First impressions were what a difference the passing of time makes. As a teenager in the 1970s, I think I read every book by Leon Uris on the establishment of the Israeli state, on the holocaust, loads of stuff. I remember feeling very pro-Israeli. These days, with The Wall dividing Palestinians from their own lands, the uprooting of ancient olive groves and the building of illegal settlements, I lean very much towards the Palestinian cause. It made me question who is pulling my strings now? How do I form these opinions? How reliable are they? From what I read? Or hear on the news? There is so much information out there but how do you make sense of it? Where could I discuss such matters in a safe space?
The first paintings in the exhibition depicted life in the village in Russia where Chagall was born. You were looking at a newborn child. A handful of villagers were present, just outside the door. The atmosphere was dark, foreboding. Of what? Did this mean the presence of death too? Or something else I couldn’t connect with?
There was poetry and colour and life too in the next paintings. Have you ever lain in a field after the grass has just been mown? Have you looked up at the clouds in a bright blue sky, breathing in the warm fragrance of a sunny afternoon? Chagall had too. Images of a samovar, a soldier, an old man took me back to my student days when I’d visited Moscow and Minsk. One day, out of curiosity, I’d boarded a train and taken a journey to the forest outside Moscow. I just wanted to walk round an ordinary Russian village, like the one Chagall grew up in. His home was clearly important to him all his life, though his village was part of the Pale, meaning the movement of Jewish families was controlled.
My favourite image was one called ‘The Dancer’. Now, the dancer is a symbol of life and the colours leapt out at me: yellows, purples, greens, the night stars, blues and latticed reds. I didn’t read too much of the script on the wall next to the painting, just enough to get my bearing. One introduced me to the term, ‘Orphism’, something to do with a theory of using colour. If I could go back to the exhibition, I would spend time sitting in front of the portrait of his brother, David, playing the mandolin. Chagall was very fond of his brother. And I would love to sit and take in the detail of everything that was in the room around him. These are the small details that we take for granted, yet often struggle to recall when life changes, like a child leaving home. Paintings on the wall, ornaments on the shelf…such a loving picture of his family life, of his parents’ and of his grandparents’ generation.
It reminded me of a photograph of me with my son, a toddler. Looking beyond, what was that on the mantelpiece? That book on the shelf..? Remember..why do we do that? Time moves on. So, do we. Chagall left his home town of Vitebsk in today’s Belorussia to travel to Paris and later settle in France. During his lifetime, he lived through two world wars, as so many of his generation did.Or not.
One of his paintings which caught my imagination was called ‘The Awakening.’ Who, what was awakening? It showed someone waking up. So, it was true on a literal level. but what else? Awakening to what’s happening inside me and making connections to the wider world? Too simplistic, I hear me say…I moved on and backwards.
Chagall was a Russian Jew. Though separated for many years from his village, he had fond memories of the people he grew up with. What struck me in these paintings were the faces. Large, angular, striking, embracing, they showed the lives of the people from his village – teacher, rabbi, woman dancing, musician. Loving life, I felt, life!
Next, I came upon the striking image of two men sitting one evening at a table in a café. One was a musician, the other, possibly a poet? From their conversation rose a light the top of which you suddenly realised reached at the top the faces of a couple dancing cheek to cheek,so close together. It would be so easy to pass by and only notice the two men in conversation.
The last few paintings showed a darker side – a village being destroyed in wartime; people fleeing on carts, despairing, fear in their eyes, like pictures on the news from Syria today with over five million refugees and other places too. The world is so small now.
I visited the exhibition without any preconceived notions. I didn’t know anything about Chagall or his paintings. To go back to my first question, he made me think and feel about important stuff which stays with you. Something touched me at this exhibition. Yet, as time passes, we can quickly forget how it was and still could be again. Perhaps, that was Chagall’s message, ‘Wake up!’?
I wondered what a WEA tutor, teaching, say, a craft subject like creative cupcakes, would make of the exhibition? Would they gain inspiration from the exhibition, which they could take and use in their own classes? Sharing a conversation with a colleague a couple of days later, I thought it might be possible to find something in so stimulating and creative an exhibition. I pictured in my mind’s eye the bright and dark colours again, the natural and electric light, bizarre angles and patterns, textures even. Chagall lived through two world wars in Europe. He was Jewish and his paintings reveal the lives of people from their births to their deaths. My colleague thought for a moment before saying, ‘We use cake so much to mark the stages of our lives as we enter and depart – birthdays, 18ths and 21st, festivals of all kinds all over the world to funerals. Chagall shared in so many cultures – Jewish, Russian, French, European – giving us so food enough for thought. Ummm, I wonder what you would say? I wonder what your students would say. I wonder…