art with many paintings dedicated

solely to this theme. Inspired by his endless love for his two

wives, he based a series of remarkable works on brilliant

bouquets of flowers. Some somber paintings reflected his hatred

towards war and his exile whilst dream-like countryside works

also revealed the extraordinary imagination he had owned since

childhood. For Marc Chagall then, artistic inspiration for his

vividly imaginative works can be traced back to his long life.

 

The painting The Event (Fig.1) (1978) is one of Marc Chagall’s

late works. It was finished in 1978. At the age of ninety, Chagall

again narrated the true story of his life. He decided The Event into

unequal zones, a darkened area dominated by a small moon and a

candelabra, and a red area dominated by the sun. The Painting

suggests that many stories are taking place, it includes many

motifs familiar from his earlier works. All the images and

elements, such as the animals, the village, the musicians, the

mother and the child, the wedding, the girl with flowers, the

moon and the artist-himself are repeated again and again in his

previous paintings.

 

Fig.4  The Fiddler  1912-1913  Oil on canvas  188 x 158 cm 

           Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

 

The Event reflects Chagall's attempts to remember events and

feelings from earlier life. He believed that the memory is a true

replica of the original event and that the event is part of his own

past. He persisted in believing that every single event has value

and is remembered, even if with a varying degree of detail, and

demands his respect, his attention and his trust. This is why

Chagall's art covers such a wide range of material that becomes

his different themes.

 

Although long-term memory has an unlimited capacity, memories

rely on meaning. Meaningful items are stored in long-term

memory more easily than meaning-less items (Dworetzky, 1985,

P.234). Experiments have shown that sad moods make it easier to

remember negative experiences, whereas happy moods make it

easier to remember pleasant experiences (Schacter, 1996, p.211).

 

Love for Marc Chagall was especially meaningful and memorable. He had

the very good fortune to find two exceptional women, the wife of his youth

and the wife of his maturity. Chagall is perhaps most popularly known for

his theme of lovers. The Lovers (1911-1914), The Birthday (Fig.2) (1915),

Lovers Under Lilies (1922-1925), and Couple on a Red Background (Fig.3)

(1983) are some of his paintings which glorified and honored both love

stories experienced during his life. 

 

Fig.5  The Revolution  1937  Oil on canvas  50 x 100 cm 

          Courtesy of the artist’s family

 

Chagall’s love of music is another theme in his art. He had himself learnt

the violin as a boy and one of his uncles was a fiddler. Musicians, such as

the violinist, the fiddler (Fig.4) (1912-1913), and the trumpet were his

favorite subjects. Throughout his working life, Chagall loved and was

fascinated by the themes of circus and also that of animals. The circus had

a profound relevance for the artist as a mirror of life, and his love of cocks,

goats, dogs and cows are the evidence of his memory of his hometown.

 

In contrast to love, pain, sadness, and hatred for Marc Chagall were also

unforgettable. On many other canvases, Chagall revealed his pain and

sadness as losing his wife Bella, and the hatred towards the Russian

Revolution. In the painting The Revolution (Fig.5) (1937), Chagall

attempted to encompass his experience of the Russian Revolution at a time

when he was in Paris. He portrayed the suffering of innocent villagers in

modern warfare. Chagall painted The Wedding (Fig.6) (1944) in the year

of the sudden death of his wife Bella. The sad mood reminded him of his

marriage with Bella.

 

Fig.6  The Wedding  1944  Oil on canvas  99 x 74 cm 

           Ida Chagall Colletion

 

“An adult personality sets like plaster after the first few years of life, the

child is not forgotten…” (Miller, 1981, p.192). The intimate memories of

childhood are obviously of great concern on Marc Chagall’s art. The target

of Chagall’s obsession is his childhood village of Vitebsk, a town in White

Russia. When the memory returned, a scene from his childhood began his

painted story. Just as Chagall said “…many of the poets verses came back

to my memory and little by little I discovered their charm” (Target, 1985,

p.14). Chagall had sought to preserve the memory of his hometown for his

paintings from the time he left the village until the end of his life. He chose

the birth of his sibling as an event to depict the canvas of Birth (Fig.7)

(1912). The village Fair (1908) is another painting of his hometown which

portrays a remarkable scene of activity in the village street. Even in the

very late painting Back to Back (1984), Chagall’s mind and hand again

traveled back to the freshness of his youth.

 

Fig.7  Birth  1912  Oil on canvas  112.5 x 193.5 cm 

          Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

 

Memories form the core of personal identity. What a person believes about

himself is determined by what he remember about his past. Psychologically

it is often the anchor by which the artist secures his identity in an

environment of shifting emotions and values (Smith, 1970, p.135)

(Schacter, 1996, p.28, 93).

 

Marc Chagall had lived and worked in France for a large part of his life, but

he never forgot his origin as a Russian Jew. He achieved a synthesis of his

past experience and memory in his art that heightened his appreciation of

his own identity. In The pray Jew (Fig.8) (1914), he painted the old Jewish

man from his life. In another painting Russian Village (1929), he suggested

a postcard view of Vitebsk where he was born. In Solitude (Fig.9) (1933),

the sitting Jew holds a Torah Scroll that symbolized Chagall’s faith for his

ancient Jews. In a letter to a friend in the Soviet Union in 1934, Chagall

wrote, “The title ‘a Russian painter’ means more to me than any

international fame… In my pictures there is not one centimeter free from

nostalgia for my native land” (Compton, 1985, p.43). What Chagall took

with him from Russia was everything that is in his art.

 

Fig.8  The Praying Jew  1914  Oil on canvas  104 x 84 cm 

           Museo d’Arte Moderna, Venice

 

“Memories are imaginative reconstruction of past events” (Schacter, 1996,

p.101).  It is possible for a person to retrieve information from a past

experience without being aware that he is relying on memory. Marc Chagall

once said of himself “I am a painter and an unconsciously conscious painter

so to speak” (Tobien, 1988, p.7). This ‘unconscious consciousness’ is the

condition between imagination and reality. The reality is Chagall’s memory

and experience of his life whilst the imagination is the reconstruction. The

reconstruction in Chagall’s art is also based on the past which is real,

complete, and detailed.

 

Memory is a project that has no end, it can never be brought to a conclusion

or completion. Marc Chagall’s fixation on the past spills over from the

making of art into just about every aspect of his life. All his love, pain,

hatred, happiness, and sadness arose from his memories while he was

making his art work. Chagall’s experience represents only one of the ways

the power of the past can be expressed in art depiction. He treats the

canvas as a metaphor for memory itself, building up layers of paint that

visually represent the layers of everyday experience that accumulates in

his mind. The raw psychological power of memory is so evident in

Chagall’s art.

 

Fig.9  Solitude  1933  Oil on canvas  102 x 169 cm 

          Tel Aviv Museum, Tel Aviv

 

To Conclude, The Event is part of Chagall’s personal history, which relates

to events that happened in his life. Marc Chagall’s obsession with the past

also reflects that the truth of human experience can be grasped only

through an understanding of memory and time.

 

       

REFERENCE  LIST

1. Carlson, N. R.  (1987).  Psychology: The Science of Behavior. 

    Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.   

2. Compton, S.  (1985).  Chagall.  London: Royal Academy of Arts.

3. Dworetzky, J. P.  (1985).  Psychology.  New York: Publishing Company.

4. Miller, G. A.  (1981).  Psychology: The Science of Mental life. 

    New York: Pelican books.

5. Schacter, D. L.  (1996).  Searching for Memory: the Brain, the Mind, and

    the Past.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

6. Smith, K. C.  (1970).  The Dream of Icarus: Art and Society in the

    Twentieth Century.  London: Hutchinson and Co (Publishers) LTD.

7. Targat, F.L.  (1985).  Chagall.  New York: Rizzoli International

    Publications, Inc.

8. Tobien, F.  (1988).  Marc Chagall.  Avon: Artlines UK LTD.



 

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