The Fiddler on Your Roof


The fiddler on the roof, later to become a folk hero on Broadway and in the movies, appeared for the first time in a painting by a 21-year-old art student in St. Petersburg who was not yet the world-famous artist Marc Chagall.

He went about his painting in those early days in a way that was - and with images that were - to become habitual in a career that would stretch out for almost four score more years. He started with the solid humdrum reality if Vitebsk, the town in White Russia where he was born and spent his youth, with its squat timber houses lined up against a flat desolate landscape. Then he peopled the streets with house-sized human figures, illogical in terms of ordinary space and time but full of a strange and unsettling vitality. One of these figures was on a rooftop, scraping away at a violin. The painter had excavated a childhood memory of a day when everyone was disturbed because Grandpa had disappeared, to be eventually found seated cozily up on the chimneytop, chewing some carrots. If carrots, why not a fiddle, the favorite instrument of Uncle Neuch, though he  played like a shoemaker?

The world in which the Chagall family lived was not expected to follow logical patterns. They were all impregnated with Hasidism, the ecstatic-religious set of mind which had taken possession of much of East European Jewry in the 18th century. The Hasidic world was not a machine kept going by rational causes and effects, it was a never-ending series of passionate impulses. "Behind every blade of grass," they used to say, "stands an angel urging it on: Grow! Grow!" In such a world it was only normal to find fiddlers on the roofs, for cows to float like clouds in the sky, for an angel to enter the bare room of a penniless boy and fill it with celestial light.

The Jewish communities, in hundreds of miserable little villages scattered through what was called the Pale of Settlement in Poland and Russia, cut off from their neighbors by differences of language, religion, dress and manners, had lived for centuries outside history in almost total isolation from the events and ideas of the outer word. But as the 20th century dawned, the old isolation was beginning to break down. Chagall's native Vitebsk was no longer a village, but a thriving town of 50,000 or so people, progressive enough to have an art school, prosperous enough to support the three jewelry shops owned by the father of Bella Rosenfeld, Chagall's first love and later his bride. "Her father treated himself to grapes as mine did to onions," he noted.

His father was a poor man, he worked in a herring warehouse. But he struggled to educate his eight children. Young Marc learned Russian as well as Yiddish, he visited the onion-domed churches as well as the synagogues of Vitebsk, and he was deeply moved by the icons he saw on their walls with their fierce barbaric colors, their compartmented scenes with their powerfully expressive distorted figures defying all order of time and space. Even in this provincial backwater he and his young friends were aware of the new movements stirring the traditional worlds of politics and the arts to their depths. He was already free enough from his heritage to start drawing the human figure, in defiance of Orthodox Jewish dogma which held this to be a breach of the Second Commandment. He even painted one of his girl friends in the nude, but his mother threw a fit over it. "Get that hussy out of my house," she said, and he painted a funeral procession over the offending naked body.

In the long run, Vitebsk was stifling to a young man bursting with energies and world-shaking ambitions. Even St. Petersburg was stifling, although he spent several rewarding years there studying and coming into contact with the most active artistic minds of the day at time when Russia was seething with brand-new half-weird half-wonderful artistic ideas. To live in S. Peterburg at all, the capital of Holy Russia, far outside the Pale of Settlement and off limits to Jews, he had to pretend to be a footman in the household of one of the wealthy patrons who befriended him.

In 1910 another patron offered him a generous sum of money to abroad to the West and pursue his career there. The patron was thinking of Rome, but to Chagall as to every aspiring young artist of the time, "the sun of art shone only in Paris." He would write later, "Each from his corner, we dragged ourselves to Paris. Not to make a career: at that time there was little hope of succeeding. But in order to be able to express ourselves, differently, entirely, and above all to find plastic means to externalize what we felt,"

Paris meant living in a building called the Beehive, a cluster of studios near the slaughterhouses, thronged with hot-blooded hot-headed young men from all over France and Europe, young men with names like Léger, Archipenko, Modigliani, Soutine, later to the luminaries of the Ecole de Paris. "While an insulted model sobbed in the Russian studios, from the Italians rose songs...from the Jews arguments. I was alone in my studio with my oil lamp."

The poets and painters of Montparnasse took to this ebullient young foreigner with his "curiously bright eyes and curly hair." They barely had enough money to feed themselves, but they were ready to rearrange the canons of art. Some of Chagall's most famous pictures were painted in the Beehive on tablecloths or even his night-shirts because he couldn't afford to buy canvases.

Paris in 1910 was still in the heyday of the cultural revolution that created modern art. Picasso was someone you met and argued with in the café. You did not go to a museum to see the Cézannes, they were in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, and the raggedy young Chagall was too much in awe of Monsieur Vollard to go in - he only pressed his nose against the window to see the unframed paintings on a wall in the rear.

He called Paris "mon second Vitebsk.," He began to put bits of it, like the Eiffel Tower, into his paintings, but "my familiar sources remained the same": his themes were still Russian streets, Russian barnyards, Russian lovers. "There is not a centimeter of my works that does not express nostalgia for my native land...I did not become a Parisian."

What Paris did was give him a new way of seeing and expressing his familiar material; it flooded him with what he called lumièrte-liberté, a liberating light. "In Russia, my pictures were without light. Everything in Russia is dark, brown, gray. Arriving in France, I was struck by the iridescence of color, the play of lights, and I found what I had been blindly seeking, that refinement..of the wanton color."

Paris was full of schools, movements, every year brought its own new ism. He was in the thick of it all. He borrowed ideas right and left, but he never gave up his independence, he would belong to no group. He could flatten out his shapes like the Cubists, he could give free rein to color like the Fauves, he could twist his figures painfully like the Expressionists, he could bathe incongruous figures in a dreamlike atmosphere long before anyone had thought of the word Surrealism. But he always remained his own man, distrustful of theories and rigid categories. He was willing to fill his work with symbols, but he had little use of people putting labels on things. "I have slept very well without Freud," he said.

In those early Paris years he developed what was to be a characteristic form of his, a kind of whirligig. In one of his best- known paintings of this period, I and the Village (he used to let the titles for his works be plucked out of the air by his friend the poet Blaise Cendrars), there is an upthrust of energy at the bottom center - it might be the tree of life. Spinning off around it is a circling pattern of bright disparate scenes, figures, shapes - a green Russian head, and a white cow's head with beads around the neck, and the houses and churches of Vitebsk, and an upside-down woman, and a man with a scythe who may or may not be the Grim Reaper, and a milkmaid milking, and the sun and the moon and patches of pure color. It is "a  balance of plastic and psychical contrasts," in the artist's words, "piercing the eye of the spectator by new and unusual conceptions."

 There was nothing quite like this being done in Paris or anywhere else at that time. Indeed, Chagall felt a certain distance from French art, however much de loved and admired Delacroix and Manet. It was too concerned with surface appearance and not those spiritual depths he was determined to plumb. When the Impressionists broke down objects into patches of pure color, when the Cubists wrenched the three dimensions into two, they were only creating new forms of the old tradition of reproducing the reality that we see in front of our noses. But Chagall wanted to fill his canvases with "objects and figures treated as forms - sonorous forms - passionate forms designed to add a new dimension which neither the geometry of the Cubists nor the patches of the Impressionists can achieve...I had the impression we were still wandering over the surface of the paint, that we were afraid to plunge into chaos, to smash and overturn the customary surface under our feet."

In plunging into that chaos, Chagall sometimes - especially when his prose style takes off like Lady Chatterley loose in a flower shop - suggests that he worked with a childlike spontaneity. That is only a small part of the truth.

Bella Chagall has written the story of how she came to his house one day when they were engaged, bringing a bouquet of flowers. He wouldn't let her put the flowers in a vase. "Stay where you are, don't move," he commanded, and rummaged around for a canvas to put on his easel. With great lyrical strokes he began building up the figure of his beloved in a swoop of brown, white and blue, then added himself flying up over and around her in his green shirt, twisting himself into an impossible curve out of sheer exuberance. In a couple of hours he had painted the hymn to love known as The Birthday.

It is a charming story and may well be a. a true one. But the existence of a squared-off  pencil sketch with figures in just this pose, though against a somewhat different background, suggests that the painter had carefully thought through his composition before Bella ever walked through the door, and was perfectly aware of what he was doing.

Underneath all the nostalgia for Vitebsk and its green cows, the folklore, the heavings and seethings of the village soul, Chagall always maintained a firm French sense of order, balance, harmony. The wild flowers of his imagination grew in beds as strictly plotted as the gardens of Versailles. The sight of a milkmaid's head flown completely off her shoulders in one of his paintings may look like a stroke of unbridled fancy, and certainly has a strong psychic effect on the spectators, but the artist insisted that he did it "because I needed an empty space right at that spot" in the composition where her neck begins.

By 1914 Marc Chagall was a well-known Paris artist though he had never had a one-man show, only Matisse and Bonnard had them in those days. Then an admirer arranged for a major show of his work in Berlin Having got that far, he continued home to Vitebsk for what was intended to be a brief visit, but then the First World War broke out   and he found himself stuck in Russia for the next nine years. They were not idle years. He married Bella. He produced a considerable number of paintings and stage designs. He greeted the 1917 Revolution as a great liberation of the human spirit and was appointed Commissar of the Arts at Vitebsk. Years later he painted a picture called The Revolution in which he summarized his dreams in the figure of Lenin standing upside down, balanced on one hand. his limbs outstretched like an acrobat turning all the laws of society and of nature topsy-turvy in the name of a higher freedom.

Utopian dreams did not take long to run up against harsh revolutionary realities. Chagall wanted to "transform ordinary houses into museums and the simple inhabitants into a creator." For the first anniversary of the Revolution he had streets of Vitebsk hung with nine miles of red bunting. He set all the house painters to work transferring his sketches onto large canvases to be posted throughout the streets. "On October 25 all over town, my multicolored beasts were swaying in the wind, swollen with revolution...The Communist leaders seemed less satisfied. Why is the cow green and why is the horse flying in the air? Why? What does that have to do with Marx and Lenin?"

At the art school he had founded in Vitebsk he was challenged and derided as a sentimentalist by the rigid formalist followers of the Supremacist Malevich. He left for Moscow, where he worked on state settings for the experimental theaters which were encouraged by the regime. He was glad to get a chance to arrange a show in Kaunas in Lithuania, and then go to Berlin and back to Paris in 1923.

He arrive to find he was famous. Ambroise Vollard, into whose  gallery he had not dare to penetrate in the old days, wanted him to illustrations for lavish books. People wanted to buy his paintings. New groups like the Surrealists wanted him to join. The prices of his paintings began to rise, and under shrewd management - Chagall may have been naive in ways, but not when it came to dealing with dealers and patrons - they have never ceased going up to this day.

The last 60 years of his life were in large part devoid of dramatic incident. He lived comfortably , mostly in France, and worked steadily. His happy marriage to Bella lasted till 1944, when she died unexpectedly of a viral infection. A second happy marriage, to Valentina (Vava) began in 1952. He traveled widely, from Mexico to Israel. He went to New York in 1841 to escape the Nazis, who had already burned his paintings in Germany. He would not go to America till he had received assurance that cows and trees were there, but he came to appreciate its immense spaces and the free-flowing pace of its life. But he could hardly wait to get back to France - he had been a French citizen since 1937 - once the war was over.

His works over these years were to make him perhaps the most popular painter of the 20th century. His prodigious output of lithographs has brought his exploding flowers and levitating lovers into living-rooms all over the world. The childlike zest of his drawing, the sophisticated richness of his color patterns, hid tragicomic groupings of incongruous object, and his ever-leaping fantasy have all endeared him to a vast public. He loved vast publics, he want to reach out and speak to everyone, like Rembrandt. "I'm certain Rembrandt loves me," he said.

This popularity has not sat well with critics of the more rigorous schools. The two most damaging adjectives they can use about a modern painter are "decorative" and "anecdotal," and Chagall has been found guilty on both counts. His work is richly, unashamedly decorative. And it almost always tells a story, though the point of the story is rarely clear. Why does the blue-faced cow have such a smug look in her eyes as she prances with a parasol in her left front hoof over Vitebsk and a blazing cock under a blazing sun? How has the bride with her endless white train escaped from the canvas where a green-faced Chagall has been painting her under the blazing branches of the tree of life?


The bizarre charm of paintings like these can be overwhelming. But there is much more to Chagall than charm. The image that he helped to create for himself as a kind of elderly elf spreading visions of cock-eyed good cheer leaves out years of serious and heroic 3efforst to extend the boundaries of his art.

His book illustrations of Gogol's Dead Souls, of La Fontaine's Fables, of the Decameron, of the Bible, are among the most innovative and evocative of recent times. There was much muttering in France when Vollard chose a foreigner to illustrate La Fontaine, the most purely French of the French classics. But Vollard insisted that writer and artist were brothers under the skin, "sound and delicate, idealistic and fantastic."

A distinguished career in stage design got a new beginning when Chagall was commissioned to do the sets for a ballet, Aleko, based on a poem of Pushkin's, with music by Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Léonide Massine, Russians all. Chagall threw himself into the work with a super-Russian passion, and the results were literally overwhelming, communicating Pushkin's romantic-tragic tale so forcefully that the dancers seemed like interlopers in front of the sets. "So exciting are they in their own right," said the New York Times dance critic John Martin, "that more than once one wished a;; those people would quit getting in front of them."

The backdrop of Scene III of Aleko, "A Wheatfield on a Summer Afternoon," shows the field under a bright sun to the left and Aleko and his love, the gypsy Zemphira, in a boat under a harvest moon to the right, an intense expanse of yellow that might have been inspired by the trip the artist had just taken across the great spaces of the United States to Mexico, where the ballet was first performed. Color of this intensity, on this scale, was unheard of in 1942. "I want the color to play and speak alone," said Chagall.

Sets like these for Aleko   and for a later production of Stravinsky's The Firebird helped kindle a taste for the monumental in Chagall. He did the new ceiling for the Paris Opera at the request of André Malraux, President de Gaulle's Minister of Culture. Again there was considerable opposition: no one knew how the work of the most flowery of 2oth-century painters would fit into the most florid of 19th-century architectural masterpieces. "I wanted," said Chagall, "to reflect, as in a mirror, the clustered dreams, the creations of the actors and musicians, and to keep in mind that down below the colors of the clothing of the audience were moving about. To sing like a bird, without theory or method." To the surprise of everyone except Malraux and Vava Chagall, it sings quite well, with all its lovers and angels and flying fiddle and the Eiffel Tower and the Place Vendôme in a kaleidoscope of warm colors.

There were to be other monumental commissions. Chagall did giant murals for the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  He did a series of giant paintings on Biblical themes which occupy a whole museum of their own in Nice.

In the 1950's, when he was past 70, he opened a whole new career as creator stained-glass windows and helped revitalize an art form which had been moribund since the Middle Ages. He designed windows that fit into the 14th-century Gothic traceries of the cathedral in Metz, and windows that stand alone in the bare walls of a hospital synagogue in Jerusalem. Unlike most modern designers of stained glass, but like the medieval craftsmen of the great cathedrals, he was less interested in flat color patterns than in the dramatic surge of light through the window. In collaboration with Charles Marq, the master glassmaker of Rheims, he worked out new techniques of varying the intensity of the color within a single pane of glass. The themes are always religious - angels, prophets, the Tribes of Israel  - the mood is partly reverent and partly ecstatic. It is also fanciful and sometimes mischievous, as was the work of his medieval predecessors. He was delighted to find a green donkey tucked away in a high medallion window in the ambulatory at Chartres.

He also did tapestries and ceramics and sculptures. And through it all he went on turning out the kind of painting that made him famous: fanciful figures in a world more and more dominated by color, color which he wanted to be "as penetrating as when one walks on a thick carpet." In 1984 at the age of 97 he was painting pictures like The Dream, in which familiar figures from the past - lovers and angels and flowers and a horse-cart in the street - seem to float out of a bath of pure color.

He would have been 98 in July of the next year. For the first time in his life he was not up to attending the opening of one of his shows. He had seen others die after a dissolute youth, like Modigliani, or live on to a cranky old age, like Picasso. .He went tranquilly on in his quiet rambling house near St. Paul de Vence in the south of France, calling fresh images out of his past. He paid a visit to Russia in 1973 at the invitation of the Soviet government, which brought his paintings out of the basement for the occasion. He painted a picture of himself as the prodigal son returning to a land in which nothing had changed since his youth. He obstinately refused to be taken back to Vitebsk, destroyed during the war and rebuilt in the faceless soulless contemporary style. "I would have been too afraid not to recognize my town, he said, "and in any case I have carried it forever in my heart."


©1985 Robert Wernick

Smithsonian Magazine March 1985