Saturday, October 03, 2020


 “Greece is both still Europe but also already the Orient.” Marc Chagall. 


At first instance, Modernist painter Marc Chagall’s relationship with Greece is not immediately apparent. Referred to by art critic Robert Hughes, as "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century", Marc Chagall’s complex and diverse artistic works, comprising paintings, stage set designs, stained glass compositions for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, as well as ceramics, are imbued with the Russian mysticism of his birthplace in modern day Belarus, and an innate, rather pronounced appreciation of and sympathy for his religious roots wherever he travelled. Though open to new ideas, and embracing many elements of the modernist style, of which he was an early proponent, the dreams and realities of his early life ever formed the core of his aesthetics. 


Chagall’s life was intense. Growing up in Tsarist Russia, he experienced the pogroms against the Jews at first hand and his early canvasses are steeped in suffering.  He also experienced the Russian Revolution and the ensuing bloody Civil War, eventually fleeing to France. Not long after, his work became caught up in the Nazi campaigns against so-called “degenerate” art, it being singled out for its portrayal of: "green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air ... representing [an] assault on Western civilization." 


Chagall was fated to flee France after the Nazi invasion and ended up in the United States where it took time for his surrealist dream narratives to be appreciated, one critic observing that “contemporary artists had little in common with a folkloristic storyteller of Russo-Jewish extraction with a propensity for mysticism."  He was in America when his first wife, the writer Bella Rosenfeld died in 1944, around the same time that the full extent of the Holocaust was becoming known. 


Dealing with these traumas was not easy for Chagall, yet the liberation of Paris provided some hope for him, he stating: “Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.” Moving to Paris in 1946, he settled there and found new love and renewal in Valentina Brodsky, who he married in 1952. 


It was in the same year that French-Greek poet Stratis Eleftheriadis, better known as  Tériade suggested that to Chagall that he illustrate a new edition of the second century Greek pastoral prose epic Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus, a seminal text, given that it is the precursor of the modern novel, describing, through tortuous twists of plot, the discovery of love and loss of innocence, a fitting metaphor for the Chagall’s own life. 


Given that the young shepherd and shepherdess fall in love on the island of Lesbos, Chagall determined to visit Greece and get a feel for its history and mythological vocabulary. He visited what he termed “the land of the Gods,” on two occasions, fascinated not only by its antiquity but also, how the ambience of the landscape reminded him of the French Riviera, and his home in Saint-Paul de Vence, a perceptive association, given the history of ancient Greek colonisation of that area.  


Absorbing the colours, smells and lines of his peregrinations, especially those of Delphi, Athens and Poros, Chagall spent the next four years creating a series of forty two colour lithographs to bring to life the ancient idyll, even as he was living his own. In so doing, he retains his signature inversion of landscape. Cities grow downwards into the earth, fish fly in the sky and animals intrude effortlessly everywhere. His skilled portrayal of Jewish lore here lends itself easily to the symbolic vocabulary and poetic references of ancient Greece. The lithographs thus retain the dreamlike quality of his previous works, which is fitting, given the highly psychological nature of the Greek myths and the manner in which the play upon, encapsulate and interrogate the sub-conscience.  


As opposed to his prior works, with their thick, dark, cloying colours however, the Chagall Daphnis and Chloe illustrations are positively numinous and we can attribute this to the artist’s experience of the Greek light. As the artist himself noted: “Down there, everything is light.” In his dextrous hands, this light becomes filtered and nuanced. Through the prism of his eye, it is split into its spectral constituents. It is his complex layering of colours, a pre-requisite of the process of lithography, that gives each composition its irrepressible effervescence.  

His process of rendering this light is reminiscent of that of the Greek painter Fassianos, although the style and artistic syntax bears absolutely no comparison.  


Each of Chagall’s lithographs is possessed of an endearing, whimsical quality, to accompany the light, naiveté akin to that of the Greek naive painter Theophilos, that accompanies a group of lovers who although assailed by everything evil that the world has to offer: murder, rape, looting and pillage, never lose their innate innocence and indeed, never appear to grow or develop as characters. It is this expert use of colour in order to uphold a mood and interpret a story that reinforces Picasso’s conviction, that when Matisse died, Chagall would be the only one who really understood what colour was, adding for good measure, that his canvasses were really painted, not just tossed together. 


Chagall’s exuberant engagement with the land of the Gods was not limited just to Daphnis and Chloe, although in 1957, he  designed the scenery for Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloe for the Paris Opera. 

 In 1967, he set out to illustrate an anthology of his favourite classical verse, evoking a Bacchanalian age of hedonism. Sappho, was one of his favourites. His composition, of two entwined, nude lovers reclining beneath a crescent moon, a randy goat, some sheep and a signature inverted bird, accompanies the Lesbian poet’s immortal lines: 

“Blessed husband you have the hymen 

that you wanted, and you have the desired virgin.”  


Chagall also went on to illustrate selections of the Odyssey. His haunting “Circe” transforms the chthonic potent sexual predator into an aethereal maternal, Madonna-like figure, a haven and a refuge, in a novel interpretation of the myth. His “Polyphemus,” where the giant is depicted languidly reclining as a stake is driven into his eye, is blindingly luminous, as if it is occurring, par the course, during an afternoon siesta.  


His Eupeithes, on the other hand, one of a few of Chagall’s mythological works that do not include a complementary Greek temple in order to set the scene, is a masterly exploration of ingratitude and vengeance. Eupeithes  was the father of Antinous, the leader of Penelope’s suitors. After Antinous was killed by Odysseus, Eupeithes rose in revolt against his rule. He was killed by Odysseus' father, Laertes, enraged that Eupeithes had forgotten how Odysseus had protected him against the wrath of the Cephallonians whom he had raided years ago. Chagall’s Eupeithes is a green headed and horned winged monster, which hovers before the suitors, threatening to take Penelope and Antinous away. The scene reverberates with tension, the malicious grins of all those portrayed heightening the enormity of Penelope’s plight.  


“Poseidon,” another temple-less scene has the god defy the briny and emerge shimmering and viridescent above the sea brandishing his trident, a beardless youth more reminiscent of Apollo, as the red-figured Odysseus is sprawled before him, part in defiance, part in supplication. The sly look on Odysseus’ face artfully subverts the terror of the tableaux. 


“Celebration,” appears to depict the scene where a hair-bunned Nausicaa finds the nude Odysseus washed up on the beach of Phaeacia, the paradigm of proto-civilisation. In this depiction, worthy of a Seferis poem, the obligatory Greek temple is schematic and ill defined, animals emerge from the seaweed, which also gives its hue to Nausicaa’s skin, while the single boat with the white sail on the dark sea bobs malevolently on the horizon. The whole conception of what exactly a haven constitutes is deconstructed before our very eyes. 


Unlike most artists, who come to the Greece, its myths and cultural legacy through the filter of books and western tropes of civilisation, Marc Chagall, after surviving the most heinous personal and social catastrophes, came to Greece through its light, enervating and pervading the sparse landscape with its surreal array of architectural elements betraying a broken past, and most importantly through love.  While critics may view this light as an epiphany, allowing him to view Greece as an integral pillar of western culture, hitherto obscured by the temple of Jerusalem, and while Greeks may note that that there is little if any of the contemporary Greek culture that marc Chagall was exposed to in his works, it nonetheless, through his unique appreciation and understanding of the natural topography, resonates with love. Ultimately, through the power of that love, Greece taught Chagall, how to make light breathe. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 October 2020