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Monday, 6 July, 1998, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Chagall and the art of passion and drama
chagall painting
Chagall carries his wife over a Russian landscape like Superman
"All I had to do was open my window and in streamed the blueness of the sky, love and flowers with her. Dressed all in white or all in black, she has been haunting my paintings, the great central image of my art."

Moissey Segal may never have become Marc Chagall without the inspiration afforded him by his wife, Bella.

Chagall painting
"Promenade": Uplifting image of love
In a major exhibition which opened this week at London's Royal Academy, his love of life, spouse, music, dance and theatre shine through paintings never before seen in Britain.

About 60 oil paintings, murals and sketches gathered together from Moscow, St Petersburg and Paris focus on the eight years Chagall spent in his home town of Vitebsk in Russia during World War 1, the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath.

The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the theme of "Love".

Literally uplifting, "Promenade" shows the artist with a broad grin on his face, flying his wife in the air like a kite. She soars above a landscape of green and pink houses that bring to mind East European fairytale illustrations.

Chagall has her flying above his village, or stetl, in "Over the Town" but this time he is carrying her like Superman.

His wedding, usually a joyous occasion in the orthodox Jewish community, is depicted in sombre colours - grey, black, with a blotch of red over the presiding angel. A mysterious little figure is drawn on Bella's cheek leading some to wonder whether she was pregnant at the time.

Although there are several works showing the two in intimate embrace, Bella's expression is always wistful, giving the series a tender but melancholy feel.

Bella died in New York in 1944 of pneumonia, a devoted wife, accountant and muse.

But she cannot be apportioned with all the credit for Chagall's success.

The artist was born to a poor Jewish family in Vitebsk in the western region of Russia known as the Pale.

Thanks to his mother who bribed a teacher at a state school, Marc escaped the narrow confines of the world of East European Jewry, learnt to speak Russian instead of Yiddish and eventually made contact with the bourgeois, cosmopolitan society in St Petersburg.

Chagall painting
Mural for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre
In 1910, Chagall went to Paris where he became friends with other expressionists like Modigliani and Soutine as wells as Leger, Delaunay and Apollinaire. Through Apollinaire, he met a Berlin art dealer who organised an exhibition for him in Germany in 1913.

From Berlin, he took a train home to Vitebsk where he was trapped by world war in 1914. But he made good use of his time, marrying Bella Rosenfeld the following year and holding exhibitions in Moscow and Petrograd.

After the 1917 revolutions, he was made Fine Arts Commissar for the Vitebsk region.

Theatrical delights

Walk into the second part of the exhibition and you're greeted by a huge mural created for the auditorium of State Yiddish Theatre in Moscow in 1920.

The vibrant characters reflect his love of theatre and Jewish tradition. Actors leap about with rubbery bendy legs, dancers perform handstands, one violinist gets so excited he saws his instrument in half and his head pops off - and amidst all this commotion there are green goats, cows, chickens.

It's all held together by geometric circles and lines in wonderfully subtle shades of lilac, yellow, egg-shell blue and raspberry reds.

During the Stalin purges of the late 1930s, these works were rolled up and hidden away. After the Jewish theatre was closed in 1950, they were bought by Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery and have been recently - and beautifully - restored. A real treat.

"Chagall: Love and the Stage" is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until October 4th.

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