Maternity. Marc Chagall. 1887-1985.

Since Christmas is approaching, I have chosen a mother and child portrayal to discuss, Maternity, by Marc Chagall.
Marc Chagall was born as Moishe Segal in a Russian village called Vitebsk in Belarus. His parents were poor Hasidic Jews and Chagall himself remained a devout Jew throughout his long life.
Since Jesus was born of Jewish parents, I think this work may be relevant and an interesting change from the madonna and child works to be found in the Christian tradition. Chagall was encouraged by his mother to follow his dream to become an artist. After becoming engaged to a local girl called Bella, he set off to live in Paris, which was the hub of artistic activity at that time, in 1914 he returned to his native village to marry Bella and found himself stuck there during WW1. I think it was in 1923 he returned with Bella to Paris, there he painted memories of his village, dreams and experiences, in which proportion and gravity played a very minor role. He created colourful patterns, where his interior world is just as real as everyday reality. In this lithograph, we see a picture full of nostalgia and joy, it is a loving scene of mother and child, set outside a pink house with an unknown man in the background, a strange purple and green tree and a donkey on which sits a bird, by coincidence donkeys are often portrayed in nativity scenes. He used bright, warm colours to express emotion and feeling. Chagall was a ‘one off ‘ artist, a painter-poet, a Slav expressionist, whose work was to influence many Surrealist artists, although Chagall would resist analysing his work. He gathered together colour, line, shape and texture and by doing this he brings about balance, ‘he brought back the forgotten dimension of metaphor into French formalism.’Maternity by Marc Chagall.

7 thoughts on “Maternity. Marc Chagall. 1887-1985.

  1. I very much like the fact that Chagall’s mother encouraged him to follow his dream, what a wonderful thing she did, if only I’d done the same with my own children.

    Yesterday in the supermarket check-out queue my eye was drawn to a little girl (about five years old) who was looking with very close attention to what looked like a duty roster open on the supervisor’s desk. The roster was a complex series of rectangular cells, a spreadsheet I think, and the some of the cells had been filled in with an orange highlighter and overwritten with ballpoint.

    The child was momentarily distracted by her guardian, and moved away, but when the guardian turned back to loading her shopping, the child returned to the spreadsheet with apparent fascination, as if trying to make sense of it.

    I found this very moving, so much so that I got a lump in my throat and a pricking of tears in my eyes. I was briefly reminded of what I had read here about ‘awe’, and it’s deep significance. What I experienced watching that little girl was like awe, at one of life’s mysteries, the germination of creativity in childhood.

    I like the picture, it’s so simply drawn and brightly coloured. It inspires me afresh to draw and maybe to paint. As a child I was judged to have a real talent for art, but gave it up in the Middle 6th form in favour of A-level Latin, which I taught myself, not very successfully.

    1. Hi Peter,
      I’m so pleased this lithograph stirred you to write the above reply. I do agree that it is wonderful to watch young children being fascinated by all kinds of things they see, like watching Pooh sticks floating under a bridge, only to appear magically again on the other side or saving frogspawn from a puddle about to dry up or picking buttercups, I have many lovely memories of walks with the family.
      Young children express themselves without the worry of’ have I got this right’ when they draw and paint, unfortunately such confidence doesn’t last. I have kept some of my children and grandchildren’s drawings, they are a delight. My eldest daughter trained and worked as an etcher and print maker, that was her dream.
      Latin is useful to learn, since so many of our words have Latin roots, I was educated at a convent school, it was one of my exam subjects too, at School Cert. level, I remember ‘Gaul was divided into three parts’. I can’t remember the Latin though…
      I hope you do take up a paint brush again, I have good intentions to paint more next year.

      1. Thanks Norma, you do always give very affirming responses to my posts. I think I may well do as you suggest. Barry has suggested we collaborate on some chapter-heading cartoon sketches for Robert’s “Migglism” book. I’m willing to give it a go……:)

        Re Latin (De Bello Gallico – Julius Caesar), it opens with the sentence

        ‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.’

        I make that to be:

        “All Gaul is divided into three parts, of which the Belgae inhabit one, another the Aquitani, the third by those who are called in their own language Celts and in ours, the Gauls.”

        I’m open to correction! Robert, as a Cambridge man, may well know. Caesar’s Latin was very straightforward, much appreciated by schoolboy/schoolgirl scholars. My very talented and very young 6th Form Latin tutor was ‘disappeared’ at the beginning of term, having been arrested for an indecent act with a senior student. A small tutorial group of us were marooned without a teacher about 100 lines into Tacitus’s Annals V, and we never recovered from the loss.

  2. Hi Norma and Peter,

    Peter, I like very much your description of a child’s awe and wonder. We take so much for granted as adults and sometimes we need prompting to try and experience the world with a different, less certain perspective – which is vital for many creative processes. Unfortunately, we often stifle the inquisitiveness of children – perhaps we are just to busy doing ‘important grown up stuff’ to listen. Samuel Beckett captures this wonderfully in this passage from his novella ‘The End’.

    ‘Now I was making my way through the garden. There was a strange light which follows a day of persistent rain, when the sun comes out and the sky clears too late to be of any use. The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the empty cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said’.

    My son has just turned 2 and to observe (and be part) of his exploration of the world is usually a pure joy, but I remain concious how easily one could experience this behaviour as annoying – somehow getting in the way of one’s adult life – ‘…come on, we haven’t got time to look at that lamppost, we have got a bus to catch.’ So far this has not happened, and I will do my very best to ensure that it never does.


    1. Yes, Rich, Beckett’s young mother’s “Fuck off” is more or less the epitaph on my own handling of our children’s aspirations, and the only consolation I can find in the whole sorry mess is that I’ve lived long enough for them to be able to tell me, and – if not to make amends – at least to acknowledge my insensitivity, if that word can capture my parental dereliction.

      I can’t explain it away, nor explain it to myself, and I know there’s no way of doing so that makes any meaningful sense. But I’m beginning to experience a ‘felt sense’ of it, and that’s good, and new, and a beginning.

      I’ve listened to the last half (and about ten minutes of the start) of Stephen Batchelor’s talk with Barry, and his photography project and his explanations of that echo your own ideas about seeing the world with more ‘provisional’ eyes. It was a great talk, helped me lots. The podcasts so far have been just first rate, I think.

      Best wishes and thanks again.

      1. Hi Peter and Rich,
        I wondered if you would reply with the Latin translation Peter, thank you. A pity that your tutor went missing.
        Perhaps many parents have regrets, I ask myself, ‘ was I a good enough mother?’ I was not, I provided all the physical care the children needed when they were small and loved them deeply, but emotionally I was a little distant, wrapped up in my unhappiness at that time. I recovered, thankfully. You sound a great father Rich, as busy as you are.
        Yours and Barry’s plan to produce sketches Peter sounds an exciting project. Robert’s latest book arrived yesterday, I shall read that over the next few weeks, interspersed with ‘Treasure Island’ which is our book club choice this month.
        I enjoyed Stephen Batchelor’s podcast very much too. We made collages at art school, they are much harder to create successfully than it may be supposed.

  3. I remember the issue of having a young child absorbed in awe at something! My daughter (now 17) was/is particularly absorbed in museums and historical monuments, having an immediate imaginative engagement with the past events they evoked. Where many children would get bored after a few minutes, in our case it would be me who got bored first when we visited such places, and my daughter would have to be dragged away. I think in most cases I did try to find a Middle Way between the practical requirements around the situation and allowing that awe to flourish, and give my own interest a little more time. It was good to learn from her.

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