Michaela Merz

Moische Schagalow – the Russian Jew from Vitebsk

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I have enough of this winter. It’s just endless long. I have the impression that from November on until now, end of March, there was a continuous snow cover in our garden, with only few interruptions. Outside it is freezing cold, dark and grey, without the sun much coming out. Today’s Sunday morning presents itself grey and dull and according to the weather forecast it will not be much better during the day. I need at least some food for my soul.

Do you know the glass windows in the cathedral of Metz or the ones from Fraumünster cathedral in Zurich or in the church of St. Stephan in Mainz or in the Art Institute of Chicago? Because they are all impressive and all are by Marc Chagall and his pictures are shown in an exhibition in Zurich. For that reason I was discussing with my son (6) whether we would go to the Zurich Kunsthaus (art house). It would have been great if the child had said “great mummy, let’s go”. But that is too far from reality. First there was a grumpy snarl and then he informed me that he intended to play Lego, especially if the weather is that bad outside. How does one motivate a six year old? Can an art exhibition win against Lego? I told him that it will be great, without actually knowing how I will manage this, but this argument did not work with him. Let’s be honest, in the end I finished this discussion dictatorial because the motivation scheme did not work on this Sunday morning.

The exhibition is fantastic. The Kunsthaus took the burden of the presentation suitable for children from me. My son received a sheet of paper for painting, sharpened pencils as well as an audio guide. For one hour he was lost in the exhibition, listening and searching. Every now and then he came for me and almost dragged me to one of the paintings in order to show me something. When we were sitting down for coffee and cake and I told him that the painter had two children, he already knew this.

Many paintings of Chagall touched us. In the painting “War” the suffering can be felt physically, the desperation of the ones, who have victims to mourn, the pain of the ones, who leave their lives in the flames.

In 1920 Chagall moved to Moscow and in 1922 he left Russia. But in November 1920 he created the stage setting for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre. He painted the entire auditorium, created background murals, costumes, screen and curtains. The murals still exist, the ceiling paintings and the curtain unfortunately not. One of them is “The Dance” (1920), tempera and gouache on canvas. The dancer seems to be in trance. The painting flows by the liveliness of her dress, by the large-scale colour transitions but also by the symbolic appearance of music at the side of the picture. And then the violinist (“The Music” 1920), with deep green face and an orange violin (did you know that as a child Chagall wanted to become a violinist?). And otherwise shades of brown, white, yellow, blue and black make the painting light as a feather. The smile of the violinist seems friendly, almost impish.

I also like “The Promenade” (1917/18), which shows Chagall and his wife Bella. It is the materialised joy of being in love and passion for each other in painting.

In many paintings a deep black unites with the dense structure of the colour and takes over the control on the canvas as in “The street performers in the night” (1957), “The Black Glove” (1923-1948), “Clock with Blue Wing” (1949) or “The Purple Nude” (1967).

Three women accompanied Chagall’s life, Bella Rosenfeld, his first wife (1915), with whom he had daughter Ida (1916). After her death in 1944 followed Virginia Haggard McNeil, with whom he had son David (1946), when Chagall was almost 60 years old. But Virginia left him for another, even older man. Finally he married Valentina (Vava) Brodsky in 1952. He died at the biblical age of 97, rich and acknowledged.

But who likes reading about paintings. The exhibition is fantastic and one must see it. I got my soul food and the day became less dull and for a six year old my son knows frighteningly much about Moische Schagalow, the Russian Jew from Vitebsk, who called himself Marc Chagall.

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