Marc Chagall – Freak from the Shtetl

The purchase of 14 works by Marc Chagall presented at the exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw, was made possible thanks to funds from the budget reserve of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, provided as a special-purpose subsidy by Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński. Photo: PAP / Mateusz Marek

The word “luftmensz” appears in Yiddish (“airman” in English). It means someone whose head is in the clouds, someone obsessed, a dreamer and mystic. And it was Chagall who painted various “luftmen”. Because, in a way, he was one of them.

I must admit that I have a personal connection to Marc Chagall's work. The family of this painter were the neighbors of my ancestors in Vitebsk. His works remind me of the genius loci of this city, located in today's Belarus, which I have never visited. But thanks to the artist's works, Vitebsk ceases to be an abstraction in my eyes.

I became convinced of this recently when I visited the “Chagall” exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw. And time is rapidly running out, because it can only be viewed until tomorrow (Sunday, July 24, 2022). The exhibition, which celebrates the 160th anniversary of the Warsaw institution, consists of 16 works by the artist. These include 14 paintings purchased last autumn at an auction in Switzerland and two prints from the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.

An important context for Chagall's works is the biography of their creator. The turbulent events of the 20th century left their mark on the painter's imagination.

He was born in 1887 in the suburbs of Vitebsk, to a Hasidic family with many children. It was then a city of many cultures. From the 14th century until the first partition of Poland, it belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Then it found itself within the borders of the Russian Empire.

At the end of the 19th century, Jews constituted a significant ethnic group among the inhabitants of Vitebsk. Even though Chagall grew up in a home where Judaism was practiced, as an adult he followed his own path, but his Jewish identity still played an important role in his work.

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By Filip Memches

Translated by Nicholas Siekierski