On the two faces of Marc Chagall’s My life (1922)

In My Life, a text completed in 1922, Marc Chagall seems to provide the reader with some of his memories as an elucidation of his work. Writing about his childhood in a provincial city in Russia and about his beginnings as a painter, he appears to anticipate the widespread interpretation of his work as  an illustration of his life’s events. My Life is commonly perceived as an autobiography, despite Chagall’s own assertions that the pages have the same meaning as his paintings and that art is more than anything a state of mind. “It’s all one to me if people are pleased and relieved to discover in those innocent adventures of my relatives the enigma of my pictures,” Chagall writes in the beginning of My Life, “how little that interests me! My dear fellow-citizens, help yourself!” And so they have.

My Life is characterized by a duality as the text moves from dreamy childhood memories to clear thoughts on art and back again. In the text Chagall writes mostly about his family-life in Vitebsk, the town he grew up in, and his life in St. Petersburg and Paris. One might think this is nothing unusual for an autobiography, but it is not always clear whether or not the events actually took place, because the recollections are sometimes dreamy and a little absurd, not unlike his paintings. When describing the intervention of an angel-like figure in his dark dreams Chagall even explicitly refers to the painting The Apparition, in which an angel appears to the artist sitting in his studio. There are other examples in the text where comparisons are made between his paintings and events or people, both implicitly and explicitly.

However, in other parts of the text, Chagall writes in a surprisingly matter of fact fashion. When he recounts his stay in Paris and his meetings with well known artists, he explicitly distances himself from modernist art because to him it was all too intellectual. “All the questions – volume, perspective, Cézanne, negrosculpture – are being continuously re-asked. Where does this lead?” He thus detaches himself from a practice in which technique is being considered art and where dry formalism is being applauded. “Long live our foolishness,” he retorts, “give her a warm welcome!”
Such foolishness is to be found in his paintings as well as in the text of My Life. By describing a journey through his memory, Chagall tries to explain what makes him a born artist and what art is about. With his writing he is thus giving us a means to understand his work. However, it often seems to be taken too literally. It may be best to accept Chagall’s work for what it is, without seeking a rational explanation or logical content.

It seems My Life is not so much a recollection of Chagall’s life as it is an attempt at legitimating his art. He writes that wants neither fame nor money; he just wants to paint. In a time when the modernist avant-garde was calling the shots, Chagall’s My Life acts as a subtle pledge for the romantic image of the artist.

Jane Boddy

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This website is the outcome of the course Critical Issues in the Cultural Industries, supervised by prof. Wouter Davidts within the context of the Visual Arts, Media & Architecture MPhil program at VU University Amsterdam. Contributors to the site are the first and second year students of the research master enrolled in the course.
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