My Grandfather, Marc Chagall

“It’s an exhibition made out of a friendship”, says Meret Meyer, the granddaughter of Marc Chagall. She is speaking of the new retrospective recently opened at Belgium’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts, in Brussels. Meret, who lives in Paris and has dedicated her life to maintaining Chagall’s legacy at Committee Marc Chagall, was invited by the Italian curator Claudia Zevi to assist in the retrospective. “Claudia has worked with our family for many years; even our mother, Ida, collaborated with her.”’ 

Meyer describes a “wish-list” that she and Claudia devised, most of which has made it to the dual centres of Milan, where the exhibition started, and now Brussels. “There are over 200 paintings, loaned from over 20 collections and museums. We’ve also brought together all the archives that exist – our mother’s, and works found in our grandfather’s studio.” Major pieces on display include ‘The Falling Angel’ – a monumental work from Collection Goldschmidt – and ‘Temptation From Christ’ – a very precise Cubist painting which is stunning”. There are works from every period of Marc Chagall’s life – from his early days in Russia, to his new homes of Paris, New York and Nice.

“Being immigrants binds a little family” explains Meyer, “when you are living somewhere that is not where you came from.”  Chagall spoke Yiddish until the end, she says, but also Russian and Hebrew.

I ask if he enjoyed the new places he lived in. “He moved because he needed to. He was happy to survive. But his Russian home of Vitebsk, where both he and my grandmother were from – though she was from a much more bourgeois part – was always at the centre of his work.”

Though Chagall’s paintings may be full of village folklore, Meyer explains that Vitebsk was no village, but rather a major, thriving city. “The reason Chagall’s portrayal of it looks like a village, or a shtetl, is that that was his experience of it. The Jewish community was confined to certain districts—ghettos—close to the river in this case, packed in small houses.”

It was this confinement that led Chagall to seek a new life in Paris. “He needed colour and light. The salvation for my grandfather’s art was the French light.” It was also the people and work that he was exposed to in Paris. “In Vitebsk, Chagall only knew art through reproductions. In Paris he found the real versions. He met all the avant-garde artists, like Delaunay and Modigliani”.

The reason that Chagall’s work resonates with audiences like it does today is, according to Meyer, “because it gives hope. The pictorial atmosphere, in the very first reading of a Chagall painting, is very joyful; also, it leads us to reflect – the viewer is surrounded, you can breathe it in. It’s quite contemporary in that way”.

And the man who gave us that hope? “The first image I always have when I think of my grandfather is that he was quite a small person, very gentle-looking, but very determined. With these incredibly sharp, translucent eyes. He had a lot of humanity. He couldn’t have embraced so many colours, and shadows, of life without having in himself such a light and strength. He would meet these heads of state like De Gaulle and I used to wonder how this man, so small, always remained so modest and humble”.

Marc Chagall. A Retrospective (1908-1985) is at Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, Brussels, until 28 June.

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