A manifesto of his art at its peak, Chagall’s Le Cirque mauve
was painted in 1966. That year, Chagall had just permanently set up his studio in Vence. In this newfound serenity and the sun of the South of France, the emblematic themes of his repertoire and the colours of his palette were set aflame. Le Cirque mauve
exemplifies this period of maturity, when Chagall affirmed his style without fear of being excessive, creating a feast for the eyes and the heart.
With regard to Hommage à Marc Chagall
, Jean Leymarie declared: “Chagall has always been enchanted by festivals, rites and spectacle, in every sense of the word” (Jean Leymarie, Hommage à Marc Chagall
, Grand Palais, 1969-1970, p. VIII). It all began in the streets of his native Vitebsk where the image of travelling acrobats left an impression on his young imagination. Once he arrived in Paris in 1911, Chagall made a point of going to the circus. The Ballets Russes were in full swing. And Chagall repeatedly contributed to the modern revamping of the world of spectacle. In the 1920s, he worked on the set design for Gogol’s The Government Inspector
, Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World
and Sholem Aleichem’s Miniatures
. In 1942, to music by Tchaikovsky, he collaborated with Léonide Massine on the ballet Aleko
, based on a poem by Pushkin. In 1945, he was involved in Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird
and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé
in 1958. Shortly before Le Cirque mauve
, Chagall delivered his studies for the Paris Opera (1964) and the wall decoration for the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1965). This shows the extent to which the subject of spectacle was an integral part of his career and work.
Jean Leymarie has also noted the thematic — and at first glance surprising — proximity between the circus motif and his religious subjects, which run though Chagall’s entire body of work in the same way and with the same frequency: “Chagall’s art revolves around a central focus, the mythical and supernatural world of childhood, whose mystery is shattered by adult reasoning. Two overarching themes drive his work, which ultimately develop into actual cycles, that is, into organically linked series, the Circus and the Bible, where each element has value on its own and in relation to the whole.” (Jean Leymarie, Hommage à Marc Chagall
, Grand Palais, 1969-1970, p. IX). In this parallel, we must see Chagall’s fondness for performance as being both youthful and fundamental. Beyond these echoes, it is the ritual, almost cosmogonic principle that links the representation of the grotesque and religion. Jean Leymarie continues: “All the great contemporary painters are passionate about the ritual of the circus, in which they see a metaphor of the world and the reflection of their own practice. Chagall experiences, without being able to give any reasons for it, the profound kinship, which can also be observed in Rouault’s work, between religious subjects and circus subjects. Attending a circus show with him is as revealing as watching a bullfight with Picasso. The circus enjoys great, long-lasting popularity in Russia. […] The circus ring is the magic circle where gravity is defied and where there is a total freedom of movement and feelings, with the strictest discipline. Chagall’s first circus scenes were painted in 1913, increasing in number in 1927 and in 1937, and from 1956 on, the scenes formed a continuous cycle parallel to that of the Bible, illustrated again in 1968 by major works such as Le Grand cirque
and Les Gens du voyage
. Animals taking part in circus activities play a symbolic role in Chagall’s mythology. The cow and the goat appear mainly before 1914, the donkey and the horse appear after 1924, and from 1928 on, the rooster and the fish predominate, connected through their religious value and by their binary relationship: the sun and the moon, fire and water. Chagall believed in bringing together wild animals and all creatures in the messianic kingdom prophesied by Isaiah […].” (Jean Leymarie, Hommage à Marc Chagall
, Grand Palais, 1969-1970, pp. IX-X).
Le Cirque mauve is a highly colourful, animated summary of this artistry of ceremony and celebration. Everyone is invited: the artist in the foreground in an expressive self-portrait (Chagall always saw himself as an actor, magician and acrobat), the musicians from the religious scenes and wedding processions, and the animals from his enchanted bestiary which mingle with the horsewomen, trapeze artists, clowns and acrobats. Through blue, green, red and yellow, in pure and overlaid strokes, the diversity and intensity of the colour scheme adds to the euphoric atmosphere. The luxuriant bouquet, presented and fading away at the centre of the composition, delights and strikes a chord of happiness in one’s heart.