Learning from the colourful words, works and life of Marc Chagall

Before arriving in Nice I’d have said I wasn’t culturally experienced and didn’t “get” art. Code for “I didn’t study it at Uni and can’t confidently parley in artisan lingo”.

Regardless of whether you “get” art or studied it (or not), the Marc Chagall Museum in the Cimiez district of Nice is definitely worth a visit.

Things to do Nice France - Marc Chagall Museum Avenue du Docteur Menard, French Riviera Cote d Azur

Marc Chagall Museum
Avenue du Docteur Menard
French Riviera Cote d Azur, Nice

In a well lit gallery up in the Nice hills you’ll view an array of Marc Chagall’s paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows and mosaics in vivid colours, all with a fantastical dreamlike quality.

I enjoyed the religious symbolism in Chagall’s paintings, and was impressed with his abstract beasts including winged horses, goat headed guitars, chicken headed nude women and other chimeras. I also liked Chagall’s rather persistent themes of true love, interspersed with (many) works based on the Old Testament.

At the time it seemed a little unfair to me that his poems were also so brilliant he could have been famous for his words alone. I previously believed geni (is that the plural of geniuses?) excelled at one skill, so to be a painter and talented poet seemed like amazing luck to me.

Of course, this was only my first European art gallery and my inexperienced view of the world was well widened in my next 3 weeks on The Continent (remind me to tell you about Salvador Dali some time!)

Things to do Nice France, Provence - Marc Chagall Museum Avenue du Docteur Menard, French Riviera Cote d Azur

Things to do Nice France – see Marc Chagall artworks

My art is an extravagant art, a flaming vermilion, a blue soul flooding over my paintings
~ Marc Chagall

It seems I’m not the only one inspired by Chagall’s words:


Marc Chagall’s poems are better than his paintings
Even his paintings are better poems than they are paintings;

~ From a poem on Marc Chagall by Arthur Joseph Kushner

Which is rather impressive when you consider that one of his paintings sold for over $4.1 million in 2010, presumably based on the image alone.

Chagall is best known as a pioneer of modernism and as a preeminent Jewish artist (his background is Russian/French). He created art of virtually every type including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, elaborate stage sets, ceramic plates, tapestries and fine art prints – famously saying “I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment.

It’s difficult to capture in a photograph the complicated colour mixes and size of his creations, but Marc’s vibrant stained glass windows and behemoth outdoor mosaics show the amount of time he must have spent lovingly labouring on them, presumably as an escape.

If there were a hiding place in my pictures I would slip into it…
~ Marc Chagall

Chagall grew up in a Russian town built of timber where about 50 percent of the population were of Jewish descent. Not much of his childhood village was left post-WWII and later in life he painted and wrote pain-edly about its obliteration.

As a youthful artist he chose not to deny his Jewish heritage, instead “using” it to create symbols in his works. He was lucky to have a family supportive of his love for art. To get him into high school Chagall’s mum marched up to a headmaster and paid him almost 3 months wages to admit her talented son – even though the school didn’t previously accept Jews.

Things to do France - Marc Chagall Museum Avenue du Docteur Menard, Nice French Riviera Cote d Azur

All colours are the friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites.
~ Marc Chagall

All colours are the friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites.
~ Marc Chagall

As an adult Marc lived in France and traveled (and created) throughout Holland, Spain, Italy and even Palestine which inspired his concerted work on The Bible (a massive 105 plate series covering each Bible book).

Chagall says of the project:

For about two thousand years a reserve of energy has fed and supported us, and filled our lives, but during the last century a split has opened in this reserve, and its components have begun to disintegrate: God, perspective, colour, the Bible, shape, line, traditions, the so-called humanities, love, devotion, family, school, education, the prophets and Christ himself. Have I too, perhaps, doubted in my time? I painted pictures upside down, decapitated people and dissected them, scattering the pieces in the air, all in the name of another perspective, another kind of picture composition and another formalism.

Not long after Chagall began work on The Bible, Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany, anti-semitic laws were introduced, the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established and Nazi campaigns against modern art began in earnest.

In the words of Wikipedia:

“Expressionist, cubist, abstract, and surrealist art—anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or difficult to understand—was targeted, from Picasso and Matisse going back to Cézanne and van Gogh… during 1937 about twenty thousand works from German museums were confiscated as ‘degenerate’…”

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When Germany invaded France, Chagall remained engrossed in his colourful world. He was unaware that French Jews were being collected and sent to German concentration camps, and that the French government had passed anti-semitic laws to “redefine French citizenship” and strip “undesirables” of their French nationality.

Not realising the danger he was in himself, it was lucky that Chagall’s name was added to a list of artists “whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate”. In 1941 he was one of 2,000 artists and intellectuals smuggled out of Europe, using forged visas to the US just when it was “almost too late”.

After WWII ended Marc Chagall eventually returned to Southern France, spending a lot of time in gorgeous St Paul De Vence.

This still thriving artist commune is one of the oldest medieval towns in the French Riviera, and definitely worth a visit. You can feel a strong creative spirit soaked into the fortress walls, ancient grape vines and olive trees, the winding stone stairways, even in the cobblestones… you’ll walk away wanting to make beautiful things too.

Chagall spent time there with his contemporaries (aka rivals) including my friend Picasso. According to Picasso’s mistress, Pablo once said of the artwork Chagall made in Vence:

“When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color is… His canvases are really painted, not just tossed together. Some of the last things he’s done in Vence convince me that there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”

You can see artworks by all 3 masters at the picturesque inn of La Colombe d’Or in St Paul de Vence.

When he was 77 years old (in 1963) Chagall spent a year in Paris painting this gorgeous 220 square metre masterpiece on the ceiling of the Paris Opera House:

Marc Chagall painting - ceiling of Paris Opera House

Marc Chagall painting – ceiling of Paris Opera House

I came *this* close to actually seeing this ceiling in real life, but after travelling half way around the world I was prevented entry by security guards on a power trip who decided to close the viewing 32 minutes early than the signage says. But anyway… another time.

Sadly, Marc Chagall passed away in 1985 after an amazing life, leaving words and artworks we can all learn from.

If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.
~ Marc Chagall

If you’re lucky enough to visit gorgeous Nice in Southern France, do stop by the Marc Chagall museum. There’s a regular Bus that stops right outside.

Or if you’re driving a hire car don’t forget to check out the the Roman ruins too – right at the top of the hill on the same street as the museum.

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