Watch CBS News

How music influenced the art of Marc Chagall

Painter Marc Chagall is beloved for his bold and colorful brush strokes. This morning, Rita Braver tells us how Chagall's deep love of music figures into his distinctive style: 

Marc Chagall is renowned as one of the most distinctive artists of the twentieth century.

"I think it's because he has this group of archetypes, these images that he returns to, images that are part of his memories, his imagination, part of popular culture as well," said Anne Grace, curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, home to a Marc Chagall retrospective that will travel to Los Angeles in July.

With more than 300 works, the exhibit, "Chagall: Colour and Music," takes a unique approach:  exploring the role music played in Chagall's life and in shaping his art.

"When we look at his paintings, we're moved by a kind of musicality," said Grace. "He has this way of expressing himself in such a sincere and immediate way that we can't help but be is struck by his works."

Chagall was known to love Bach and Mozart.  But it was the music of his small Hasidic Jewish community near Vitebsk, Russia, that first influenced him. 

Born in 1887, the eldest of nine children, Marc Chagall was particularly entranced by the idea of the floating fiddler: "It becomes this perfect symbol, and in a way it was a symbol for himself as well," said Grace, "the image of the wandering Jew."

Because Chagall wandered for most of his life from place to place. In 1907, he moved to St. Petersburg to study art, and then to Paris, experimenting with the Cubist style in vogue there, but never abandoning his personal artistic vocabulary.

"Self-portrait With Seven Fingers" by Marc Chagall. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo Banque d'images, ADAGP/Art Resource, N.Y.

For example, in a self-portrait dated 1912-13, we see Chagall with nods to the ultimate symbol of modernity on the left, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and on the right, his native city of Vitebsk.

By 1914 his work started to sell in Europe. But homesick for his sweetheart, Bella, Chagall traveled home to marry her. 

They ended up back in France. But then came the rumblings of World War II, and the implications for a Jewish artist:

"At the beginning it seems like he doesn't even realize that what's going on in Germany is going to end up having an impact on him and his work," said Braver.

"Yes, he is amazingly distant from what's happening," Grace said. "He actually buys a house in Provence. He sets up a studio. And so his focus is on his art. Luckily, he did get out."

Chagall was allowed to take refuge in the United States in 1941. And once here, his interaction with music soared to new heights: Soon he was asked to create sets and costumes for productions like the New York City Ballet's "Firebird," where replicas of Chagall's creations are still used 68 years later.

"It's very, like, old world Russia stylized, and I love that," said Teresa Reichlen, who performs the lead role in the production -- the story of a magical bird who saves a prince from an evil wizard, all brought to life through Chagall's imagination.

Braver asked, "For a dancer, what kind of inspiration do you draw from the costumes and the sets in a work like this?"

"It just helps me to get into character," Reichlen replied. "Not feel like I have to be atypical ballerina. You have to kind of have, like, birdlike movements, and fast hands and feet."

Chagall returned to his beloved France in 1948, continuing to pursue his favorite themes, and creating perhaps his greatest musically-inspired work: the ceiling of the Paris Opera House, dramatically reproduced in the Montreal exhibit.

CBS News

"From his very humble beginnings to great recognition of his talent, we can see that he really was an artist who was inspired by the goodness of humankind, the possibly of changing the world," Grace said.

Marc Chagall died in 1985 at age 97. And despite the personal and political turmoil that he witnessed, he never abandoned his optimistic view of life, leaving a legacy of works that continue to make us dream.

For more info:

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.