Marc Chagall Dead at 97

Marc Chagall, the Jewish painter who was considered the last surviving master of this century, died Thursday night at his home in the south of France at the age of 97.

Chagall, who had designed the stained glass windows and the tapestries at the Paris Opera and the Knesset building in Jerusalem, will be best remembered, however, for his eerie, dream-like portrayals of life in his native city of Vitebsk at the turn of the century.

Chagall was the master of a world of fiddlers playing on the roofs of snow-covered huts, of lovers floating in the skies and old men and cows sitting cross-legged on pale blue clouds.

Art experts throughout the world, in the West and in the East, considered Chagall one of the half dozen greatest artists of the century. In the West, the greatest museums in Western Europe and America vied for his works; in the East, the Soviet Union invited him to “return home” when he last visited Moscow in 1972.

He was one of only three painters who had a full exhibit of their work at the Louvre while still alive. The other two were Picasso and Braque.

HE ‘SIMPLY SLIPPED AWAY’

Chagall died during his sleep at his home in Saint Paul de Vence. His second wife, Valentina Brodsky, Vava, whom he married in 1952, was with him. The mayor of the village in which Chagall had lived and worked for the last 20 years, Marius Issert, said the painter “simply slipped away — he died of old age.”

Issert said he will be buried Monday in the small village cemetery and said he believed it will be an intimate ceremony at which only close friends will be invited.

Jean-Louis Prat, director of the Maeght Foundation in Saint Paul and a close friend of the Chagalls, said he had visited him a few days earlier and had found him to be tired but alert. Issert, who was in regular contact with his wife, said that “during the last two weeks, he only went out into his garden and took ever shorter walks.”

His last known public appearance was last July when the French government marked his 97th birthday by inaugurating a museum to house his paintings near his home. Chagall attended the ceremony as well as the opening of an art center in nearby Nice to house some of his stained glass windows. He seemed in high spirits at the time.

CHAGALL’S YEARS IN RUSSIA

Chagall was born July 7, 1887 in a relatively poor Jewish family; his father was a fishmonger, with Hasidic traditions in Vitebsk. At the age of 20 he left for St. Petersburg to study painting at the Imperial Academy and in 1910 left for France.

In Paris , he later said, he felt for the first time in his right element at “La Ruche” on the left bank of Paris, at the time the home of Modigliani, Soutine and Leger. A few years later he returned to Russia to marry his childhood sweetheart, Bella Resenfeld, whom he later portrayed hundreds of time as the fiance floating in the skies. Till her death in 1944, she was to remain his favorite model.

In Russia he headed the Vitebesk Art Academy to which he was appointed by the newly established Bolshevik government. But the Bolsheviks dismissed him because they did not find his art sufficiently “realistic” in what was to be the Communist style.

Chagall then left for Moscow where he painted the murals of the Jewish Theater. One of the murals depicted Lenin as an acrobat hanging in a circus with his head down. The Jewish Theater burned down in the 1920′s but some of the paintings were salvaged.

Chagall was bitter till the end that the Communist regime kept most of his works hidden, out of sight. Most of these paintings as well as the curtain of the Jewish Theater were last put on public view during Chagall’s last trip to Moscow in 1972.

THE INFLUENCE OF PALESTINE

He returned to France, via Berlin, in 1923 and was to live in the south of France till the Nazi invasion. It was during this period that he developed some of his strongest influences and inspirations. The main thing which happened to him during these 20 years, he was to say later, was his trip to Palestine in 1931.

He went at the request of a French editor who wanted him to illustrate the Book of Prophets. The Bible was to remain, however, as his main influence till the end.

In 1973, 42 years after this trip, the French Minister for Cultural Affairs, Andre Malraux, inaugurated the Chagall Biblical Museum in Nice in which most of the paintings with a Biblical message are on view. In 1977, a special exhibition of tapestries, vases and stained glass windows with Biblical themes was held in the museum.

Chagall fled the Nazi occupation and arrived in New York in 1941 where he painted some of America’s most famous theater decors, especially the settings for Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in 1942.

A PERIOD OF INTENSE ACTIVITY

After the war he returned to France, first to Paris then to the south. It was during this period that he drew the tapestries which decorate the Knesset building in Jerusalem, the stained glass windows at the Paris Opera, the murals at the New York Metropolitan Opera and, in 1974, the stained glasses at the Reims Cathedral. In 1977 he was the first living painter to have an exhibition of his works held at the Paris Louvre Museum.

Chagall was till the end of his life close to Jewish issues and to Israel. He often regretted that he did not have the opportunity to visit Israel more often. He loved Jewish stories, Jewish food and Jewish culture.

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