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Marc Chagall Gallery

“What is exile, its color and substance, when it is chosen?”

Kristine K. Ronan

Chagall's America Windows at the Chicago Art Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Exile is a forced absence from one’s home—forced by politics, law, religion. But what is exile, its color and substance, when it is chosen? 

Marc Chagall, one of the most profound and influential of twentieth-century painters, was born into a Jewish family in Vitebsk, Russia (now the state of Belorussia), in July of 1887. Vitebsk was a thriving city of 65,000, capital of its province, and a railway center, with a rich cultural life dominated by the town’s Jewish majority. In exile many years later, Chagall wrote of his hometown: 

My town, sad and gay! 

As a boy, I used to watch you from our doorstep, childishly. To a child’s eyes you were clear. When the walls cut off my view, I climbed up on a little post. If then I still could not see you, I climbed up on the roof. Why not? My grandfather used to climb up there too. 

And I gazed at you as much as I pleased.11xMarc Chagall, My Life (1960; New York: De Capo, 1994) 2. 

Vitebsk was the place where Chagall “was born a second time.”22xChagall 2. Chagall had arrived into the world a “dead,” non-breathing infant. For Chagall, home was a place of complex feeling—“sad and gay,” full of oppositions and dichotomies. More importantly, home was a place to be seen, taken into one’s self through sight, contained in a single glance, from a single place—and if the view became obscured, one only had to climb higher to have home again within one’s experience. 

The dichotomies of Jewish life in Vitebsk were many. Situated in the Pale of Settlement33xThe Pale of Settlement, an area set aside for Jews in western Russia, was created when Poland was partitioned (1772–95) and claimed by Russia. Jews could not reside outside the Pale without permission. Jews in Vitebsk played out a complex drama of allegiances and identities: Jewish, Russian, Belorussian, Polish. While Chagall thrived in these complex arrangements, never disowning any part of his heritage, his allegiances were often in contest with one another—and as dichotomies shifted, home itself changed shape and meaning. Home became a choice. 

This process of choosing began when his mother bribed an official to secure a place for Chagall in the local Russian-speaking elementary school, then off-limits to Jewish children. It was here, as a “Russian,” that Chagall encountered “drawing”—a new term and activity for which nothing in his previous life corresponded. 

It was not long before Chagall’s vision changed; he no longer saw the town, but what might possibly lie beyond it: “I am happy with all of you. But…have you ever heard of traditions, of Aix, of the painter with his ear cut off, of cubes, of squares, of Paris? Vitebsk, I’m deserting you.”44xChagall 94–5. While home produced happiness, happiness was not enough to make a painter; without traditions, geography, history, or theories, the painter could just as well have stayed born dead. To live, one had to fling oneself into exile. Exile, then, became a calling. 

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