Art

The Unexpected Chagall

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Of all the artists that are and ever have been, without any question my all-time favourite is Chagall.

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Russia (today part of Belarus) in 1887. He moved to Paris in 1912 and, apart from a seven-year interlude in America during the 1940s, lived there until his death in 1985.

Chagall was a prolific artist, producing thousands of works in every medium imaginable – paintings, illustrations, ceramics, mosaics, stained glass, even tapestries. His work can be seen in modern art museums in North America and Europe, and in public buildings as diverse as synagogues in Israel, cathedrals in Germany and Switzerland, the Palais de Opera in Paris, and the UN headquarters in New York.

So what is it about Chagall for me?

Well first, I relate strongly to Chagall and his art. He was a Jew, and although not especially religious he identified completely as being Jewish – culturally, traditionally and nationally. So much so that, to quote art critic Robert Hughes, Chagall is: “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century”. His work often contains strong Jewish motifs and iconography – flying angels, sacramental objects, biblical characters and stories – all of which are innately familiar to me.

More than that, many of the background themes that informed Chagall’s work run deeply through my life, too. Chagall’s family were Eastern European Jews (Lithuanian, in fact); after he left Russia he lived his life as a Jewish “migrant” in a “foreign” land; Chagall’s art frequently deals with reconciling his religious (Hasidic) family roots with a more modern Jewish identity and the secular world he lived in; and the seminal Jewish “events” of the last century – persecution leading to the Holocaust, followed by the birth of Israel – are often the shadow and light that give context to his work. Little wonder it all resonates so strongly with me.

Second, it feels a bit like Chagall has always been there, in the background of my life. Few can afford originals, but Chagall’s art is nonetheless present in so many Jewish homes, whether as prints, reproductions, posters, or coffee-books. There was a Chagall image somewhere, in one form or another, in the homes of many of my childhood friends. And in our family home my parents’ pride and joy were three signed Chagall lithographs, as well as some Chagall prints, that hung on the walls of the living room (they are still there today).

But more than anything, I just love his work. My early introduction to Chagall through friends, family and the familiar subject matter has morphed over time into something much deeper: an abiding appreciation of the dream-like, semi-mystical quality of the work, and his unmistakable technique. Most especially I am entranced by Chagall’s amazing use of colour, bright and vibrant and vivid, to the point where his paintings often seem to have a life and soul of their own.

Picasso summed it up succinctly: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is”.

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If ever the opportunity presents itself to see a Chagall, I always try to do so. If I visit a museum or gallery that holds anything by Chagall, this will almost certainly be the first exhibit I head for. It was largely on the promise of getting to see some Chagall that I first visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée Nationale in Paris, the Tel Aviv Museum in Israel, and even as far afield as the Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand.

But it is the unexpected encounters with Chagall that have been the most memorable.

When I was nineteen, on my first trip to New York, I bought a last-minute student ticket to a show at the Metropolitan Opera House. I didn’t know it before I went, but the lobby of the Met is home to two Chagall murals – “The Triumph of Music” and “The Sources of Music”. These massive ten metre long works were done by Chagall in the mid-1960s, and they are sublime. I became so engrossed with the murals that I almost missed the start of the show. An irritated usher had to rush me to my seat, and on the way he gave me a stern lecture – “you know, you need to pay attention to being on time” – in the way that only a New Yorker can.

About five years ago, I was invited for lunch to the apartment of a businessman in Tel Aviv. I rode the lift to the penthouse, stepped out into his apartment, and almost fell over: in the atrium were three large Chagall paintings. Not one, but three of them, each one an exquisitely beautiful piece, at least $5 million of art, oh-so-effortlessly just hanging there on the wall….

And only two weeks ago, I was walking to a meeting in London’s West End. My route took me along a street that was jam-packed with high-end art galleries. One of them had a truly magnificent Chagall painting on display in the main window. I stopped for a closer look. It was quite a famous Chagall, of a Jewish wedding scene, which I had seen before in a book. Yet here it was right in front of me, the real thing, casually lounging about in the window of an art gallery, on a random street in London.

All around me city worker-bees were scurrying along the footpath, wrapped up tight against the icy wind, and barely giving the painting a second glance. Their indifference felt near criminal, and I wanted to grab strangers by the shoulders as they passed by: “Hey, wake up, open your eyes – a Chagall masterpiece, here, in front of you!” But I just stood quietly, getting lost in the painting for perhaps a full three minutes, oblivious to the drizzle and cold. Not to mention becoming a serious blockage to the flow of foot traffic – it was only when a large fellow in a suit bumped into me and said rather loudly “get out of the fucking way you dolt” that I snapped out of my reverie, and moved on.

Tudeley 2

The English weather in February is awful, and this year it has apparently been especially bad: depressing grey skies for weeks on end, bitterly cold, with light snow flakes swirling in the air most days. Then rather unexpectedly I woke up one morning last week to a clear, blue sky – the first time since I had arrived in London, ten days earlier. Overnight the wind had died down as well, so that whilst it was still cold, the horrible bite of the European winter was absent.

The effect that a bit of sunshine and slightly warmer weather can have on a city like London is amazing. The whole mood of the place seemed to lift. In unison people everywhere shed their heavy winter coats, and suddenly the streets and parks were full, the good citizens of London venturing out into the sunshine like animals tentatively peeking out from their caves after a long hibernation.

I, on the other hand, was in a particularly melancholy frame of mind. I was feeling stressed and low, and tired, and my head was bursting. I needed something more than a mere stroll in the fresh air to lift me out of my funk.

Some time ago a friend had mentioned to me a church in a small English village called Tudeley, not too far from London, which he described as having “a nice Chagall window”. At the time I had filed that away in my mental memory bank as something to do “one day”, and it now occurred to me that this might be just the day for it – a chance to get away from the City for an afternoon; an opportunity to make the most of the sunny weather; and the promise of a Chagall to boot.

So somewhat on the spur of the moment, I decided to try my luck. Just before lunch I caught a train from London’s Charing Cross Station to the town of Tonbridge, in Kent, about 45 minutes away. From there, I hopped in a taxi, and ten minutes later I was standing on a rutted country lane, in front of the rusted iron gate of Tudeley’s All Saints’ Church.

In less than an hour, I had traded steel and glass office towers, advertising billboards, lights and cars and the sounds of thousands of people on the move for the solitude of a small stone church, surrounded by green pastures and centuries old rock walls. The little garden in front of the church was studded with weathered gravestones. I could hear birds chirping and the breeze rustling through the leaves of the nearby trees. I was completely alone. The only evidence of modern life was a road-sign pointing to “The Poachers”, a pub 700 yards down the road offering traditional lunches.

I had travelled from the heart of hyper-urban present-day London, to the heart of the English countryside, circa two hundred years ago – a change of atmosphere so complete and so sudden as to be almost unbelievable. The setting was rural and pleasant and tranquil, and the church was nondescript to the point that I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “try not to blink, or you might miss it”. And, as I turned the latch on the heavy oak door and entered All Saints’, I was utterly convinced I had been sent on an artistic wild goose chase – I mean, how could such a plain country church hold anything worthwhile by Chagall?

Which just goes to show how full of surprises life can sometimes be.

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I stepped into the compact main hall of the church, and could not believe my eyes. I was surrounded a full three-hundred and sixty degrees by stained glass windows, each one an unmistakable creation by Chagall. Every single window of the church is a bona fide Chagall masterpiece, and there are twelve in total, on all sides of the room. The sun poured in through the windows, filling the whole church with shimmering pools of blue and gold light, and casting swirling, dreamlike clouds of colour onto the ceiling.

It was completely mesmerising, and breathtaking. Chagall once described the process of making a stained glass window as “painting with light”, and in Tudeley’s All Saints’ Church, I was able to see for myself what he was talking about.

It turns out that All Saints’ is the only church in the world where every window is the work of Marc Chagall. How this came to be is a fascinating, almost romantic, story.

In 1849, Sir Isaac Goldsmid acquired Somerhill, the largest and most important house / estate in the Tudeley area. As the name would suggest, Sir Isaac and his family were Jews. In 1940 his great-grandson, Major-General Sir Henry Joseph “Harry” d’Avigdor-Goldsmid (clearly, an important fellow just by the length of his name) inherited the family estate. Sir Henry had married an Anglican, Lady Rosemary, and although he was Jewish his wife and their two daughters, Sarah and Chloé, were practicing Christians and became regulars at the local church, All Saints’.

The family were also patrons of the arts, and in 1961, so the story goes, Lady Rosemary and Sarah visited the Louvre in Paris, where they saw an exhibition of the stained glass windows that Chagall had designed for the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem. They immediately fell in love with Chagall and his work.

Two years later, tragedy struck: the then 21-year-old Sarah was drowned in a boating accident. To commemorate his beloved daughter, Sir Henry commissioned Chagall to create a memorial window at All Saints’. Chagall is said to have resisted at first – how could he, a Russian Jew living in France and with no experience of working in England, much less in an Anglican church, accept the commission? Not to mention that Chagall was already in his eighties at this time. Sir Henry was, however, not only wealthy but persistent. Plus Chagall was supposedly unhappy with the end product at Jerusalem’s Hadassah windows, given they are lit by artificial light, and at Tudeley he had the opportunity for a canvas on which he could perfect his windows, and that would work with natural light. Eventually, Chagall relented and agreed to do the east window, which is the main focal point in All Saints’.

The window was completed and installed in 1967. Chagall had based the work on the Bible, and in particular Psalm 8: God’s love as shown through his creation. In the window, there is a representation of Sarah, adrift in the sea, at peace. She is also shown riding a horse, a symbol of happiness for Chagall, and there is also a ladder to heaven, with Sarah ascending it while Christ and the angels wait for her above. Other figures in the window represent Sarah’s mother and sister, simultaneously mourning and watching over her. The colour scheme is a deep, rich indigo, fading into a paler blue of the sky, accented by gold and crimson – suffering and loss at the bottom half of the window, transcending to love and light at the top.

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Chagall made a trip to Tudeley for the unveiling of the window in December of 1967, and is reported to have exclaimed on seeing his own handiwork: “c’est magnifique” – it is magnificent. He immediately offered to do all the other windows of the church, too.

And so slowly, over the next fifteen years, Chagall replaced every window in the All Saints’ Church with his stained glass creations. These eleven windows tell biblically-inspired stories of creation and re-creation, in blue and gold and red, containing all the signature elements typical of Chagall’s art: floating angels, his favourite animal the ass as well as birds and butterflies and fish, moon and sun and stars, humans and animals flying free of the earth, and even an image of the artist himself.

What is most extraordinary though, is that at Tudeley, Chagall’s work is literally and very physically accessible. It is not a museum, and there are no railings and protective barriers and security guards to keep you from the art. Nor are the windows high up and hard to see in detail, as they are in most other places that have Chagall stained glass windows. At All Saints’ I could view the windows at eye level; I was able to approach them and inspect up close every tiny little scratch and brush-stroke and marking put there by the artist. I could touch the windows, running my fingers over Chagall’s signature on each panel – something that if I tried to do anywhere else would most likely result in me being arrested on the spot, and carted off to jail.

The final window at All Saints’ was only installed in 1985, nearly twenty years after the first, and only a few months before Chagall’s death at age 98. Meaning that not only is Tudeley’s the only church anywhere that can boast of having every window being made by Chagall, it has the honour of holding his last work, as well. It is almost as if Chagall hung on to life especially so he could complete the task he had set himself at All Saints’, and once this masterpiece was complete, he was finally content to leave this world.

I stayed at All Saints’ for over an hour. During this whole time, I was more or less alone, apart from two elderly women who came in, looked at the windows for about ten minutes, and left.

By the end of my visit I felt calm, and uplifted. I left Tudeley in a mood that was altogether different and more positive than the one I had arrived in. I had experienced something bordering on the spiritual – I could even describe it as one of the more “religious” hours of my life – in the quietude of a small English church, and all courtesy of a Jewish-Russian artist, no less. Chagall and his pieces of coloured glass had worked their magic.

On the way out, I put some money into a donations box, and took a copy of a small booklet that provided background and detail on All Saints’ glorious windows. I read it on the train back to London. Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, had contributed a brief preface, and put it most beautifully when he wrote:

The concept that Art can add spirituality is something that goes to the core of all religions … [Chagall’s windows] can but serve to enhance the spirituality of the beautiful surroundings in which they are placed, advance the fervour with which the Almighty is worshipped, and increase the devotion of those coming under the inspiration of Chagall’s divinely-inspired talent.

But, I will leave the last words for Marc Chagall himself:

“In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.”

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7 replies »

  1. I really enjoyed this piece … You have captured the windows really well and look great on the blog …….. Maybe I should visit this little church some day

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