Galerie Tamenaga, Tokyo
Acquired by the family of the present owner in France in the 1990s
In Grand coq blanc Chagall makes bold use of colour to divide the canvas into distinct segments concentrated around the central motif of a cockerel and a pair of lovers. Cockerels were a key motif for Chagall, reminding him of his rural upbringing in Vitebsk. As Franz Meyer notes, the bird had for thousands of years ‘played a part in religious rites as the embodiment of the forces of the sun and fire. This symbolic meaning still lingers on in Chagall’s work, where the cock represents elementary spiritual power’ (F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, London, 1964, p. 380). The embracing lovers that appear encircled by the cockerel are another leitmotif in Chagall’s œuvre, usually conjuring the ghost of the artist’s beloved first wife and muse, Bella. Despite her tragic and early death in 1945, Bella continued to be an important presence in the artist’s work often appearing as the archetypal figure of romantic love.
Underpinning the central tableau of figures we glimpse the familiar landscape of the artist’s Russian birthplace Vitebsk. The rural life he experienced there was the subject of his earliest forays into artistic expression and remained a mainstay of his personal symbolism. As he explained: ‘The fact that I made use of cows, milkmaids, roosters and provincial Russian architecture as my source forms is because they are part of the environment from which I spring and which undoubtedly left the deepest impression on my visual memory of any experiences I have known […]. The vital mark these early influences leave is, as it were, on the handwriting of the artist’ (quoted in James Johnson Sweeney, ‘An Interview with Marc Chagall’, in Jacob Baal-Teshuva (ed.), Chagall. A Retrospective, New York, 1995, p. 278). In the present work the familiar curved rooftops are rendered in both a vivid red and more nostalgic blue, reflecting perhaps both the troubled past of the town and Chagall’s very spiritual connection with his past life there.
The landscape of Vitebsk is laid out beneath a portrait of the artist who, palette in hand, appears seated painting a bouquet of flowers. The figure of the artist at work is a motif that recurs frequently in Chagall’s œuvre, and he pursued it with vigour in his later years; a number of works from the late 1970s show a portrait of the artist as a young man, gesturing towards a canvas whilst other works from the period directly address the subject of creative inspiration as in La Muse (fig. 1).
These different elements of the painting occupy distinct spaces within the composition, each delineated by broad swathes of colour. This use of colour and outlined forms reflects the aesthetic of stained glass, a medium that occupied much of Chagall’s time during the latter part of his life (fig. 2) and had a profound effect on his compositional arrangements. In the present work, this experience of working with stained glass allows the artist to draw together many of his key themes in an eloquent meditation on life, love and art.
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