On Wednesday, I listened as President Biden gave his inaugural address, a message of unity and hope, of facing the “dark winter” ahead with perseverance. When he went through the litany of what we are still facing — “an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis” — I felt moved, and was reminded of a quieter but persistent sadness that I’m finally able to name. A deepening sense that perhaps yet another side-effect of the current state of the world is that we are losing our habits of celebration and delight. Like a muscle weakened from lack of use, our capacity to celebrate our own lives on a regular basis has lessened. As though it is too risky to hold space for joy.
And this is why, in the grey afternoons and dark evenings of late, I have found myself continually thinking about the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, whose colourful, whimsical work I have long loved.
Chagall’s entire oeuvre is an expression of a romantic imagination, and a commitment to celebrating a love of life, despite its inevitable sorrows. Not as a means of mindless or childish escape, but rather to reinvigorate in us a childlike wonder about the world. An effort that seemed to be at the heart of Chagall’s own considerations when he created those bold reds, deep blues and strokes of bright yellow and orange on tablecloths, canvases, walls, stained glass, paper and more.
One of the early pioneers of European modernist painting, Chagall’s work has been celebrated for more than 100 years. Since this time last year, there have been a dozen or more Chagall exhibitions shown across the world, some singularly themed and some featuring his work, whether live or online due to Covid-19. This winter alone, exhibitions are planned in Hebei and Paris, with others in Atlanta and Frankfurt already scheduled to open later this year and 2022, respectively.
Many years ago, in one of my previous homes, I had a framed print of Chagall’s painting “Birthday” (“L'anniversaire”) hanging on the wall above my bed. I distinctly remember choosing that place for the picture because I wanted to be reminded on a daily basis that life always holds the possibility for enchantment. In “Birthday”, Chagall uses verdant greens, brilliant reds, pops of blue, yellow and orange deftly contrasted with swaths of black, to depict a scene of two lovers.
The figures of a man and a woman float in the centre of a room. She is wearing a black, shapeless dress with a frilly white collar open around her pale neckline. Her feet in their black-heeled shoes hover just a few centimetres off the vibrant red carpet. Holding a bouquet of flowers, she faces an open window, from which we can see the road possibly leading into Chagall’s beloved Vitebsk. But the woman’s eyes are set on her love, the man who’s floating above her, his swanlike neck curved impossibly backwards to reach her pursed lips for a soft kiss.
The room that contains them is sparsely furnished. A modest bed is backed up against a tapestry on the wall. A narrow orange-brown desk is topped with a pretty blue runner and a cake waiting to be cut. The painting depicts the artist and his fiancée Bella Rosenfeld, a familiar face in many of his works, and the image was completed in 1915, after his return from Paris to his native Russia, and just a few weeks before their marriage.
Years later, when I saw the original painting for the first time, it was by mistake. I bumped into it while walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I can still conjure up the emotion I felt as I took a few steps back to really see it. My smile was so large that I suspect it could have been audible.
Somewhere along the way, most of us accept the narrative that after a certain age, romance and enchantment is largely unrealistic and impractical in the midst of hard facts and responsibilities. But Chagall wanted to stir people to another plane of existence, one where the daily things we take for granted could be seen with a new light of reverence, infused by the ideal of love to which he was so committed.
Chagall understood himself as hovering somewhere “between Heaven and Earth”. He saw the world, and his life, with a mind tilted towards the mystical. His motifs — abstract floating figures, musical instruments, birds and smiling cows, goats and donkeys, winged angels in human scenes of marriage or birth — were ways for Chagall to depict in his work not only the sorrows the world had to offer, but also the beauty, nature, human connection and, yes, love, even in the midst of grief and pain.
The painter was no stranger to the vicissitudes of life. He was born in 1887 in a small Hasidic Jewish community near Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. He lived through two world wars, Nazi persecution, the ridicule and destruction of his work by those who once praised it, a time of exile, and the sudden death of his first wife. He understood the harshness of the world and, during the second world war, his work reflected this. Yet Chagall was able to maintain a sense of playful and vibrant delight, creating breathtaking and vivid work right up until his death in 1985 at 97 years old.
From the sheer expanse of his oeuvre, from paintings, to stained glass, to etchings and printmaking, to ceramics and stage set design, Chagall seemed to create with one eye wide open on the realities of the world, and the other constantly fluttering open against the realities of his own heart, a heart capable of meditating on joy and sorrow in equal measure.
In like manner, he wanted his work to appeal not only to the eyes, but to “the very heart of others”. In early images such as “Bathing of a Baby” (1916) or “Visit to Grandparents” (1915), Chagall pays homage to the ordinary, reminding us that to be able to do such simple things is a gift. Even in his years of deep sociopolitical reflection and grief, painting the horrors of war and the persecution of his people, the work was still undergirded by a deep love of his people, his country and the world.
To look at the span of Chagall’s work over the years is a reminder that to celebrate and to grieve often go hand-in-hand. More often than not, life gives us cause to do both at the same time. Yet maybe we are not well-trained in acknowledging the good of our lives without some sense of guilt or shame, knowing that so much is wrong with the world, and that life is never fair. Maybe it’s a discipline worth practising, to find ways to stir our imagination and to fan the fire of joy, even if on some days we are simply fanning embers.
President Biden said something in his speech, to the effect of not allowing this moment to harden our hearts. He was speaking about his vision of unity and healing for the American nation, but I heard it as a wider invitation beyond political strife and this country’s borders. I think about these days at hand, and imagine if there could be a Chagall clarion call of the current moment, it would be one resounding with an invitation to use love as a tuning fork for how we move to the cadence of our own lives, one eye on the world, and the other fluttering against the beat of our own heart.
Enuma Okoro is a writer and speaker
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