Finding some solace spending time with his daughter Ida at her home on Riverside Drive, the spring of 1945 marked the return of the artist to his craft some nine months after Bella’s untimely death. Figures from Chagall’s famed pictorial iconography populate this sombre, moon-lit scene, yet his enduring motifs appear evolved, absorbing and reflecting the artist’s recent loss and continued aching for the past. Person and place unfold across the painting as if a dream: one which teeters between myth and memory. An illuminated cockerel presides over the composition, a frequent reminder of the artist’s rural and folkloric upbringing in the town of Vitebsk. A symbolic avatar which appears often throughout this decade (see figs. 2 & 3), the rooster is ‘an expression of the bestiality slumbering in the human soul. In these … wartime paintings, the rooster, symbol of aggressivity, plays an important part” (Lionel Venturi, Chagall: The Taste of Our Time, Geneva, 1956, p. 91). The rooster also suggests Chagall’s celebrated work on the costumes, stage sets and curtain for Igor Stravinksy’s production of Firebird (see fig 4). Intertwined with the bird is the discernible outline of a woman, presumably his beloved Bella who, in her death, now too lives solely in Chagall’s fantastic vision. Even decades after her death, she would continue to be his painted bride bearing her bouquet, his œuvre’s lasting symbol for romantic love. Beneath the anthropomorphic figure, the haunting skyline of the couple’s endemic Belarussian village, Vitebsk, fades into the abyssal twilight.
On the right, a disembodied figure hovers before an easel and a blank canvas as the night swirls around him. This figure may be interpreted as the artist himself: so saddled with grief he is in a sense, decapitated. Set in profile, he is the isolated counterpart to the ghostly Bella, wholly immersed in his empty art form – an intense depiction of lost love and its resultant anguish. The artist’s inaction before his canvas likely alludes to Chagall’s own whimsical rather than personal practice. His work was largely informed by dreams and visions, the result of which is self-referential in the present composition. When asked to explain his paintings, Chagall remarked: ‘I don't understand them at all. They are not literature. They are only pictorial arrangements of images that obsess me,’ (quoted in Marc Chagall (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946, p. 7).
Even within the context of a subdued twilight, Chagall is a master colourist. The dark sky is a stage set for brilliant flashes of bright colour which subtly yet suddenly shift to animate his inner vision. Chagall scraped and pushed paint across the canvas with a palette knife, revealing complex layers of nuanced colour in his search to consolidate reality and his lyrical dreamscapes into one. While quiet and contemplative, the present work simultaneously swells with energy and colour, announcing the return of the artist to his practice and introduces what would become an enduring, lifelong allegorical practice of immortalising his darling Bella. As Venturi writes, ‘His is the gesture of the lost child, gifted with a fertile imagination but powerless to arrest the march of events in an increasingly alien world. To war, massacre and martyrdom his answer is his painting … Tenderness and hope – all the dearer for being unrealizable – are his weapons against the powers of evil. By losing himself and taking refuge in a world of myth and poetry, he at the same time finds himself’ (L. Venturi, op. cit., p. 83).
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