This 1985 film follows the journey of a young British artist researching the life and work of Marc Chagall. Chagall’s journey, spanning the 20th century, from Vitepsk in Belarus to the ‘Grand Old Man’ of French painting is a fascinating one.
The young artist, Saul Greenberg, does not get to meet Chagall, who was 97 and in the last year of his life, but it is through his eyes that the story of Chagall unfolds. Greenberg is living and working in the ‘La Ruche’ artist’s residence in Paris, just as Chagall did before World War I. This is where he starts his film essay, directed for The South Bank Show by Kim Evans, about the life of his brilliant predecessor.
Chagall was born to Jewish parents in 1887 and we find that his roots remained a huge influence on his work throughout his life. Home, the people he knew there, his Jewish heritage -- all were themes that he revisited time and again. Nevertheless, in 1907 he left Vitepsk for St. Petersburg and, a few years later, travelled on to Paris. Paris in 1913 was experiencing an era of great artistic experimentation, what Chagall called ‘a revolution of the eye’, with both the Cubist and Impressionist schools at the height of their powers. Chagall’s work at this time clearly shows the influence of his new surroundings, although Greenberg finds the influence of Cubism hard to reconcile alongside older Russian decorations and motifs.
In 1915 Chagall married Bella, his childhood sweetheart, and she becomes another fundamentally important influence, both as a subject and a critic. They were married for 30 years until Bella’s death in 1944, and her face can be found in many of his works right through to the end of his life. It was in his love for her that Chagall found the inspiration for his flying figures.
Greenberg also explores the influence of wider historical events on Chagall’s life, particularly the Second World War and the Holocaust. We hear a 1950 poem by Chagall that movingly expresses his sorrow and also his haunting, senseless guilt at having escaped from France when so many of his peers did not. Chagall’s own words are voiced by an actor (a technique Illuminations has used to great effect in The Art of... films), but Greenberg is frustrated by his subject’s resistance to the idea of finding ‘meaning’ in his mystical paintings.
The film concludes with the Englishman consoling himself with a visit to the circus, prominent in Chagall’s work, another magical medium where, perhaps, an overly analytical approach is not always helpful.
Extras include picture gallery and trailers; soundtrack versions in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.