Fig.1 The Event 1978 Oil on canvas 130 X 162 cm
The estate of Aime’ Maeght
The exhibition【Celebration by Marc Chagall】at 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
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
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.
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
8. Tobien, F. (1988). Marc Chagall. Avon: Artlines UK LTD.